The Grocery Store Gardener: Fennel
There are times when the Grocery Store Gardener will have access to a source of food that is just too versatile to ignore. Fennel is one of these. This herb has been popular and important to every culture that grows and eats this herb. And, it is not only as an herb that we like Fennel so well. Sure, it conveniently flavors fish. It is one of the 5 herbs in Chinese 5 Spice herbal blend. It is a home remedy for a multitude of health concerns. It is a breath freshener and many other everyday personal care products.
There is so much to write about this herb that only a very brief space can be devoted to each of the various ways to use this plant. And, this list is not exhaustive. I have heard that some like to include some ground seed in a tea for example. Many of you probably have fond memories that are not included. Hopefully you will share these in the comment section.
Fennel is a native of the Mediterranean. It grows wild from Spain to Turkey, Greece, Southern France, Italy, and along North Africa. The spread of the plant went hand in hand with the colonization of the planet as mankind spread to populate all the various areas of the world. In fact, the Marathon in Ancient Greece is a description of the area through a field of Fennel. The Greek name for Fennel is Marathon.
The best locations to grow Fennel are in semi tropical regions. That is why the herb is so popular along and near the Mediterranean. Most sources list Fennel as a perennial. Biannual is a better description as the plant frequently grows the year before and blooms the next. Only the most hardy will survive more than the second year. Frequently Fennel ceases after the plant flowers and seeds. That’s not a bad thing since it freely seeds.
Did you know that Fennel was the only species in the genus? That is a rarity for a plant.
Fennel prefers a rich arable soil. The ideal garden soil will contain plenty of organic matter. Heavy clay soils are not good. This plant will tolerate a range of moisture conditions. The largest bulbs are produced when plenty of rain is available even though it is quite drought hardy.
The seed of Fennel is one of the many ways to use this herb. The seed is used to flavor meats especially fish and other mild flavored meats. The seed is used to flavor bread and other carbohydrate rich foods. Some South Asian locations including areas from Afghanistan through most of India use the seed as a candy where whole seed is coated in a hard sugar coating. This candy is a breath freshener. These are an after dinner treat which helps settle the stomach as well.
The fresh anise flavor of Fennel sprouts livens up sandwiches. The sprouts are used as a salad ingredient. Fennel quickly sprouts to make a crunchy seedling. Start these as you would any water bath and drain sprout.
Fennel enjoys cool temperatures. Plant your seed in the garden at about the same time as peas and the first planting of potatoes. Fennel survives moderately heavy frosts. These seedlings will sprout while the weather is still trying to settle down.
Over plant your row of Fennel this spring. Thin the row by taking cuttings of the young seedlings. Cut close to the soil line to prevent the seedling from re-sprouting. This will help you space your seedlings. Carefully snip out the extra seedlings so that you leave the strongest to continue to grow. The ultimate spacing will be about 8 inches to a foot apart.
The micro greens are great in salads or use some in the next paper pouch baked fish. This is a fun entrée where the diner opens the meal just like a holiday present.
The fine frilly foliage has a medium anise flavor that adds a flavorful punch to salads. The foliage is good for some pickles instead of dill. The foliage is useful in salads as well as a garnish. The foliage is quite nice when baked with mild meat. Next time you bake some chicken try resting the pieces on a bed of foliage and top with a bit more. The color, fragrance and lacy design add eye appeal you just don’t want to miss.
This is one of the new food raves. It can often be sold for $15 for a quarter ounce! Even the pollen has the anise like flavor. The texture of the pollen is a desirable addition to many new culinary delights.
Cut the flower stalk as your Fennel umbra is in full bloom. Hang these in a large clean paper bag in a cool dry area. After a couple of days tap the stalks/flower heads against the paper bag to release what pollen hasn’t already fallen. Then empty the bag into a fine wire mesh strainer to catch any insects or other debris you may also have inadvertently included.
The pollen will need to be used quickly. Pollen is very unstable. It is highly nutritious to us as well as a wide host of other life. You can sometimes freeze the pollen for a short time. The difficulty is in keeping the pollen dry. Once it gets wet it will not only clump together but also begin to decay. Use your pollen quickly.
Most people grow fennel for the bulb. Using seed from your grocery store may not produce the largest bulbs. The largest bulbs are grown from special hybrids. The selective seed saver is able to achieve larger bulbs once a crop is grown every year. Simply save seed from the largest bulb in the garden each season and you will be rewarded with ever larger selections over just a few growing seasons.
Now, one decision to make is whether you will grow for the bulb or grow for the pollen. A Fennel bulb will cease to increase in size once a flower stalk is allowed to grow. Pinch out flower stalks as soon as you see them developing if you want larger bulbs. The bulb of a flowering plant can be less than tender as well. Your choice then is to grow for the pollen or grow for the bulb.
Bulb size is also dependant on water. Watering frequently will produce the largest bulbs. These plants dislike soggy feet however. Just remember to grow these in loose well draining soils and never let the garden dry out.
Few insects, fungus or molds bother Fennel. Caterpillars, which become Swallowtails, will find the herb especially yummy. Because some of the nicer butterflies come from worms this way, I try to include a few extra plants in the garden just for them. They rarely do extensive damage. They are easy to pick off and transfer to another plant should I wish to harvest the one they are feeding. What damage they do to a plant is quickly repaired with new foliage.
Fennel is a useful plant to use and grow. The Grocery Store Gardener will use Fennel from seed, for sprouts, for foliage for pollen or for the bulb. This is a versatile food source most gardeners understand. Impress your friends. Perhaps play a game with them and let them guess at what the creamy dust is they are eating. It could be worth the conversational fun to impress your guests.
The best place to find Fennel is in the herb section. Choose fresh organic seed if possible. It may be possible to root a bulb in the produce section. This would be wasteful. The bulb is striving to bloom. A newly rooted bulb will only go straight into seed. Don’t waste the effort on trying to grow a bulb from a produce bought bulb. Thinly slice it instead and use it with your favorite salad or meat dish. Choose seed from the herb section instead.
Be sure to visit your local food co-op where you can buy the seed in bulk. The price per pound may seem expensive. It isn’t. Prepackaged bottles in general grocery stores will ultimately be quite a bit higher. The seed tends to be fresher in bulk too because this popular herb never sits around long enough to age. Buying in bulk will let you experiment with growing some sprouts while you are waiting to plant out a row in the garden and still have enough seed for that favorite dish.
Use the caterpillars to help hold a child’s interest. Help them key out the caterpillar to see what the adult will look like. Then your child will have fun chasing the butterflies and cultivating the worms. It might even make a great travel trip to see a butterfly house and learn how to encourage butterflies in a garden with Fennel and other plants. The butterfly house in Huntsville Alabama is especially nice. You get all this from a small handful of seed that cost you pennies.