Jacqueline Soule here today to discuss an herb you can plant in your cool season Southwest garden any time in the next few weeks – fennel.
Fennel has a long history of use, and why not? The entire fennel plant is useful! Leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seed are all edible. As a spice, the seed is used in beef dishes, sausage, or in breads and cakes, depending on nationality. Leaves, stems, and flowers can be eaten raw, steamed, or added to soups and stews. Father Kino brought seed to our area over 325 years ago. He no doubt ate fennel as a boy, the seeds in sausage and the bulbs as a vegetable.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is so well-liked that there are a number of cultivars. First are varieties with an inflated leaf base which form a bulb-like structure popular as a vegetable, eaten either raw or cooked. This goes by the names: sweet fennel, Florence fennel, finocchio, and occasionally it is sold as “anise.” Another group of cultivars are grown for leaf and seed production and include the standard and bronze fennels. Note that “giant fennel” is a different species (Ferula communis) and is a large, coarse plant, with a pungent aroma, not feathery and fragrant like fennel.
Planting and Care.
Fennel is a tall herb, reaching four to six feet tall. Leaves can be over a foot long and are finely dissected into filiform (thread-like) segments a bare one-eighth inch wide. Foliage comes in a variety of hues, from the bronze fennels that may appear almost purple to sweet fennel in chartreuse green.
In the Pimería Alta, start fennel in October in your winter garden. Local nurseries carry fennel seedlings, or you can start plants from seed. For eating, select sweet fennel, Florence fennel or finocchio, while for seed you can use any of the above or merely “fennel.”
Like most herbs, fennel grows best in a well-drained, slightly acidic soil, rich in organic matter. It is also easy to grow in containers. Use a container at least one and a half feet deep. Potting soil with some added sand makes a good growing media.
Fennel needs six or more hours of winter sun to do well. It is also important to choose a planting site that is protected from high winds because towards the end of the season (in March) the tall hollow stalks can be easily blown over.
Sow seeds a quarter inch deep in rows around eighteen inches apart. When seedlings are two inches high, thin them to stand around a foot apart. Or they also look nice planted in a dense clump in a flower bed.
Keep the soil evenly moist during seed or seedling establishment. Once well established, you can let fennel dry a little between waterings. Some people believe this makes the flavor stronger.
Fennel should not require fertilizer. If you amended your soil at the start of the growing season, the plants should do fine. Plus, avoid fertilizing anything when frosts are a possibility. In late February you could apply a general purpose fertilizer at half strength.
Harvesting and Use.
Fennel leaves are delicately flavored and can be harvested at any time. They taste quite refreshing in green salads or added to stir fry. I like to munch on them as I work in the garden.
Harvest fennel bulbs once they reach softball size. They make a crisp raw snack and individual leaf bases can be delightful used as a healthy dipper instead of potato chips. This vegetable can also be sautéed, stewed, braised, grilled, or perhaps best of all – sliced and roasted with root crops such as potatoes, beets, and onion.
Harvest seed of fennel by cutting stalks and tipping the entire mass into a paper bag. Let dry for several weeks before cleaning and storage. Store such herbs in airtight containers out of direct sunlight.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, “Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,” written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $23).
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