Fennel is a stocky perennial grown as an annual, and looks a bit
like celery with very feathery leaves. Ordinary fennel (F. vulgare) is also a perennial. Its leaves are picked for soups, sauces, and salads. The whole herb has an anise flavor. The plant will grow four to five feet tall, and the small, golden flowers appear in flat-topped clusters from July to September. A variant called "Copper" has charcoal-gray foliage and makes an interesting contrast to other colors in a flower bed. In folk medicine all sorts of good results have been attributed to fennel; at one time or another it has been credited with sharpening the eyesight, stopping hiccups, promoting weight loss, freeing a person from "loathings" and acting as an aphrodisiac.
Where and when to grow
Fennel will grow anywhere, and tolerates both heat and cold. Grow it from seed sown two to three weeks before your average date of last frost.
Like most herbs, fennel needs well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. Plant seeds in full sun, in rows two to three feet apart. When seedlings are growing strongly, thin them to stand 12 inches apart. Fennel is a difficult herb to transplant because of its taproot.
Fertilizing and watering
Do not fertilize fennel. Detailed information on fertilizing is given in "Spadework: The Essential Soil" in Parti.
Keep fennel on the dry side; it just needs enough moisture to keep it going.
The plants grow four to five feet tall; you may need to stake them.
Fennel has no serious disease problems.
You can start harvesting a few leaves as soon as the plant is well-established and growing steadily; use them for flavoring. Harvest the bulbous stalk when it is three inches or more in diameter for use as a vegetable.
The leaves of fennel can be frozen or dried. Crumble the dried leaves, and store them in an airtight container. Detailed information on storing and preserving is given in Part 3. You'll probably want to eat the stalks fresh, but they can also be frozen.
Fennel is featured in many Italian dishes. The leaves add flavor to soups and casseroles, and fennel is a good seasoning with fish. Add the seeds to rye bread or a creamed cheese spread.
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