Fennel is such an interesting plant variety to me. It is one of a handful of crops that form a bulb above the ground and the only bulb I know of that smells like candy. This herb is known for its licorice flavor and aroma but also for its medicinal properties mostly derived from the seeds. If you want to grow, preserve and eat this beautiful herb keep reading!
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Since Fennel prefers cool but not freezing temperatures we plant it in Fall for a Winter harvest and again in early Spring for an early Summer harvest. The later planting is really special for us here in Southern Alabama because the Swallowtail butterfly larvae usually appear on our field planted Fennel. In fact we plant it in the fields as opposed to the high tunnel in the Spring primarily for the butterflies. It is just our way of giving a little back to nature. Fennel does not like frost so for the Winter months we prefer to plant in the high tunnel. This year we planted it also in the fields and have just covered when we have hard freezes.
There a several types of fennel seeds you can get. Leaf fennel is one which will not provide a bulb but will supply you with an abundance of fronds (frilly leaves) and stems. A beautiful bronze variety (also edible) can even be used as a edible hedge to garden beds. We hope to add this into our edible landscape this coming Spring. The more popular variety is the Florence Fennel which will provide you with fronds, stems and bulbs.
Fennel can be direct sown or can be transplanted fairly easily as well. We have done both but prefer to direct sow and skip the transplanting. Fennel, like most crops, prefers rich soil full of organic matter so consider working in some compost into the soil prior to planting. As bulbs begin to form we like to side dress with more compost mounding dirt around the bulbs almost as you would do potatoes. This keeps the bulb from being exposed to the sun (blanching) and helps it maintain that beautiful creamy color.
Depending on the variety you grow and the season you grow it in you may harvest fennel anywhere from 50 – 90 days from sowing. That is according to most seed packages. We have noticed it takes longer. For instance we planted leaf fennel and bulbing fennel on 9/6/20 and these are ready as of this week for harvest 12/25/20. That is 110 days.
When ready to harvest we gently pull the plant from the ground and cut off the tap root.
Fennel can be a bit of a diva once its harvested. If you are not prepared to use your fennel right away there are a few things you can do to make ensure freshness.
- For same or next day use: Do not wash. The more you handle fennel the more lifeless you will notice it becoming so never wash fennel until you are ready to cook, freeze or dehydrate. If you are planning to use your fennel the same or next day loosely wrap the entire plant in a clean dish towel. Place in a grocery store bag. No need to tie the bag simply wrap the bag around itself and place in the vegetable crisper drawer.
- For use 2 days to 10 days: Again do not wash. Separate stems and fronds from the bulb and store separately for longevity. Store stems as above and store the bulbs in a zip lock bag and place in vegetable crisper drawer.
- Freeze: We have had fennel last up to 14 days however it began showing signs of aging around day 12 so we usually freeze if we have to harvest fennel more than 10 days before we plan to use. We like to use our frozen fronds in smoothies. We found a neat way to freeze the fronds specifically with this purpose in mind.
- Wash the fennel.
- Chop stems and fronds into small pieces and place into an ice cube tray. Top with juice of choice. We use anything from aloe vera juice, coconut water or apple juice. If you are planning on using these in soups then try using vegetable or meat broth. If you just want to leave your options open then simply use water.
- Once completely frozen dump into a freezer bag. Be sure to label appropriately. It would be a shame to throw your broth fronds into your fruit smoothie… just sayin. My research shows these will last up to 8 months but they rarely survive that long in our freezer.
- To freeze the bulbs wash well. Dirt can get under those layers so be thorough. I like to do an initial wash then chop roundly, wash again and then spin dry in salad spinner before freezing. Time frame is the same 8 months.
- Dehydrate: This is not a method I have personally tried but it is in the very near future as our fennel harvest begins in a couple of days. I figure it is a pretty cut and “dry” (couldn’t help myself) process. Once we do we will update this post. Stay tuned!
There are so many recipes out there that include fennel. A internet search will result in a host of recipes – some simple and others not so much. A favorite of ours is this White Bean Fennel Soup. When we made it we substituted the spinach for another green we had growing in the garden… mustards if memory serves. This time of year we love soups and this hearty soup can be beefed up with meat if you so desire or made vegan by using vegetable broth. It is very versatile! We made cornbread with it and my oh my! Friends of ours also tried a Fennel Pesto recipe and they really enjoyed it! It may be on our menu quite soon.
As we begin our Winter Fennel harvest we hope to experiment even more with this beloved herb. As we do we will add those recipes to our recipe page and link them here. I’m already looking at making a fennel salt. Cool right? Keep hanging with us as we grow, preserve and eat!