By Jackie Rhoades
The fennel herb (Foeniculum vulgare) has a long and varied history of use. The Egyptians and the Chinese used it strictly for medicinal purposes and their lore was brought back to Europe by early traders. During the Middle Ages, it was believed to hold magical qualities and people hung fennel plants over their doors to drive away evil spirits. Eventually, someone recognized its use as a flavoring for eggs and fish. Today, its crisp anise flavor makes it a favorite of cooks everywhere.
Native to southern Europe, the fennel herb is now naturalized throughout Europe, North America and Australia and grown in gardens all over the world.
You will find two methods of propagation when researching how to grow fennel. Plants may be divided, but this isn’t as easy as it is with other garden plants and often proves unsatisfactory. Like their aforementioned cousins, the fennel herb has a long tap root that doesn’t like to be divided or moved.
Planting fennel by seed is the much easier option. Seed can be sown as soon as the soil warms in the spring. Soaking your seeds for a day or two before sowing will ensure better germination. Keep the area moist until the seeds sprout and thin the fennel plants to 12-18 inches apart when they are 4-6 inches tall. Plants will begin flowering about 90 days after planting.
The steps for how to grow fennel are fairly simple since the fennel herb is such an agreeable garden plant. It belongs to the carrot and parsley family and is a cousin to other herbs such as caraway, dill and cumin. Like these other herbs, fennel plants produce aromatic fruits which are commonly, though incorrectly, referred to as seeds.
When growing fennel, choose a sunny location in the back of a well drained bed. The fine textured foliage can grow up to six feet tall and makes an excellent backdrop for other flower planting.
Fennel is a short lived perennial that blooms best in the second year. It readily re-seeds and while not considered invasive, it has certainly earned its reputation for aggressive growing. Fennel can be cut back early in the season to encourage bushier growth and should be deadheaded for seed harvest and to prevent over seeding of new plants.
Harvest and dry seeds as the flower heads fade. There’s only one restriction to how to grow fennel. Don’t plant it near dill. Cross pollination results in strangely flavored seeds for both plants!
Once established, fennel herb doesn’t need much care. It prefers acid soil, appreciates the occasional dose of mild fertilizer and a little additional water if the weather is hot and dry.
In addition to its kitchen contributions, planting fennel will attract beneficial insects to the garden and its leaves are a favorite with the caterpillars of the swallowtail butterfly.
Whether grown for its culinary value or strictly as on ornamental, growing fennel herb will be an easy and attractive addition to your garden.