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Gardening in the Rainy Zone.
Pronounced: fee-NIK-ew-lum vul-GAR-ay
Perennials and biennials.
Sunset zones: 2b-11, 14-24, H1, H2.
USDA zones: 4-9.
Heat zones: 9-6.
Fertile, moist, well-drained soil.
Add a complete organic fertilizer when planting and in spring.
Sow seed in situ in spring, or plant in pots and germinate at 68°F (20°C). Transplant to the garden when plant is young, as it has a taproot.
Deadhead seed heads in fall.
Pests and Diseases:
Aphids and slugs may be a problem. The swallowtail caterpillar chews on the foliage. Stem and root rot can be a problem when grown in poorly drained soil.
Rainy Side Notes
Foeniculum, or fennel as it is commonly called, is a graceful Mediterranean herb with a delicious sweet licorice scent. Found in many herb gardens, it was once used to ward off evil spirits. In modern times, herbalists still use it for medicinal purposes. Chefs enjoy using it in many culinary delights. In my Pacific Northwest garden, I grow fennel as an ornamental herb as well as for use in the kitchen. Fennel attracts bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects, adding to its value in the garden.
My favorite fennel for the ornamental garden is the perennial, Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpurescens', or bronze fennel. Towering over my five-foot stature, its foliage adds an airy background to the perennial garden. The new growth has a bronze-purple coloring to its leaves and the tan papery covering where the new foliage emerges is a pleasant contrast to the plant. I do not care for the flower's dull mustard yellow tone; however, I leave them for forage for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects, as well as for harvesting the seed. F. vulgare 'Giant Bronze' has coppery colored foliage that turns a dark copper as the foliage matures. F. vulgare 'Smokey' grows 4-6 feet high and has purple-bronze foliage.
The species, Foeniculum vulgare, is a six-foot tall perennial, and another one I grow for its ornamental value. Its foliage and height provide a good background in the garden. The leaves and seeds are great in cooking! Baking salmon with fennel sprigs, garlic, a little butter and lemon gives a standout savory flavor to the fish. The anise flavor is excellent for sauces and marinades for pork, and a delicious flavoring for salad dressings.
Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum, or Florence fennel, is a biennial with thick stalks that while young can be baked, steamed or boiled to make a tender vegetable. I have yet to eat it raw but I have heard it can be eaten like celery. Since it is only about three feet tall, it is a good candidate for the vegetable, herb or ornamental garden. 'Fino' grows twelve inches tall and 'Romy' does not have the tough wrapper leaves of most other varieties.
Fennel is an easy herb to grow in the maritime Pacific Northwest. Planting just one plant then letting it go to seed will give you plenty of plants to contend with the following years. Perhaps it is too prolific in its seeding habits; I tend to try to harvest the seeds before they fall, or else I pay the price of weeding it throughout the gardens and gravel walks. Sometimes I am amazed at how far the seed travels in my gardens. Still it is worth growing despite the weedy tendencies. The scent released as you pull the seedlings makes the task of weeding not all together unpleasant. The fragrance reminds me of the black licorice candy we used to buy in my youth. I find one of each plant is sufficient for my family with plenty of foliage and seeds to harvest. With Florence fennel, I usually try to have at least three plants, and plan to grow more as I find more uses for the bulbs in my cooking.
Fennel needs moist, fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. You can sow your seeds in early spring directly in the garden. It will make remarkable growth the first year, providing plenty of foliage to harvest. The second year it will reach full height and continue to be prolific in the garden. I remember years back hearing the recommendation not to plant it near other plants to avoid causing their decline. I have not seen any evidence of it inhibiting the growth of other plants growing in its vicinity. In addition, I have not been able to find any reference to this problem in recent reference books.
Historically, fennel has been used for many medicinal and culinary purposes. Syrup made from fennel was used to treat chronic coughs. The herb was considered a cure for depression, dog bites, flatulence and colic in babies. It was also used to repel fleas. Pliney the Elder (23 - 79 AD) used fennel tea to improve eyesight, and treat cataracts. Dioscoride (40-90 AD), a Greek physician, botanist and physicist, thought the herb increased breast milk flow and helped people lose weight. In Italy, it may have been used to flavor lamb, pig liver, boiled chestnuts and beans.
Today dried seeds are used for tea. Seeds have a flavoring agent used in the cosmetic and liquor industries. Dried leaves are used as a tea or flavor additive. Fennel oil is still used medicinally for many treatments.
Whether you grow it as an herb, a vegetable or in the ornamental garden, you should try to find a place in your garden for the light and airy fennels.
Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpurescens'
Photographed in author's garden.