When to harvest fennel

When is fennel bulb ready to harvest?

Q. We love fennel bulbs in salads and use the foliage in salt-crusted fish and other dishes. I put fennel plants in the garden this spring.

How do I know when the bulb is ready to harvest? Will the flowers produce fennel seeds like those I would buy in a spice store? Can I use the seeds in cooking?

-J.B., Spring

A. Fennel is a tall, feathery herb that resembles dill and can be sown or grown from nursery transplants.

Susan Wood, a member of the South Texas Unit of the American Herb Society, says it can be difficult to pull fennel through the summer. She recommends sowing seeds in fall and using transplants in spring so plants have time to mature before they wilt in the summer heat.

In addition to the common fennel, Foeniculumvulgare, there’s sweet fennel, F. v. var. dulce; the bulbous Florence fennel, F. v. var. azoricum, aka finocchio; bronze fennel, F.v. var. purpureum; and several other varieties. All like sun and a fertile, well-draining soil. Florence fennel especially likes fertilizer, water and good drainage as well as cooler areas.

Use the anise-flavored foliage in salads and sauces; the seeds in vegetable dishes, meats, desserts, breads and liqueurs; the stalks like celery; and the bulbous type like a root vegetable. You can use the bulbous fennel stalk base anytime, or wait until it’s fully developed later in the summer. Some gardeners pile soil over the base when it’s about the size of an egg to encourage further blanching.

Harvest seeds when flowers brown. If you let some seeds drop, Wood says, you’ll find volunteers when cooler weather returns. Should you find a fennel behaving like a perennial, cut the spent stems to the ground, and new shoots will sprout.

Fennel is a host plant for swallowtail butterflies. Avoid killing foliage-eating larvae; the leaves will grow back.

Fennel

Foeniculum vulgare

Annual

Description

There are two types of fennel. One is treated as an herb (herb fennel – Foeniculum vulgare) and one that is treated like a bulb type vegetable (Florence fennel or Finocchio – Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce). The herb type grows 3-5 feet tall with fine textured foliage resembling dill. Flat topped clusters of yellow flowers appear in late summer. Stems, leaves and seeds of this type of fennel are harvested and used. Florence fennel is shorter with darker green foliage and is grown for its large, flat thick rosette of petioles at the base often referred to as a “bulb.” Both forms have an anise or licorice flavor.

Culture

Both forms of fennel are grown from seed. Both prefer a full sun location in soil that is well prepared with organic matter. This is especially important when growing Florence fennel as it prefers uniformly moist soil to develop the best “bulb.” Herb fennel is best direct sown in the garden in the spring after frost is past. It does not transplant well due to its tap root structure.

Florence fennel is also direct sown into the garden but seeding is best done from mid-June to July. This is done to allow the crop to develop during the cooler, shorter days of late summer and early fall. If planted earlier, long, hot days of summer result in plants bolting (flowering) thus reducing the quality of the “bulb.” Another important consideration for Florence fennel is maintaining uniform soil moisture. If soils are allowed to dry out, it will result in bolting and affect bulb quality. When “bulbs” start to swell and become the size of an egg, push soil around the “bulb.” This will produce a paler and tenderer “bulb.” This is a blanching process that is similar to what is done with leek.

Harvesting

Herb fennel can be harvested as needed by cutting away the feathery foliage. If seed is desired, allow the plant to flower and when the flower heads turn brown the plant can be cut, place in a paper bag and hung in a cool, well-ventilated area to dry. Seeds will drop down into the bag and can then be cleaned and stored. Foliage can also be air dried and stored for later use. Florence fennel can be harvested when the “bulbs” are about the size of tennis balls by digging the “bulb” and cutting off the root and cutting back the top. “Bulbs” can then be stored in a cool location for several weeks.

Uses

Herb fennel is used in fish dishes, soup and stews and fennel seed is used in sausage. Fennel bulbs are used raw in salads or steamed.

Popular Varieties

Herb Fennel Types

  • Sweet Fennel – Standard variety for fresh and dry leaf production.
  • ‘Purpureum’ – A bronze leaf type. It is used as an ornamental.
  • ‘Rubrum’ – A deep bronze to red leaf type. Also is used as an ornamental.

Florence Fennel Types

  • ‘Rhondo’ – Uniform round bulbs, quick to mature.
  • ‘Victoria’ – Vigorous type with grater resistance to bolting.
  • ‘Cantino’ – A very slow to bolt variety good for early planting.
  • ‘Mantavo’ – Good yield in slow bolting variety.
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In Season: Cooking and Preparing Fennel

Fennel is a vegetable that belongs to the umbellifereae family and is related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. Like celery, you can use fennel either raw and cooked, and — like celery —its flavor and texture tend to mellow during the cooking process. The aroma of licorice and anise make this vegetable very versatile. Everything is edible with fennel! The fennel’s bulb, stalks, seeds, and fronds can all be prepared and eaten. The bulb has a texture that is very similar to celery. You can cook it interchangeably with celery, but the flavors are not identical. Shave and prepare it in salads, or slice it and sautée, fennel has a strong yet pleasant anise flavor. The size of bulbs range from big to small. The stalks look like celery with thinner and stringy leaves. Outer layer is harder in general.

Buying and storing fennel

Fennel bulbs should be always clean, white —some green is still fine though—, and compact. Avoid fennel bulbs with soft spots or browning. Store your specimens wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator — the crisper is better —. you can keep your fennel bulbs for about a week.

How to prepare fennel

Wash and clean the fennel bulb and remove the core which is too tough to eat. Slice through the bulb and cut off the core. You should trim off the leaves and stalks, and book them for later use like garnish if you like.

How to cook fennel

Braising, roasting, and sautéing are popular cooking methods or fennel. But fennel bulbs can also be chopped, julienned, or diced for cooking, or thinly sliced with a mandolin and used as a fresh ingredient in salads. Just as I said above, everything in edible in fennel: The stalks can also be used in soups, stocks and stews, and the feathery leaves can be used as an herb seasoning. Fennel is done when it’s tender enough to pick easily with a skewer or a small knife.

(Photo: Stacy Spensley )

To be filed under, “Am I really that thick?”

It was not ground breaking, but when a bunch of decorative fennel that I had hung upside down on the front door began dropping seeds, I was in awe. The fennel had been there since November, replete with flowering heads, and had provided a lovely smell of anise whenever the door was opened. Months later I had yet to take it down—and when I found the seeds on the ground, it was like discovering gold. Here’s how to harvest them properly.

iPhone Photos by Sarah Lonsdale.

Above: Stalks of fennel with dried out flowers. For optimal freshness, the seeds should be harvested just as the flowers are beginning to dry out and turn brown.

Above: Clip the top of the stalks with the flower heads and place them on a tray in a dark place to dry. This usually takes from one to two weeks.

Above: Most of the seeds will dry and drop off the flowers. For those that don’t, rub the flower heads over a bowl until the seeds fall out. Remove any stalks from the bowl and transfer the seeds into small jars, leaving any powder and dust in the bottom of the bowl.

Above: I stripped the stalks of any branches and flowers and left them to dry out. After they are fully hardened, I plan to use them as sticks in the garden to support plants.

Almost as easy as harvesting fennel seeds is this recipe for DIY Eau de Cologne. Check out more of our DIY Projects.

One of the biggest victims of this summer’s slug epidemic was the Florence fennel. Three separate sowings of this apparently easy to grow veg yielded one scrawny pale and limp bulb with a tuft of leaf that looked more like a hairy nipple than an edible veg.

But it’s not just the mucus emitting menaces that will be breathing aniseed flavours this year because, in one of the unkempt corners of the allotment, we have a towering old giant of a fennel which has now gone to seed.

Fennel seed is one of my favourite flavour enhancers and, in our house, doesn’t just get scattered on the recommended grilled fish or spicy Indian dishes, but is liberally tossed over almost anything that gets an oven roasting – from parsnips to pears. And if you can collect your own seeds then you’ll be rewarded with the freshest fennel flavour around.

Before you can use and store your seeds you need to collect and dry them. And it’s this easy…

1. Snip off the fennel fronds when the seeds turn from green to brown.
2. Wash away bugs and dry on a kitchen towel.
3. Strip seeds from stalks and scatter on a tray.
4. Place in an oven at a low temperature for half an hour or until completely dry.
5. Store in sealed jars whole or crushed into powder.

Fennel seed fact: they’re not actually seeds, but the fruit of the fennel, with the seeds contained inside.

How to Cut Fennel

Wondering how to cut fennel? Here’s a step by step guide and video that shows you exactly how to cut a fennel bulb (how to dice fennel).

Video: How to cut fennel

Are you wondering how to cut fennel but not sure the best way? Alex and I love to use fennel in our recipes; it brings an unexpected depth. But how to cut fennel? Here’s our method, which we use when we make our famous Tuscan soup with white beans (otherwise known as pizza soup). Here’s our step by step guide for how to cut a fennel bulb, including a video of me cutting fennel in our kitchen.

Related:20 Knife Skills Videos: How to Cut Everything!

How to cut fennel step by step

Step 1

Using a large chef’s knife, cut off the fennel fronds. (You can use the wispy portions as a garnish if you’d like.)

Step 2

Cut off the root end of the fennel.

Step 3

Remove any tough outer layers of the fennel and discard them.

Step 4

Slice down the center of the fennel bulb.

Step 5

To slice the fennel, place the fennel on its cut side and cut thin half-moon slices parallel to the root end using a circular motion. OR…

Step 6

To dice the fennel, cut slices parallel to the root end, leaving room at the end so that the slices stay attached. (Make the slices wider for diced and narrower for minced / small diced.) Then rotate the fennel and cut slices in the other direction, following the curve of the fennel. When you’ve cut halfway through, flip the fennel down onto the flat cut side and continue slicing. When you get to the end that didn’t have the slices, give it a few more chops. See the video for this part!

And there you have it: how to cut fennel in 6 easy steps!

Let us know if you try our method for how to cut fennel and tell us how it goes in the comments below.

Best chef knife & cutting boards

Alex and I are often asked about the best kitchen tools. And every time we answer, “A good sharp chef’s knife!” A good knife can drastically improve your time in the kitchen, and lasts for years (we’ve had our chef knives for 10 plus years). Here are some of the knives we recommend, as well as cutting boards and the best knife sharpener. These recommendations are perfect for outfitting your own kitchen, or great gifts for a wedding registry or someone who loves to cook!

Video: Knife Skills, Gear, & How to Hold a Knife!

  • 7″ Chef’s Knife — our best knife recommendation; the one used in the video!
  • 10″ Chef’s Knife — our favorite large knife
  • 8″ Chef’s Knife — our favorite affordable knife
  • Paring Knife
  • Serrated Knife / Bread Knife
  • Non-Slip Wood Cutting Board (used in the video!) or Non-Slip Bamboo Cutting Board
  • Non-Slip Plastic Cutting Board
  • Knife Sharpener
  • Drawer Knife Organizer — this is how we store our knives, and it’s even slicker than a knife block

Looking for fennel recipes?

Now that you know how to cut fennel, here are some of our favorite fennel recipes for you to try:

  • Tuscan Soup with White Beans
  • Fennel, Pomegranate & Arugula Salad from our cookbook, Pretty Simple Cooking
  • 53 Fresh Fennel Recipes That Make Us Fall for It All Over Again

Wondering how to cut fennel? Here’s a step by step guide and video that shows you exactly how to cut a fennel bulb (how to dice fennel).

Scale 1x2x3x

Ingredients

  • 1 fennel bulb

Instructions

  1. Using a large chef’s knife, cut off the fennel fronds. (You can use the wispy portions as a garnish if you’d like.)
  2. Cut off the root end of the fennel.
  3. Remove any tough outer layers of the fennel and discard them.
  4. Slice down the center of the fennel bulb.
  5. To slice the fennel, place the fennel on its cut side and cut thin half-moon slices parallel to the root end using a circular motion. OR…
  6. To dice the fennel, cut slices parallel to the root end, leaving room at the end so that the slices stay attached. (Make the slices wider for diced and narrower for minced.) Then rotate the fennel and cut slices in the other direction, following the curve of the fennel. When you’ve cut halfway through, flip the fennel down onto the flat cut side and continue slicing. When you get to the end that didn’t have the slices, give it a few more chops. See the video for this part!
  • Category: Knife Skills
  • Method: Cutting
  • Cuisine: N/A

Keywords: How to cut fennel, How to cut a fennel bulb, Cutting fennel

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.

The rules for cutting vegetables are always the same. First of all, try to create a flat surface with your first slice so that you can be safe when cutting the rest of the vegetable. Secondly, think about how the vegetable is constructed or what sort of seeds or core are inside.

Flat Surfaces

With fennel, the first step is to separate the stalks and fronds from the bulb. Simply slice the stalks off. You can save the stalks which are full of flavor for a stock (especially seafood stock) and the fronds are delicious tossed into a green salad or used as a very pretty garnish. Slicing the stalks off will give you your first flat surface.

Next, remove as little of the base of the bulb as possible. You’re just trying to remove the browned edge of the fennel. Now you have TWO flat surfaces to the fennel bulb. If the outer leaves of the fennel bulb are in rough shape, pull them off and remove them. The only trouble with this is that you end up removing a lot of the fennel (mostly for cosmetic reasons), so instead you could use a vegetable peeler to remove any browned or bruised sections on the outside of the bulb.

What’s Inside?

Fennel, while it does appear different from most other vegetables, is built in a similar fashion to an onion – layers held together by a core. The main difference is that the core of fennel is quite a bit bigger than that of an onion. We’ll use the core of the fennel to hold everything together while we cut it and then slice or dice it as well since it is entirely edible.

You can serve fennel braised or roasted (or even grilled). If that’s your plan, cutting the bulb into wedges is the way to go. Place the fennel stalk-side down on the cutting board and cut it in half through the core, cut each half in half and then cut each quarter in half, but always make sure you are cutting through the core evenly so that a piece of the core always remains with each wedge to help hold it together.

If you want to dice the fennel bulb, place the stalk end down on the cutting board and cut it in half through the base end to the stalk end across it’s narrowest width. Then, follow the instructions for dicing an onion here.

To slice the fennel, you have several options. You can place the half fennel bulb down on the cutting board with the stalk end closest to your knife blade and slice down across the bulb. This will give you round boomerang shaped slices.

If you’d prefer straighter slices of fennel, cut the halves of the fennel bulb in half again to make quarters. Turn the quarter on its largest flattest slide and slice down from base to stalk.

Fennel is a delicious vegetable with a mild anise flavor. It’s delicious raw in salads, or simmered in soups or stews.

Breaking news

NEIL ROSS / NZ GARDENER Fennel flowers are landing pads for beneficial bugs.

As a dreamy, emo teenager schooling myself on herbs, I was thrilled by the ominous words of a 13th-century physician that “He who sees fennel and gathers it not, is not a man but a devil.” I’d never heard of fennel, but the words were satisfyingly edgy.

I copied them out in my best copperplate on a piece of paper and attached them to my wardrobe door.

What the physician was referring to in his overdramatic way was fennel’s use for treating a range of maladies, such as digestive and menstrual issues, to increase breastmilk and relieve colic in babies.

SALLY TAGG / NZ GARDENER Cultivated fennel.

My motivation for growing fennel right now is so I can try and recreate a shaved fennel and apple salad with white bean hummus and pickled raisins that I order every time I go to Al Brown’s Federal Delicatessen.

The fennel used in this dish is the stocky white base of bulbous Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare azoricum), a cultivar of leaf fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), which grows wild in many parts of the country.

* Save your own seeds: Seed-saving basics & choosing what to save
* How to grow onions
* How to grow cabbages

123RF Bronze fennel.

HOW TO GROW
Fennel is easily grown from seed sown direct or in pots. It can be grown throughout New Zealand and is best sown from seed in early spring when soil is warming up but it’s not too hot. In tropical to temperate areas it can also be sown from early to mid-autumn.

Plant it in full sun in free-draining, well-tilled soil and cover lightly. If you want to harvest your fennel sooner or live in a colder area, buy established plants.

Florence fennel grows best in an alkaline soil so add lime before planting. Keep it well-watered to avoid woody stems. As the bulbous base begins to swell, mound up the soil around it to keep it upright and white.

If you’re growing wild fennel you’ll only need one or two plants as they quickly produce loads of leaves and can reach 2m when flowering. The umbelliferous yellow flowers look fantastic in flower arrangements.

POPULAR VARIETIES

‘Finale’ from Kings Seeds, is a bolt-resistant variety of Florence fennel suitable for year-round sowing.

Add burnished tones to your garden with Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’, a bronze variety of wild fennel (Kahikatea Farm).

123RF Florence fennel. Fruits, veges and herbs you can plant to feed the bees AND your family.

HARVESTING FENNEL
Fennel bulbs can be harvested from the size of hens’ eggs right up to fist-size or bigger. However, smaller bulbs are generally the sweetest. They’ll be ready to harvest in around 90 days (don’t wait too long as they’ll go woody).

If you cut off the bulb above the ground new bulbs will grow from side shoots.

The feathery fronds of Florence and leaf fennel can be added to a range of dishes from fish to pork to salads. Don’t add too much as the flavour can overpower a dish.

123RF Fennel seeds.

Seed from the dried flowerheads can also be collected, dried and used to add flavour to dishes.

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Fennel is a plant for which the roots are the part we eat and its nutritious and culinary value is exceptional. It is a very good summer vegetable.

Foremost fennel facts

Name – Foeniculum dulce
Family – Apiaceae (parsley family)
Type – biennial
Height – 16 to 24 inches (40 to 60 cm)
Exposure – full sun
Soil – ordinary to rich
Harvest – July to December, 3 months after sowing

Planting, sowing fennel

It is a good idea to sow in a sheltered place starting from the month of March and April and up till the month of July.

Fennel loves rather light, rich and relatively cool soil.

  • Favor sowing in a nursery if you’re sowing in March and April or sow directly in the plot during the month of May.
  • Dig furrows 2 inches (5 cm) deep every 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 cm).
  • Cover seeds with ½ inch (1 cm) soil.
  • Keep the soil mix a little moist and water regularly using a gentle drizzle after sprouting.
  • Once the first leaves have sprouted from the ground, thin down to about 8 inches (20 cm).
  • Transplant to the vegetable patch after the last frost spells, starting from the month of May.

It helps to enrich the soil with manure-based fertilizer in order to enhance growth.

  • It also is a good practice to ridge your plants as they grow, so that you may blanch their bulbs as you would leek.
  • Stop ridging when the ridge is 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) tall.

Harvesting and keeping fennel

There are actually two parts of the plant that can be collected. Most common is to eat the head of fennel as a vegetable.

You can collect your fennel whenever you need it, depending on how large the heads have become.

Once the first frosts have hit, pull all your fennel out and keep it in a cool, ventilated and rather dark place.

The best way to keep your fennel is to store them in a cellar in crates filled with sand. If you haven’t any cellar, freeze them in a freezer.

But fennel seeds are also delicious and can be used in cooking just like cumin or aniseed.

Learn more about fennel

An excellent vegetable known for its nutritious value as well as its digestive and antioxidant properties, fennel is an admirable addition to most of the summer dishes you can prepare, and its aniseed-like flavor will enchant you.

So the health benefits of fennel are well acknowledged, and fennel is delicious when integrated into culinary recipes with its light taste of aniseed.

Although the Mediterranean diet is where it is most present, fennel is grown more or less everywhere in mild climate regions.

Also, remember not to confuse fennel with dill because even though the two plants look alike and that dill is sometimes called the “bastard fennel”, they are quite different. Likewise, although the taste is very similar to that of aniseed, the leaves which are very different will help you tell them apart.

Smart tip about fennel

Collect all the small grains of that appear at the end of the small yellow flowers and add them to your ‘Fleur de sel’ fine table salt.

They will flavor your dishes, especially your fish meals.

Read also:

  • More about growing herbs
  • Health benefits of fennel
  • Aniseed, often confused with dill and fennel

Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Fennel growing by Valerie Becker under © CC BY-NC 2.0
Fennel seeds by flomo001 under license
Fennel heads by Cornelia Gerhardt under license
Fennel flowers by Sabine under license

Site and soil

Fennel prefers rich well-drained soil and full sun. It is not keen on heavy or compacted soils.

Planting

To plant, sow seeds directly once the ground is consistently warm. Planting in mid-summer should give a harvest in autumn.

Seeds should be spaced (or seedlings thinned to) at least 25cm apart and covered lightly with about 1cm of soil. Seeds can be sown in trenches to assist blanching later on. Germination takes 7-10 days – keep soil moist during this period.

Cultivating

Once the stem has swelled to the size of a golf ball, it can be blanched to reduce bitterness and encourage a clean white bulb at harvest.

Put a paper or cardboard collar around the base and mound soil around the collar. Once the stems have swelled to double the size (around 1 month after blanching), they are ready for harvest.

To harvest bulbs, remove collars and soil from the base and cut just above the root with a sharp knife.

Harvest the leaves at any time, remembering to leave enough to feed the plant.

Harvest seeds once they have formed and the flower head has died. Store seeds in a cool dry place. Note that different varieties cross-pollinate readily with each other, with the weedy fennel and also with dill.

Problems

Snails and slugs are fond of the bulbs, so check before eating. Although fennel is very hardy, excessive heat, cold, disturbance or water stress can affect cause plants to bolt. If left too long, fennel becomes stringy and tough.

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