Fennel is a herb and bulbous vegetable, with a licorice-like flavor, that is also grown for its seeds. There are several different types of fennel, including the less bulbous, common fennel that is commonly grown for its feathery foliage and used as a herb. You can eat every part of the plant, fennel leaves, bulbs, flowers, and seeds, so harvesting depends on which part you want to eat.
You can harvest the fleshy, bulbous fennel stems as soon as they become swollen. You can harvest fennel seed when it ripens in late summer or early in the fall. You can harvest fennel pollen when the plants are flowering. And you can harvest the feathery fennel leaves while your fennel plants are growing.
How do you know when your fennel is ready to harvest?
Fennel is a vegetable, a herb, and bronze fennel is often grown as an ornamental plant in home gardens because of its decorative foliage.
The peak growing season for fennel is in the fall and winter. But, as mentioned above, we harvest the different parts of fennel at different times of the year. And knowing when it is harvest time will depend on which part of fennel plants you are going to harvest.
The type of fennel you grow will impact the parts of the plant you eat and harvesting too. So, let’s look at the different types first.
Types of Fennel
Growing fennel isn’t difficult as the plants grow in any well-drained soil. There are two types of fennel we grow in our gardens Foeniculum vulgare, and F. vulgare variety azoricum, which the horticulturists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison say is sometimes listed incorrectly as F. vulgare dulce.
F. vulgare is a short-lived perennial that is also known as common fennel, sweet fennel, and bronze fennel. While bronze fennel is often grown as an ornamental plant, varieties of F. vulgare are almost always grown as a herb.
This type of fennel will grow 3-5 feet tall. Like all fennel, its fine feathery foliage looks a lot like dill. And, like other types, it develops clusters of yellow flowers in late summer.
Although common fennel, like other types, attracts bees, ladybugs, and black and anise swallowtail butterflies, it is a noxious weed in some areas, particularly in mild climates.
But don’t panic, the cultivated type of fennel is seldom invasive. It is in any case, easily controlled if you don’t let it go to seed without harvesting the seed.
F. vulgare var. Azoricum or F. vulgare var. Dulce, is better known as Florence or Finocchio fennel. This type of fennel is shorter (2-3 feet) than common fennel and has darker green leaves. It’s the type we grow as a vegetable, for its thick fleshy bulb that forms at the base of the stem.
There are several popular Florence fennel varieties featured on specialty seed catalogs. Some of these are resistant to bolting, which often happens in hot temperatures or if the plants don’t get enough water.
Some say wild fennel, which often grows on roadsides and open grassland, tends to have bitter-tasting seeds. They also say that it lacks that distinctive, anice, licorice like flavor. Others harvest wild fennel flower stalks and fennel pollen with gay, pleasurable abandon, likening the pollen to saffron (which, of course, it’s not anything like, but it’s almost as expensive).
One big difference is that wild fennel doesn’t form a bulb at the base of its stem.
When to Harvest Fennel Leaves & Flower Stalks
Once fennel is established, you can harvest the leaves and use them fresh throughout the growing season. Once the fennel leaves have turned brown, it’s too late.
If you want to dry the leaves, chop, and air dry them, and then store them in a sealed container like any other dried herb.
The flower stalks are also delicious raw or lightly cooked. Harvest these just before the flowers open. If you want fennel seed from the plants, don’t cut all the flower stalks.
When to Harvest Fennel Bulbs
The best time to harvest Florence fennel bulbs is when they are about 3-4 inches (76-100 mm) in diameter, or about the size of a tennis ball. If they get any bigger, they tend to get tough.
Usually, the bulbs are ready for harvest when the plants have been growing for about 3 months, depending on the variety.
When to Harvest Fennel Seed & Pollen
You can harvest fennel pollen from wild fennel, but it’s not very easy to gather while it’s fresh. It’s easier to collect dried fennel pollen, but it doesn’t taste the same. Either way, you will need to wait for the flowers to form, and harvest them before they got to seed.
Late in summer or early in the fall fennel seeds will turn from green to brown. Be careful not to let them ripen too much or they will fall off the plant and will scatter naturally in the wind.
Don’t confuse fennel seed should with aniseed, even though they have a similar taste.
How to harvest fennel?
The way you harvest fennel depends on which part of the plant you are harvesting.
How to Harvest Fennel Leaves & Stalks
With the leaves and flower stalks, all you do is snip off the green, feathery foliage. Just be sure not to cut off too much as you want the fennel plants to keep on growing.
How to Harvest Fennel Seed
To harvest the seeds, all you do is tie small bags over the flower heads once they have turned brown. After a few days, shake the heads to release the seeds. Remove the bags carefully.
Otherwise, cut the stalks and put bunches into a large paper bag. Hang upside down in a cool, well-ventilated space to dry.
The seeds will fall into the bag. Sieve through fine mesh to get rid of any dust or dirt before drying and storing in an airtight container.
How to Harvest Fennel Pollen
To harvest fennel pollen, cut the flowers before they go to seed, and follow the same procedure. Place in paper bags and hand in a cool, dry, dark area.
Tap the sides of the bags every now and then for a couple of weeks as the flowers dry. Sift to get rid of any dirt.
Each flower head is likely to produce no more than a quarter teaspoon of pollen, so it’s a time-consuming business. But once you’ve acquired a taste for it, you’ll find it is worth every minute.
And if you check out the price of fennel pollen, it might amaze you to discover that it sells from between $11 and $15 an ounce.
How to Harvest Fennel Bulbs
To harvest the bulbs, cut just above the bulbous part of the stem and then dig the bulbs out of the ground. If you enjoy eating the stalks, cut the plant below the bulb and continue to harvest shoots as they emerge from the roots that are still underground.
Should you wash fennel after harvesting?
It’s always a good idea to rinse fennel after harvesting, especially the bulb that grows just above the soil. Also, rinse the stalks and leaves.
Generally, there is no need to wash fennel flowers and seeds after harvesting them. As mentioned above, after harvesting fennel pollen and/or seeds, you should sieve them to get rid of any dirt.
Can you eat fennel immediately after harvesting?
Like most herbs and vegetables, fennel tastes best the fresher it is. If you can harvest and eat it the same day, you’re lucky. And you can eat it raw or cook it, depending on your needs.
You can keep fennel leaves and bulbs in the refrigerator for about a week, but the flavor becomes less potent the longer you keep it. Make sure the container is tightly sealed.
You should dry fennel seeds before you eat them. You can do this on a drying screen set in a warm, well-ventilated place or on a cooking tray in your oven at the very lowest possible heat for a few hours
How to Eat Fennel
Fennel is packed with vitamin C, potassium, iron, and fiber. And there are many different ways to use fennel both raw and cooked.
- Sprinkle chopped up fennel leaves over salad or add them to pesto
- Use sweet fennel or Florence fennel to flavor poaching liquid for fish or chicken
- Saute the stalks like you would celery
- Slice raw fennel bulbs and mix with sliced bell peppers and cucumber and sprinkle chopped fennel leaves over the top
- Roast with shallots and sliced oranges
- Braise with tomato and sprinkle with crumbled feta cheese
You will find hundreds of recipes online and in recipe books.
Fennel is a great plant for a home veggie garden because it’s easy to grow and you can eat every single bit of it. But you must harvest each different part at a different time.
Our gardening tips compiled for 2022 will give you all the information you need to know when and how to harvest fennel. So, if you like that licorice-like flavor that you get from every part of fennel plants, what are you waiting for? Bon appetite.