Tall, lovely and flavorful
Gardeners have long been making ornamental use of herbs, and local favorites include rosemary, sage and lavender. Consider adding dill and fennel to the list. They add height, movement and color, to say nothing of their contribution in the kitchen.
Perennial fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) comes in two colors, green and "a beautiful purple/bronze," says Patty Turk, owner of Winema Gardens at the Growers and Crafters Market. Both seeds and foliage of this plant are edible. Use the leaves for tea, and seeds for licorice flavoring in baked goods. "Perennial fennel leaves and seeds have the strongest flavor," says Turk.
Seeds reproduce well, so harvest before they drop, unless you want a forest of fennel. It's OK to prune hard. "It won't hurt the plant," says Drew Matthews, nursery specialist at the Medford Grange Co-op. It's a sturdy plant, and fun to grow for kids. "They can pull the leaves and suck the juice from the stems. It tastes like licorice."
'Florence' fennel is grown for the bulb and usually harvested in late July or August. Although the leaves are edible, they have a milder fennel flavor, says Turk.
Try layering thinly sliced sautéed fennel with layers of onion and garlic and a mild cheese, like Mexican, or farmer's cheese. Add a light batter of milk, egg, salt and pepper to the bottom of the casserole. Don't cover the veggies; add just enough to bind them. Bake at 350 degrees until the batter is set.
Since those plants are hybrids, if they go to seed, they will not produce the same plant, nor are they as plump and flavorful as the perennial type, according to Matthews.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) has tall and short varieties as well, This annual herb is weather sensitive, it will bolt in hot weather and frost will kill it. 'Bouquet' dill is the most popular variety for its large flower head and is used for pickling. This is the best plant for seeds. The denser foliage of 'Fernleaf' dill is a better choice for dill weed and you can plant it here, about mid-August, for fall harvest.
Matthews likes a mix of lemon juice, butter and dill for fish. It should be equally good on vegetables. Add to coleslaw, or use to make a creamy dip for crudités.
Seeds of dill and fennel can be harvested when mature and dried in a paper bag. For next season planting, package airtight and save in the freezer. To save the leaves, Turk uses a food dryer, but suggests drying leaves between two sheets of clean paper bags or kraft paper, cut to fit a cookie sheet. Place on top of the refrigerator where the temperature is about 90-100 degrees. "It's perfect drying temperature," she says.
The light airy appearance of dill and family shows their family resemblance. If you plant both and want to harvest the seeds, keep them far apart so they don't cross-pollinate.
With these plants you get flavor and beneficial insects. The caterpillars of the anise swallowtail, and the Oregon swallowtail butterflies like these plants, which is reason enough for some people to plant them. With so much versatility, these herbs deserve space in the garden.