Growing Herb Fennel for On-the-Go Nitrates

growing herb fennel
growing herb fennel

It’s mid-July. While getting plumper every day, my tomatoes remain green. But that hasn’t stopped me from imagining all the ways I can enjoy them, especially combined with herb fennel seeds.

I’ve chosen growing herb fennel as today’s topic for two reasons:

  1. Growing herb fennel, even if you start the seeds midway through the growing season, is almost guaranteed to succeed.
  2. It turns out that harvested herb fennel seeds are excellent (and highly portable!) sources of healthy nitrates.


Actually, there’s a third reason: growing herb fennel is ridiculously easy because it does just fine with little human help. The challenge is to keep it from overrunning its allotted growing space!

But before we get to that, let’s look at what herb fennel is and what it can bring to a healthy plant-based diet.

Growing Herb Fennel vs. Bulb Fennel

First things first: herb and bulb fennel plants aren’t the same!

You may have seen enormous fennel bulbs in the produce departments.  Although they look like leeks on steroids, leeks belong to the Amaryllis (Amaryllidaceae) family.

On the other hand, Bulb fennel is more closely related to parsley, celery, and carrots. Botanically, they’re all umbellifers of the Apiaceae family- as is herb fennel.

However, herb fennel doesn’t produce bulbs.

bulb fennel
Growing herb fennel will never get you one of these. Binarydreams  CC BY-NC 2.0

And while I hadn’t lived until the day I tasted fennel bulbs slow-roasted with olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice and topped with toasted cashews, I intend to grow fennel for its seeds.

For maximum seed production with a minimum of effort and time, only herb fennel will do.

The fall harvest from a single herb fennel plant will keep me in seeds through the winter.

Just two or three plants can supply an entire family unless everyone in it is hooked on the anethole responsible for the fennel’s wide-ranging health benefits.

According to The Handbook of Herbs and Spices, Volume 2, anethole makes up 50 to 60 percent of the oils extracted from fennel seed. The Handbook, published in 2021, listed its medicinal uses as:

  • antimicrobial
  • stimulant
  • antiflatulent

and expectorant.

However, I recently came across a  2016 NutritionFacts video, Fennel Seeds to Improve Athletic Performance. It reviewed a 2012 Indian study investigating fennel’s potential cardiovascular benefits.

In Dr. Greger’s words, chewing licorice-flavored fennel seeds provides “… a significant bump in nitric oxide production, which has the predictable vasodilatory effect of opening up blood vessels.”

He suggests that for athletes, fennel seeds could become “a cheap, lightweight, nonperishable source of nitrates” s when chowing down on leafy greens or beets isn’t practical.

Knowing that they’re also excellent breath fresheners and digestive aids convinced me to start working them into my plant-based diet.

So a packet of herb fennel seeds will arrive on my doorstep tomorrow, and one of them will join my garden shortly thereafter. This brings us to …

The How-Tos of Growing Herb Fennel

For help as a new herb fennel grower, I’ve turned to the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT),  my go-to horticultural research site.

And the first thing I clicked is MOBOT’s link to the Early Detection and Distribution System (EDDs) map indicating if herb fennel is approaching official “Invasive” status in my area:

From clicking my county on the map, I see that only two people have reported sighting herb fennel in the wild.

So it’s nowhere near invasive, but it’s enough to convince me to grow mine as container plants to control their root spread.

Herb fennel’s long taproot requires a deep pot, and its potential 5-foot height and 3-foot spread require one at least 12 inches across.

I’ll grow it in a 2:1 mix of organically rich, freely draining potting soil and vegan compost. That combination should eliminate the need for fertilizer.

According to MOBOT, herb fennel does best with six or more of daily sun. Because it’s midsummer, I’ll situate the containers to get afternoon shade and move them to a sunnier spot as the days become shorter and cooler.

Growing herb fennel in a container prevents its long taproot from growing down in search of moisture as deeply as it would in the garden.

So in the weeks without at least 1 inch of rain, I’ll water it enough to make up the difference. As a Mediterranean native, herb fennel tolerates dry conditions well.

If all goes well, in a month, my containers will be sporting dense, feathery mounds of licorice-scented foliage. Slender stalks topped with clusters of butterfly-attracting yellow blooms will be next.

When the flowers begin to wither and brown, I’ll prepare for my harvest by securing a paper bag over the top of each flower stalk with a rubber band.

They’ll remain until the seed heads look brown, dry, and completely ripe. The bags’ job is to prevent stray seeds from falling to the ground and self-sowing.

After removing and shaking the bags vigorously, I’ll separate and clean the seeds. Then, if necessary, they can continue drying on a mesh rack for a few days.

After that,  it’s into a glass jar and onto my spice shelf, where the ones that don’t make it into my tomato dishes or sauces will become my newest (and portable!) plant-based nitrate supply!







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