Growing Herbs for Cooking with Fish
Enhance your fish dishes with fennel or dill, freshly picked from your herb garden.
Fennel and dill are both herbs of distinctive flavour, and both are grown for their leaves and seeds. They are similar in appearance and needs, and both will grow happily under most garden conditions.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a very attractive perennial herb with upright, branching stems and fine, thread-like, dark green leaves. Fresh or dried, the leaves are used as a flavouring in many dishes, in sauces, and are one of the classic and most delicious accompaniments to fish. The seeds, which have a slightly stronger, liquorice taste, can be used in the same dishes, and they add an interesting flavour to pickles.
To grow fennel in your garden, choose a sunny position, preferably at the back of the border because the plants grow so tall, up to 1.5-1.8 m (5-6’) high and 60 cm (2’) across. Do not grow it anywhere near dill, as the two hecbs will cross-pollinate easily and produce seeds of no distinctive flavour.
Any good, well drained, deepwill do for fennel. Fork the growing area well to break up the subsoil, and incorporate peat or well-rotted garden to help retain moisture. Sow the seeds thinly in mid-spring about 0.5 cm (1/4”) deep, in rows 45 cm (1-1/2′) apart. Germination should take place between two and three weeks. When the have produced a central, feathery leaf, thin them to a spacing of 45-60 cm (1-1/2 – 2’) apart.
Like most herbs, fennel requires little care during the growing period. Water the ground regularly in dry weather until the plants are established, and keep them free of. If the site is exposed, stake the plants as they grow to keep them from being blown over by strong winds.
Young leaves for cutting should be ready about six weeks after sowing. Cut leaves as you need them from near the base of the plant, or cut them in large bunches and hang them to dry in a cool, airy place. Harvest leaves until the first flower buds appear, but remember that plants grown from seed will not flower until their second year.
From mid-summer to early autumn, fennel bears yellow umbels of flowers, which will produce a large quantity of seeds. If you do not want seeds, remove the flowerheads to encourage leaf growth. If seeds are required, leave the flowerheads on the plants, and harvest them in early to mid-autumn, just as the seeds start to turn brown. Cut the seedheads and hang them over paper in a dry place, or shake them carefully over a bowl and then finish the ripening by putting them in single layers in a dry, barely warm place. Drying the delicate foliage is rather difficult to do satisfactorily: it needs to be done very slowly, in the dark, and at the lowest possible temperature.
The top growth of fennel will die down in the late autumn, and should be cut back to about 7.5 cm (3”), but the plants will survive all but the coldest winters to sprout again in the spring. If you like, you can lift some plants in early autumn, put them into large pots of good compost and keep them indoors or under glass. They should continue to grow through the winter, but do not expect to harvest many leaves.
Like fennel, dill (Anethumgraveolens) is also very easy to grow in ordinary soil and in any open, sunny site. It is an annual, so is always grown from seed. Prepare the site by deep digging, as dill’s tap roots must be allowed to grow unimpeded
Sow the seeds outside in mid-spring, not more than .0.5 cm (1/4”) deep and as thinly as possible. Germination should take about two weeks. The seedlings emerge with a pair of narrow leaflets, often with the seed shell affixed to one, and with the curled growth bud in the middle. Once the seedlings are large enough to handle, thin them to a spacing of 10 cm (4”). Continue to thin the developing plants until they are approximately 23 cm (9”) apart; the thinnings can be used fresh or dried like other herbs. Remember to firm the remaining plants after thinning.
Seedlings and young plants should not run short of water, but mature plants with their long tap roots will not need to be watered much unless the weather is very dry. Be sure to keep the bed weed-free, and, if your garden is in an exposed or windy area, support the plants with twigs when they reach about 60 cm (2’)-Most plants, however, will grow well without supports.
The feathery, green leaves of dill grow on a single stem which reaches between 60-90 cm (2-3’) high and the plant produces large yellow, umbrella-like flowerheads from mid- to late summer. You should harvest the leaves before the flower buds appear, which is usually about eight weeks after sowing. Cut them as for fennel and use them fresh in the same way. You can also dry dill leaves but very carefully, handling as little as possible, and using a temperature no higher than 37°C (98°F); then store in an air-tight container.
However, it is primarily for its aromatic, slightly bitter seeds that dill is grown, so do not remove flowerheads from the plants. Allow the seeds to ripen until they are dark brown, and be ready to harvest them quickly, as they fall readily once ripe. Cut the seedheads carefully and hang them over paper in a warm, dark place. Or you can shake them into a bowl like fennel seeds. Again be sure the seeds are thoroughly dry before storing them in an air-tight container.
As dill is an annual, dig up and compost your outdoor-grown dill plants when you have finished harvesting the seedheads.
Dill is a good choice for an indoor winter herb. Sow seed in mid-autumn in 7.5 cm (3”) pots, and keep them in a warm greenhouse or indoors. Then when large enough to handle and when the plants are 15 cm (6”) tall, pot on to larger pots using a good quality compost. Keep the plants away from direct sunlight and radiators, water them regularly and support with sticks, and you should be able to harvest dill leaves through the winter.
Although dill seeds are often used as a tasty addition in various pickles, try them as well in cooked vegetable dishes, especially brassicas, with boiled, in soups or with soft cheeses and, of course, with fish. They have a pungent flavour, so use them sparingly. The leaves are delicious in any dish where fennel leaves are used. Or try both herbs together for an unusual flavour.
Unfortunately, greenfly has a great fondness for both fennel and dill, particularly if the weather is dry. Dig up and burn badly infested plants, and spray the remainder with soapy water. Do not spray with insecticides, which could damage the plants, and will certainly affect the flavour of the herbs.