Gardening: An Ode To Fennel

A lonely fennel plant spied in a garden store revives a dormant gardener.

Ode to Fennel
A fennel plant in an East Dallas store brings a gardener back to life.

Above the lower plants it
towers,
The Fennel with its
Yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than
Ours,
Was gifted with the wondrous
Powers
Lost vision to restore
                 
HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

If you’re a gardener, you’ll understand: over the past several years, as often as I have visited my old neighborhood in New York, I have borrowed a car to run an errand and actually have gone to spy on what was once my garden. My perennial border is barely recognizable, and the potager was long ago folded into a lawn; nevertheless, for coming on a decade, I have visited the grounds of my old home to spy. Rather pitiably, I just stand there.

In Dallas, I am not that kind of person. Here my yard is all landscape and no garden, and it never even occurs to me to look out the window. I talk more to the yardman about his family and local politics than the condition of our ground cover. You never garden anymore, my children observe, mostly when I am in a funk of some kind. Some part of me was extinguished when I moved to Dallas, but whatever that was, it goes unnoticed. I am happy here and quite content without a garden. (Gardens will break your heart.)

So it was that a few weeks ago, when I wandered into a little plant store in East Dallas, I was caught off guard by the sensation I experienced when my eyes fell on a 6-inch seedling of bronze fennel.

ABOUT FENNEL 
(foeniculum)

Fennel is known as the faerie fern and comes in shades of green ranging from medium to dark, as well as more rare and beautiful shades of bronze. Its fronds are wispy and graceful, and its large, flat, stately seed umbels are crowned first with bright, golden flowers. In Dallas, fennel will grow happily because it takes plenty of sun and is adapted to dry situations. Grow fennel for its seeds and its bulbous base, which is harvested as the plant is about to bloom. Fennel is best seeded in the early spring.

Fennel is an elegant, poised, and stately plant, a relation of Queen Anne’s Lace and carrots, and I used to mix it into my borders in New York. I was never a fan of astilbe “too feathery or something” but I was always pleased with the wispiness of fennel. Something in me stirred when I saw the plant “desire? Certainly it wasn’t the fennel itself, which was a very sad thing for having been in its green plastic pot about three weeks too long. Whatever it was, I was transported to that zone of heightened senses, where beauty and calculation and promise collide in the gardener’s mind. If you are a gardener, you will understand: I wanted to take the fennel home and set it in a finer context. I wanted to see it flourish.

The ride home was a blur. In a state of delirium I found a stretch of monkey grass that could be transformed into a border. I rifled through the garage looking for my pitchfork, found my knee-high Wellies, and pulled on two left-handed gardening gloves. I yanked, I dug, I lifted. I worked compost into the dirt with my two left hands.

That was about a month ago. I do not have a proper garden yet “far from it” but I have asked the yardman to prune the trees that were blocking the view from my bathroom window, and now, in the morning, I shuffle first to that window, just to see what is happening. I have started taking my first cup of coffee outside for a daybreak inspection of my plants, to pull some weeds, to deadhead a little, to consider what, if anything, should be moved. If you are a gardener, you will understand: when my eyes rested on that fennel plant, it was like a widow making eye contact after years of not seeing anyone at all. Perhaps it is too soon to say, but I think my spying days are over.

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