Florence fennel is a good-looking vegetable that tends to outshine its neighbours in the veg patch. Fairly low maintenance and good to grow throughout the country it is a versatile and flavour-some ingredient in the kitchen. Get some in now and before you know it you'll have great plumes of wafty, aniseedy foliage atop some lithe, lined taut and tasty bulbs - ready for roasting, braising, grilling or scrunching raw.
Companions Florence fennel is one vegetable that is pretty much allelopathic to all other plants – this means it exudes chemicals that suppress growth in neighbouring plants. I still grow it in my beds but give it a well–mulched buffer zone of about a hand’s length or two between it and other nearby plants.
Quantity 3 plants per person.
This is a great way to eat fennel – it makes a change from the routine garden veg we cook.
Milano an heirloom variety that grows quickly to form firm, aniseed-flavoured bulbs. Best grown in spring and early summer. Has resistance to bolting.
Romanesco an heirloom variety with large white, crisp bulbs that have characteristic fresh aniseed flavour. Better if grown from late summer into autumn.
The main seasons for sowing and planting are Spring and Autumn. So in warmer parts that means between August and May and in cooler parts September to January. In the heat of summer you might want to plant away from direct mid day sun to avoid bolting. Fennel likes stable temperatures without dramatic changes that can cause it to bolt and go to seed. It can be grown year round in many parts of the country (anywhere that receives no more than a light frost in winter).
Fennel grows best in full sun but in my garden it also grows well in partially shaded beds. It grows to about knee height.
Fennel likes soil that drains well rather than holding onto moisture for any length of time. Soil should have well-rotted animal manure, compost or sheep pellets dug through it but not too much. Ensure that soil has been well dug over to incorporate any added ingredients. You want everything to be well mixed and lump free. Think of a slice of banana cake where you can see the integrated ingredients making a balanced range of tones and texture. Your soil should resemble this when you grasp a handful and spread it across your palm. The organic material that is made up of compost, manure etc. not only provides nutrients but also hold a little moisture temporarily so that it can be utilized by fennel plants before draining away.
Fennel is best sown straight into the garden during the main season or planted as a seedling – either grown by you or shop bought – during less optimum months if weather patterns are favourable.
To sow: You can sow in rows or patches.To sow a row, draw your finger along the soil’s surface so that it makes a narrow trench about a finger tip deep and wide. Drop seeds into this trench so that you can see seeds all the way along it about a finger length apart. Smooth soil back over seeds, mark rows and water with a gentle shower from your watering can. If you are sowing a patch then scatter seeds at about a finger’s length all round from each other and gently push them a finger tip deep below the soil. Cover your holes and water as already mentioned.
If planting seedlings try and choose a cool, overcast day and ensure you water your seedlings before you transplant them into your beds. Seedlings should be spaced about a hand’s length apart.
As your seedlings start to grow keep soil moist with additional watering if conditions are dry. Thin seedlings sown directly into beds when they are easy to get hold of – somewhere between a half and a full thumb length in height. Ideally, when thinning is done, you will end up with each plant about a full hand’s length apart. If you are planting in rows they should be around a generous hand’s length apart. Mulch around the base of your fennel plants as they start to swell – you can do this by covering the bulb with newspaper and then pushing soil up against the white part of the base or using something like pea straw which you can spread around to suppress weeds and keep in moisture (the newspaper stops soil falling into the bulb’s layers). To arrive at a harvest of juicy swollen bulbs keep moisture constant during dry periods. Depending on how well you have composted the soil you might want to give your developing plants an extra boost with some liquid seaweed or worm juice every couple of weeks.
Keep an eye out for slug damage overnight. If you see evidence of attack then go on a slug hunt and utilize slug control methods.
Aphids can be a problem. Treat any visible infestations with Neem oil, Garlic oil spray or Tomato leaf spray.
Fennel bulbs can be harvested once they have swollen and are anything from the size of your average home-made muffin to a large, juicy mango. Generally spring-sown fennel produces the fattest bulbs and autumn sown fennel produces a slightly leaner crop. Simply cut across the base of your bulb and leave the ‘stool’ or bottom part in the ground to re-grow more bulbs from side-shoots. We always let one or two of our plants elongate their stems to form flowers and then set seed which we dry for cooking and baking. The seeds are quite a tasty chew on their own - rather sweet and aniseedy – kids love them.
Allow a couple of plants to flower – they’ll attract beneficial predators such as hoverflies. Leave these plants to set seed and next year you’ll have self-sown fennel popping up all over your garden for free!