Here’s a bit of trivia for you. Among the carefully chosen selection of seeds and plants that the First Fleet brought from England in 1788, was fennel.
The plant has been held in high regard since Roman times, and at one stage, people believed that stuffing fennel seeds into their keyholes would keep ghosts from entering the room.
We’re too sophisticated for ghost stories these days, so fennel’s value is its amazing aniseed flavour, which is fresh and crunchy in salads, or more sublet and meltingly soft when baked or braised.
Sliced, diced or roasted, fennel is fresh and versatile. Photo - HandmadePictures/Shutterstock.com
Fennel can be a finicky crop because of its tendency to bolt to seed. We’ll get on to that, but first you must get hold of the right seed. You’d be amazed how many people sow herb fennel, Foeniculum vulgare instead of Florence fennel, Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce, then wonder why the plants never form those delicious bulbous stems. A good seed merchant will offer correctly labelled seed of decent quality.
To prevent bolting it’s important to sow at the correct times of year. In my temperate garden, fennel performs best when started either in late summer or early spring. A sowing in early September is ideal, but in cold climates you can get away with sowing in October or early November. Beyond this, you’re pushing your bulb-swelling luck.
The other thing to avoid is any check to growth. Fennel likes to be grown fast in rich soil that drains well, but retains some moisture. Mission impossible? No, you can accommodate both requirements by boosting your soil with well-rotted compost.
I find that the ideal point at which to harvest fennel is at around 80 days from sowing, when the bulbs are roughly the size of a cricket ball. You can harvest earlier or later than this, of course, but bear in mind that the larger fennel bulbs get, the tougher they become. For salads, young, crisp fennel is the way to go.
Don’t forget the leaves. These have the same aniseed zing as the bulb, and you can safely chop a handful of leaves every week during the growing period without halting bulb formation. Just avoid stripping the plants bare.
- Don’t skimp on the moisture, as this can stress the plants into bolting. In areas that experience dry spring weather a watering every other day might be necessary.
- Fennel performs best when sown directly into the garden - sow a couple of seeds every 20cm and keep rows about 30cm apart. If planting seedlings, get them into the ground while small. Older seedlings rarely transplant well.
‘Zefa Fino' is a Swiss-bred cultivar that resists bolting and reliably forms bulbs of excellent flavour and texture. It’s ideal for warmer climates.
'Orion' also resists bolting but forms rounder bulbs and more compact plants. It’s an F1 hybrid favoured by commercial market gardeners.