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Fragrant Fennel

It wasn’t until I tasted Jamie Oliver’s slow roasted fennel that I decided I had to grow fennel. The fennel caramelises in the most delicious way, especially when paired with tomatoes, caraway seed, and a good splash of olive oil. But it’s also delicious in a salad, especially a finely shaved, young fennel bulb. It’s well worth growing fennel in the garden and if you’re keen, here’s how.

When you buy the seed, check the label to ensure it’s the right variety. You want Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum), not the herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) as the latter will never produce those delicious, swollen stems. Sowing seeds at the right time is important to help prevent plants running to seed or 'bolting'. In warm climates, sow seeds in early spring (September). In cooler areas, you can wait until October or even November. Fennel likes a sunny spot with a rich soil that drains well. Add well-rotted compost to the soil before you plant out and fork in well. Turn the soil to create a light, fluffy bed for planting. Keep the soil just moist throughout the growing season.

Don’t let your fennel bulbs get too big and woody. They are best harvested once they get to ‘cricket ball’ size. This usually takes around 80 days from seed sowing. Though, you can harvest earlier than this if you like – a young ‘bulb’ is especially delicious in a salad. And don’t forget the leaves! They have the same tasty aniseed flavour. Pick a handful at a time, chop them up and add to flavour pasta dishes, meats or salads. Ensure you don't strip the plant bare, otherwise you will halt its growth.

  • Water regularly throughout the growing season to keep the soil evenly moist. In hot weather, you may need to water every day. Water stress may cause your fennel to prematurely bolt.
  • Sow fennel seed direct into the ground; two seeds every 20cm and in rows 30cm apart. If you are transplanting seedlings, don’t let them get too big. Older seedlings rarely transplant well.

  • ZEFA FINO resists bolting, forms large bulbs with excellent flavour. Good for warm climates.
  • LEONARDO is a new F1 hybrid that resists running to seed. Good for cool climates where it should be sown in January.
  • ORION is a F1 hybrid that also resists bolting. It forms a round, more compact bulb and is favoured by many commercial growers.

About this article

Author: Words: Sandra Ross