Words & photos Rachel Vogan
Aniseed is a taste people tend to either gravitate towards or move swiftly away from. If liquorice and sambuca tantalise your palate then growing fennel will be a welcome addition in your garden. For me, while I enjoy raspberry-flavoured liquorice I tend to avoid the black stuff. Fennel is a flavour I can handle in smaller doses, blended into salt rubs, and roast fruit chutneys. Most recently I find I am enjoying it roasted on top of pizza with thyme, fresh parmesan and mozzarella.
Often in autumn and winter fennel fronds are substituted for dill. The flavour is similar, but the fronds are not as soft, hence it should be picked very young to replicate the more delicate taste and texture of dill.
Two main types of fennel are grown; the vegetable and the herb. Florence fennel – the vegetable – has a fat, crisp white base and green fern-like foliage. All parts of the plant can be eaten raw or cooked. Food programmes regularly feature fennel braises and salads using the white bulbous head of Florence fennel. Once mature, Florence fennel will keep in the fridge for two to three weeks.
The herb fennel is a perennial, and its foliage and seed heads are the parts used. The herb comes in bronze and green shades and, in colder regions, dies down over winter then reappears in the spring.
If the herb is left to its own devices it can become weed-like. The large fluffy flower heads dry off to reveal small seeds, which are easily blown around by the wind or eaten by the birds.
When and where to grow Florence fennel
This is a crop to grow in three out of the four seasons, the one to avoid is summer as it prefers cooler soils and shorter days. In summer it normally bolts and goes to seed as soon as the soil dries out and the temperature soars. Seed germinates in a fortnight and can be sown in trays and pricked out into pottles, then transplanted when the soil is ready. Seedlings are available in the shops, although you may have to look hard for it as some garden centres put it in the herb department by mistake.
Soil-wise, any moist, fertile soil works. It is a good option for pots and tubs, too. Full sun is best, although it will cope with a smidge of shade. Harvest once the bulbs at the base are ball-size or larger, if you prefer, but be aware, as the base gets bigger, it can become woody at the core.
Growing time from planted seedling is 8-10 weeks, so keep planting it if you want a regular supply.
When and where to grow herb fennel
If you have a herb garden, plant fennel near the back as it gets pretty tall – man-size in many cases, 1.5-2m. Allow a bit of room to move, up to 1m is ideal. Cut down the stalks if they become too woody, this will stimulate more growth from the base. In winter, in the frosty regions, it retreats back to the crown. Harvest the soft fronds and, if seed is what you want to produce, allow the plants to flower and collect the seed heads as soon as they begin to wilt and turn nut brown. If you don’t watch carefully at the seed stage the birds will beat you to the harvest. The plants are easily grown from division and seed germinates readily.