Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), a native to the Mediterranean, is an ancient crop mentioned in Greek mythology which has a long history of cultivation and culinary use.
It is the bulbous edible version of the more familiar wild growing relative. The bulb is actually the swollen base of the stem.
A stunning looking plant, Florence fennel has an aniseed aroma and flavour. It has dark green foliage and develops a large flat fossette of stems at the base of the plant and is a delicious addition to many dishes.
Florence fennel is a cool-weather perennial which is grown as an annual. If you are careful when harvesting the bulb, by using a sharp knife to slice the plant from the roots just below the swelling and leave the roots intact, the plant will continue to grow and produce bulbs, though they will have a flattened, less rounded shape.
Now is a perfect time to plant seedlings which require a long, cool growing season, so the bulbs will be ready to harvest before summer heat cause them to bolt forming flowers and seeds.
Choose a warm, sheltered sunny site, with friable soil enriched with compost to improve soil structure and drainage. Florence fennel dislikes heavy clay and waterlogged ground. A plentiful supply of water will allow for deep root penetration and encourage the plant to form its fully rounded swollen base.
If you are sowing seeds, sow them directly into prepared garden beds, as fennel, like carrots, dislike root disturbance. Make sure the beds are in full sun and sow seeds half a centimetre deep and 10-15cm apart. Cover seeds lightly with fine compost. It will take10-14 days for the seeds to germinate. I always cover the seeds with shade cloth during this period to keep birds from scratching up the seeds. Once the seedlings are thriving, mulch to retain soil moisture, and you can use a liquid fertilizer like seaweed to make sure the plant develops large succulent bulbs.
If you have planted the seeds too thickly, you can thin the plants and use the thinned seedlings as a garnish in the kitchen.
When the bulbous base grows to the size of an egg, blanch the lower stems by mulching up around the bulb.
Your homegrown crop will provide endless delicious meal ideas. Try it raw, thinly sliced – it is crunchy and fresh – or roasted with olive oil, garlic, and lemon.