Growing fennel

Val Bourne / 06 June 2018

Find out about the different types of fennel and how best to grow them.



Common fennel and Florence fennel

There are two types of fennel. The first is common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), an upright aromatic herb with feathery foliage and umbels of yellow flowers. The second is Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum), a bulbous variety eaten as a vegetable.

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Growing common fennel

Common fennel is a very ornamental, knee-high herb and is equally at home in the flower border, the herb garden or the vegetable bed. The most popular form is bronze fennel, F. vulgare ‘Purpureum’, and this has feathery purple-toned foliage that smells of aniseed, but you can also get a green-leaved form.

Bronze fennel is the more decorative and it’s often been used in Chelsea Flower Show gardens, because it develops handsome foliage by the end of May. In previous years it’s been used with the deep-red peony ‘Buckeye Belle’ and the maroon-red aquilegia ‘Ruby Port’. In the garden it tends to be a short-lived perennial, becoming woody after five years or so. This often happens with tap-rooted plants and the best way of replacing it is to raise some from seeds planted under cover in late spring. A window sill would do, if you haven’t got a greenhouse. The taproot is a reminder that this plant prefers drier conditions.

Although native to the southern Mediterranean, common fennel is very hardy.

Common fennel

Using common fennel

In the kitchen fennel seeds are often used in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Indian dishes, because they impart an aromatic aniseed flavour. They make a good savoury biscuit too.

Herb fennel recipes

Almond and fennel seed biscotti
Peach, vanilla and fennel seed mini loaves
Roast pork with fennel, onions and apples
Lamb stew with fennel, orange and rosemary
Artichokes barigoule

Growing Florence fennel

There is also a bulbous form of fennel called Florence fennel and the clue is in the name. It indicates a need for warm conditions and sun. The part that is eaten is the swollen stem and in order for this to develop, Florence fennel has to be shown directly into warm soil and then watered copiously. Given warmth and water it should be ready to eat after 12 weeks. It will always do far better in warmer parts of the country, or in warm spots in a garden, and always appreciates a good summer. After all Florence is an Italian city that enjoys warmer sunnier weather than we do.

Although Florence fennel is a crop that needs nurturing in this country, it is well worth growing because the seeds can be sown straight into the ground in the third week of June. Warmer parts of the country could probably still sow some seeds up until late July. This makes Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum) a good gap filler for the empty areas left after harvesting carrots, potatoes and perhaps beetroot. Florence fennel is one of the few crops you can still sow in midsummer, although it does rely on a warm July and August and may not crop reliably every year. However, when it does it's a great addition to the vegetable bed and this is partly due to the fact you fill gaps with it.

The bulbs are aromatic, with a delicate hint of aniseed, and they are often roasted in the oven on their own, or put into fish dishes. You can also chop it finely and add it to a salad.

Varieties

Franchi Seeds offer the best value. ‘Romanesco’ an early to mid-season variety could be sown in May, Over a 1000 seeds for £1.99. ‘Montebianco’ is a good later variety that can be sown between June and August and this one's a crunchy variety recommended for salads. 1600 seeds cost £2.45

How to grow Florence fennel

Florence fennel has to be shown directly into the deep, well-prepared ground in late June. It will not transplant.

It's an ideal gap filler, or you can sow in rows. Thin out seedlings to leave between nine and 12 inches between each.

Water well once the seedlings appear.

It could be grown in a deep raised bed, large container or in a cold frame.

You can earth up the stems to keep them white, rather as you do with potatoes.

Florence fennel recipes

Apple and fennel salad
Fennel, radish and cucumber salad with dill dressing
Pork, fennel and apricot burgers
Pulled shoulder of lamb with fennel slaw
Potato, fennel and tuna bake

Visit our fennel recipe section for more delicious ideas for using your homegrown fennel, or visit our fruit and veg section for more growing guides

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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.