Learn how to grow fennel, even in colder climates with enough care.
Made at Home Vegetables, by Dick Strawbridge and James Strawbridge (Mitchell Beazley, 2012), proves just how productively green you can be all year round. Whether you have a tiny urban plot, a terrace, a community garden allotment or plenty of space in your own garden, growing your own vegetables is one of the easiest ways to transform the way you eat. The following excerpt from the chapter “Autumn” teaches you how to grow fennel.
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Fennel is a vegetable with a distinctive aniseed taste. The bulbs, fronds, seeds and even the stalks can be eaten, and all have the aniseed flavour. Fennel originates from the Mediterranean so it does like a bit of sunshine, but it is possible to grow it very successfully in cooler climates.
Fennel can be grown from seed or by dividing the roots. The seeds are slow to germinate, so in early spring it is best to sow them under cover and only try sowing outside after all danger of frost has passed. Fennel does not like being transplanted, so it is best to sow the seeds in compostable pots, or try toilet rolls packed with compost. Don’t plant fennel near dill, as cross-fertilization may occur. Fennel and tomatoes or potatoes do not do well if planted near each other.
Sow the fennel in rows 45cm (18 inches) apart and 1cm (1/2 inch) deep, covering the seeds with a fine tilth. The plants can easily grow to 1m (about 3 feet) high, so they need reasonable separation. Covering the beds with black plastic to keep them warm is useful for early sowings. You can succession sow every couple of weeks.
For division, split fennel vertically and plant the segments in sandy soil in the autumn, for maturing the following year.
If sown in situ, thin out plants so they are 30cm (1 foot) apart. Fennel requires regular watering in dry periods, and you need to keep weeds down in the beds. When the fennel bulbs start to form, and are about 4cm (1 1/2 inches) across, bring the surrounding soil up to cover the bulbs, which will ensure they keep their white colour. Within the month, the fennel should be ready for harvesting.
If the plant bolts and goes to seed, the seeds can also be used. When they are ripe, cut off the seed heads and bunch several together, then put the heads inside a paper bag with the stalks sticking out. They can then be hung in the kitchen or in a dry, airy place. When the seeds are dry, store them in airtight containers and either use them in your cooking or keep them to sow next season.
Pest & Diseases
Fennel does not suffer from significant insect and disease problems, but watch out for greenfly in the foliage and for slug or snail damage to the seedlings. Weeding in the early stages of growth is essential.
Fennel fronds and stems can be harvested young, as and when you need them. The bulbs can stay in the ground and be harvested from mid summer to mid autumn.
Keep fennel in the ground and dig it up as required. It can also be blanched and then frozen. Dry the seeds and fronds by hanging the flowers upside down in a brown paper envelope. Fennel bulbs can be crystallized in segments, just like candied citrus peel.
Tender fennel stalks and bulbs can be thinly sliced and added to salad. Braising brings out the fresh yet rich flavour of the bulbs.
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Reprinted with permission from Made at Home Vegetables, by Dick Strawbridge and James Strawbridge, and published by Mitchell Beazley, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Made at Home Vegetables.
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