Newest Review: ... best of all you can still eat bronze fennel so it's doubly useful. For bulb / Florence fennel, a good variety is Fennel di Sicilia as it ... more
Try growing fennel
Member Name: Stewwydablue
Advantages: Easy to grow, tasty, copes reasonably well over winter
Disadvantages: None really
I first had fennel only about three years ago, and was amazed that there was a vegetable / herb that could taste so sweet. It tastes of liquorice / aniseed, and can be either be grown as Florence fennel (which has an edible swollen bulb at the base) or herb / sweet fennel which doesn't have the swollen bulb and instead the feathery fronds are chopped and used a herb.
Here's how I grow mine, and also other little pearls of knowledge about fennel.
April is a good time to plant from seed as it is a Mediterranean crop so prefers our summer. It can be nurtured over winter, but requires quite a bit of TLC. To plant the seeds, pop them in a hole about a centimetre deep then cover with fine compost, or plant them into individual seedling pots. About 3 months after planting you should have a metre high plant with plenty of fronds to chop up and sprinkle onto all sorts of meals - more of that later. If you are growing Florence fennel, earth up the bulbous part of the stem (just above the soil) to blanch it and keep it sweet tasting as it swells. This should be ready to harvest around late August / early September.
Keep an eye out for the plant flowering and going to seed - it will spread all over your garden. Every year I have to play "hunt the out of place fennel plant" as it does spread quite quickly by itself if you haven't plucked off any flower heads that are starting to produce seeds.
The plants need a bit of space as they can grow quite big - go for about a foot apart between plants. They also like free draining soil and (strangely for a Mediterranean plant) not too much heat as this will make them bolt and go to seed quicker. It grows reasonably well in pots; I know this as 90% of my garden is grown in pots of some kind.
PESTS AND DISEASES COMMON TO FENNEL
In a word - slugs. They'll gorge on fennel if allowed. I prefer natural methods of pest control in my garden, but I must say that when it comes to slugs then the gloves of war are well and truly off. I read in a book recently that a man said "you don't have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency" and I thought, yep, very green and all power to you and your ducks, quacktastic. I, however, have recently applied for an explosives licence off the council and am awaiting the arrival of my internet ordered slug landmine combat assault pack. With a side order of napalm powered flamethrower. Be aggressive with the slugs when you are growing fennel or they will hurt you and your fennel plants. Other than slugs, fennel are relatively free of other pests and diseases which all helps to make it quite an easy plant to grow.
There are two types for eating and one type for architectural use in the garden. The edible types are Florence fennel (as mentioned above) and sweet fennel which is grown for its leaves. The architectural fennel type is known as bronze fennel and resembles sweet fennel but has a bronze tinge to its wispy leaves. Sorry to go all Diarmud Gavin here, but I'm a big fan of the bronze fennel and the way it adds elegance to a border when you have the odd one or two amongst slightly smaller plants - and best of all you can still eat bronze fennel so it's doubly useful.
For bulb / Florence fennel, a good variety is Fennel di Sicilia as it is bolt resistant (it gets damn hot in Sicily). For Bronze fennel, Fennel Purpureum is a good variety that has great colour on the leaves. For sweet fennel, I grow Florence fennel from seed and treat it as sweet fennel (ie - I chop off the leaves for cooking and bits of stem too) until the bulb is swollen and ready to pull - then I rip the whole plant out and use the bulb.
All parts of fennel are edible (seeds, leaves, stalks, bulb) - try chopping the stalk up and adding to a stir-fry, or chopping the feathers of the leaves and tossing through a salad. The bulb of a Florence fennel is wonderful when roasted and makes a tradition busting addition to Christmas Day dinner - bye-bye Mr Sprout. The Italians use fennel with all sorts of foods, including fish, eggs (it works really well in frittatas) and the seeds are added to sausages and breads. However, I'd say that if you're using chopped leaves in something like a Bolognese sauce then add these right near the end as heat will leach the flavour from the fine leaves.
Fennel is an ingredient of gripe water - anyone who has had small babies crying with trapped wind will know the benefit of gripe water. It's also a good source of vitamin C, fibre and protein and is thought to be good for eyesight.
All the usual suspects stock fennel seeds (Morgan and Thompson, Suttons etc) and also I've come across an internet company called "realseeds.co.uk" that stock a couple of different types, as do "seedparade.co.uk".
For a Mediterranean plant, it copes quite well with our summers and so long as you can keep slugs away from them, the plants will grow quite easily with a minimum amount of effort. I give fennel a very tasty five stars.
Summary: A very tasty plant as either a chopped herb or a vegetable