Fennel can be quite a challenging vegetable to grow really well, and if you have room for it, it can be very rewarding and useful on the show bench. Not every show schedule will have a class for it but most shows will have a class ‘for any other vegetable not mentioned in the schedule’. Fennel is available as either a herb or as a bulb like vegetable called ‘Florence Fennel’ The herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) has a billowing nature with the beautiful fronds capable of growing up to around 1.5 metres.
For show purposes I grow the Florence Fennel and the variety that best suits me is the F1 cultivar ‘Rondo’. This one is quick to mature with very decorative tops and the bulbs are round and very plump with exquisite aniseed flavour. The one drawback with fennel is that it can be prone to bolt and running up a seed head. Early sowings will cause this to happen with the cooler evenings being the main problem hence the need to sow the seed directly outdoors during early June so that the plants can grow on when the night temperatures are more constant during July and August.
If I was to follow that rule I would never be able to stage Fennel on my display at Tatton during mid July so I have to be a little more adventurous. There’s no doubt that fennel likes to be sown in situ and hates to be transplanted which is another reason why it runs to seed. The way I have managed it is to sow the seed in small cells inside my glass house during mid April but always with fleece on standby to cover them should the night time temperatures plummet. Three or four seed are sown in some Levington F1 seed compost and well watered in.
When they have germinated and showing their first proper leaf they will be thinned out to leave one in each cell. As the plant hates having its roots disturbed, I thin them down using a small pair of scissors leaving behind, not necessarily the largest seedling, but the ones that balance each other in height throughout the seed tray. They are never allowed to go dry as the cells are always kept moist, very similar conditions to celery throughout its growing regime.
Once the true leaf is showing the cells are watered and each one removed carefully with mimimum disturbance to the root system. They are the potted up into 3.5 inches diameter pots using Levington M3 growing medium. The pots will now be brought into my Polytunnel to grow on before being planted directly into metre square Link-a-Bord raised bed system. The beds will be prepared in advance having incorporated plenty of well rotted farm yard manure together with some spent peat from last year’s potato bags. finally I will add 6 ounces of Medwyns complete base fertiliser and 6 ounces of Nutrimate. the whole bed, as well as the soil underneath, will be well worked over using my Mantis tiller.
The fennel bulbs do require about nine inches between each plant and they will be planted out of their pots when well rooted and planted slightly below the level of the compost. It’s important the soil or compost they are growing in is warm as planting into cold soil will almost certainly cause them to bolt. There’s no doubt that a well grown bed of fennel is a joy to look at with the white developing bulbs and the tender green fronds making. A perfect picture. As the bulbs are developing they will be earthed up just we do with potatoes or leeks to increase their size. Blanching the bulbs improves the quality as well as giving a greater proportion of tender white flesh.
I allow fifteen weeks from sowing the seed to harvesting the bulbs so the ones for Malvern show will be sown towards the end of this month and will planted outdoors during June. Hopefully the weather will be warm as will the soil so that the plants will grow away unhindered. They love full sun so don’t plant them in a shady position, equally they don’t like draft so offer them some protection if you can from strong winds. Even if your Fennel does fail you and goes to seed, don’t be too depressed, just get in the house and pour yourself a measure of Absinthe as it will not only make you feel better, it also contains fennel in it for the aniseed flavour.