This week we thought we would have a look at growing Fennel.
Fennel has been a popular cultivated herb for centuries, valued by the Ancient Greeks and Romans and found in kitchen and herb gardens from ancient times through to the present day.
Throughout the centuries, fennel has maintained a reputation as an aid to digestion, a slimming aid and protection against obesity and is appreciated for its anise flavour. In our gardens today, fennel can be grown as a herb for its fragrant feathery fronds, or as a vegetable when growing bulbing fennel varieties.
Fennel is also an attractive border plant in its own right, growing to height and sometimes available in green or bronze varieties. But wait, there’s more! You can harvest the leaves, bulbs, seeds, stems, and even the pollen of this fantastic plant. Why wouldn’t you want to include some fennel plants in your garden plan this season?
When choosing your fennel varieties, there are two distinct types of fennel available: You can choose to grow the perennial herb fennel, which is the one to choose for harvesting fennel leaves, seeds and pollen. Look for Fennel Sweet Leaf in our range.
If it is the crisp, sweet bulb fennel you would like to grow, then choose an annual Florence Fennel variety. The options we offer are: Florence Fennel Milano, Florence Fennel Orion and Organic Florence Fennel Finale.
Fennel plants are attractive to butterflies, ladybugs and pollinator insects.
How to sow and grow:
Once you have your fennel seed, sow it in seed trays in early spring and keep the seedlings protected from frosts. Using a warming pad will help speed germination – a temperature range of 15-21°C is ideal. You can start sowing seeds this way about eight weeks before your last expected frost. Alternatively, sow the seeds directly where they are to grow when there is only three weeks of potential frost still on your garden calendar.
Fennel is a cool weather crop and will do best in spring and autumn rather than in the heat of summer. Sow seeds again from midsummer through to autumn for your autumn and winter crops. Fennel grows best in a sunny position in fertile, well-drained soil. Keep your fennel planted near a convenient water source – these plants, particularly your Florence Fennel, will need to be keep moist. Space your plants about 12 inches apart.
The same growing advice applies to Fennel Sweet Leaf – you will probably only need one or two of these plants for your garden. They are best situated at the back of the border, as they can grow quite tall.
Keep your seedlings well weeded. They will benefit from liquid feeding. Mulching the plants in early summer will help retain soil moisture and give you the best chance of growing large, crisp bulbs for the kitchen. Allow the soil to warm up before mulching and remember to continue to remove slugs and snails.
It is really important to keep watering your Florence Fennel if you would like to harvest large, crisp bulbs. But check you are not overdoing it and allowing the bulbs to sit in wet soil as they can develop root-rot if too wet for an extended period. Lengthening daylight hours or a sudden temperature reversal can encourage Florence Fennel to bolt, so autumn crops are sometimes easier to grow than spring crops.
As your bulbs grow, you can blanch the lower stems when the bulb is about egg-sized, by hilling up the soil around the bulb. The bulbs will be ready for harvest about three weeks after this. Remember to clip off any seed stalks that start to grow
Leaves:It takes about 55 days from sowing for fennel to reach maturity. Fennel Sweet Leaf doesn’t form a bulb, but offers feathery foliage with a sweet anise flavour. The leaves can be used fresh as a tasty addition to salads, coleslaw, dressings and fish dishes. The leaves can be dried for use throughout the year – bunch the leaves and hang them in a dry, well-ventilated area where the air circulates well. Check the leaves regularly for dryness and once they are completely dry and brittle, the dried leaves can be crumbled and stored in a cool, dark place.
Bulbs:For the sweetest Florence Fennel bulbs, harvest them when they are about the size of a tennis ball. If you let them keep growing they may bolt and become bitter.
Cut the bulb free at the soil line and trim the leaf stems off above the bulb.
Florence Fennel will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week but like most gardeners, you will probably harvest it and eat it on the same day, when it is deliciously fresh and crispy. That’s one of the best things about having a garden, after all!
Seeds:Fast to flower, all types of fennel produce hard, plump seeds that can be used both as a spice or used to make fennel tea, which is often used as a digestive aid and tonic. To harvest your fennel seeds, consider using paper or cloth bags over the flower heads before the seeds shed, as fennel self-seeds easily. Once the flower heads have turned brown and shed the seeds, spread the seeds out on a flat surface to dry – this usually takes about two weeks. During the drying process the seeds will change from grey-green to a brown-green colour. Store the dry seeds in a cool dry place.
Microgreens:If you do allow your fennel to self-seed and you find yourself with a generous supply of fennel seedlings, they can be harvested as very tasty (and pretty) microgreens to add a zesty flavour to your dishes….try fennel as a microgreen!
Pollen:When writing this blog post, I learnt something new (as usual). Fennel pollen is currently taking the culinary world by storm. Peggy Knickerbocker of Saveur said: “If angels sprinkled spice from their wings, this would be it”. Well, that piqued my interest, needless to say! Other comments were “a rare luxury” and “saffron’s stiffest competition”. It sells for astonishing amounts in specialist stores, but you could grow your own.
Fennel pollen can be folded into fresh pasta, sprinkled over steamed or grilled vegetables and added to fish or chicken dishes to add dimension and flavour. If, like me, you are intrigued and would like to try harvesting some fennel pollen from your plants this year, here is how you do it:
Fennel pollen is contained in the yellow flowers that form on the plant. You can harvest the fresh pollen by putting the whole yellow flower heads in a bag and shaking them vigorously. The fresh pollen you harvest will be 100 x more potent than dry pollen and will really pack a flavour punch.
Otherwise, if you want to harvest and store the dry pollen, the easiest way to do it is to cut the flower heads, hang them upside down inside a paper bag and leave them there a few days. Give the bag a tap each time you pass over the next few days and the dry pollen will fall and gather in the bag. You may get a few seeds as well. If you see fennel pollen for sale (at exorbitant prices!), it will be the dry pollen. I am definitely going to give this a try, even if just in teeny weeny quantities!
Using your Fennel
Fennel has a multitude of uses in the kitchen. You can use the leaves as a tasty herb – add it to salads, herb butters or dips for flavour. Fennel bulbs are a wonderful treat – as well as the classic fennel and orange salad, fennel bulbs can be sliced into salads but are also good grilled, sautéed or steamed and can be roasted with olive oil for wonderful caramelised anise flavours. Fennel seeds can be used as a spice, but are also useful for making fennel tea and can be chewed as a digestive aid after eating. You will often see a small bowl of fennel seeds at Indian restaurants for this purpose. Here is a delicious-sounding recipe for Baked Fennel Dip for you to try out this season:
Baked Fennel Dip
3 bulbs fennel, quartered and roasted
2 cloves garlic
3 Tablespoons honey
1/4 cup of cream
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
3 Tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of salt and pepper
Butter or oil, for baking dish
Crackers or crusty bread
- Trim the stems and roots off the fennel bulbs, wash well and quarter.
- Heat oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. Once hot, add the fennel quarters and sear on each side for 3 minutes per side.
- Transfer into an oven dish and add the whole, peeled garlic cloves. Sprinkle on some salt and cover the dish with foil.
- Bake the fennel and garlic at 200 °C for 20-25 minutes, until the fennel is very tender.
- Transfer the fennel and garlic to a food processor and pulse until smooth. Add all remaining ingredients (reserving 2 tablespoons of the parmesan cheese for topping) and continue to pulse until everything is combined.
- Oil or butter a 3 Cup baking dish. Spread the dip into the dish and sprinkle on the remaining parmesan cheese and salt and pepper.
- Return to the oven and bake again for 20 minutes at 200 °C.
- Serve dip with thick crackers or crusty bread.