Fennel is an easy plant to grow and can cope with most soils. Originating around the Mediterranean area it does prefer full sun and a bit of warmth but it’s generally easy-going.
A hardy perennial herb, common fennel, Foeniculum Vulgare, is a member of the Umbelliferae family and it has a distinctive aniseed taste. The seeds and leaves are used for flavouring in cookery, while the stalks can be eaten raw in salad. The fat fennel bulb (which is actually swollen leaf bases) of Foeniculum Dulce can be cooked and served as a vegetable.
To Grow from Seed
Fennel seeds are typically slow to sprout so it’s best to sow them early in the spring. The plants do have a tendency to bolt so, to ensure a good supply of young leaves, you may want to make successive plantings at two or three-week intervals.
Sow in temperatures of 15 to 21ºC, or outdoors after all danger of frost has passed. If sowing indoors, use compostable pots as fennel doesn’t like being transplanted. If sowing out of doors dig over the soil well and rid it of weeds. Rake the soil to a fine tilth before planting the seeds about ½” deep and 12-18″ apart. Plant at the back of a bed as fennel can typically grow to a height of 3 to 4ft. It is a good idea to keep the seed bed covered at night initially until the warmer weather.
Fennel prefers a well-drained loamy soil in full sun but will usually survive even in poor soil. If you have clay soil, add a little sharp sand to it before drilling the seeds.
Fennel needs regular watering in dry periods but don’t let it get water-logged. Fertilise it once or twice during the growing period with a general purpose product.
Growing Fennel for the Bulb
Make sure you have thoroughly prepared the ground by working compost in to the soil. Sow the seeds in early summer and thin out to about 8″ apart. When the bulb is the size of a golf ball, earth it up i.e. bring soil up around the bulb to help it retain its white colour. Two to three weeks after that it will have reached the size of a tennis ball and will be ready for harvesting.
To Propagate from the Root
If your soil is light and sandy, you can propagate in autumn by dividing the roots – provided they divide easily. It’s unlikely to be possible – and you’re more likely to cause damage – if your soil is heavy or clay-rich.
Pick the young leaves and stems as you need them. The ripe seeds can be dried and stored in airtight containers for use in the kitchen. Alternatively store the seeds and sow the following year.
Fennel plants will die back over winter. If the temperature is likely to drop below -10ºC provide some protective cover.
Don’t plant near coriander or dill as this may lead to cross-fertilisation and a poor crop. Don’t plant near tomato or potato plants: they don’t like each other and hamper each other’s growth.