Google Florence fennel and you’ll find a multitude of do’s and don’ts for growing this temperamental plant.
The tricky part of growing Florence fennel is that it’s a bit like a scatty puppy and will spook at the slightest change in conditions – unlike a puppy however, Florence fennel tends towards flight rather than fight. It’s a bolter, and will send up a flower shoot at the slightest provocation, meaning the end of the tender crop you’ve eagerly awaited and may have already sampled, as I discovered last summer.
There are different kinds of fennel. Popular varieties are herb fennel, grown for its leaves and seeds and Florence fennel, which swells at the base to produce an edible bulb. It depends if you’ve got the growing part right as to whether eating this bulb is a divinely tender, melt-in-the-mouth experience or whether you have a chewy, fibrous offering that gets discreetly spat out and fed to the chooks.
I was first introduced to Florence fennel two years ago when dining out. My venison dish was accompanied, amongst other things, by a braised bulb of fennel. The taste was divine, the aniseed flavour of this unusual vegetable combining with the balsamic vinegar in which it was drizzled in just the right proportion. The tender texture added to the experience. I decided this was a vegetable I wanted to grow and cook myself.
Apparently Florence fennel dislikes being transplanted so early last spring I planted a row of Florence fennel seeds directly in the garden. It’s a cool season crop, so I planned for it to mature before the hottest days of summer.
Our first at-home Florence fennel dining experience was a touch heavy on the balsamic vinegar – but the plant was lovely and tender. The second, I was perhaps a little miserly with the vinegar, but these things happen when you are combining strong flavours and adjusting them to suit your own individual palate.
The third time I cooked Florence fennel, the taste was about right. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realised the plant was so sensitive and that the minute a flower bud appeared the previously tender bulb would turn into a mass of fibre. Hence the discreetly spat out offering fed to the chooks, who still haven’t offered me an opinion on it.
Not to worry, I decided; I’d continue using the feathery leaves in salads and let the plants go to seed, then harvest the seed heads. In the meantime, Florence fennel is supposed to attract beneficial insects. Unfortunately, no one told the insects this.
Shaking out a couple of mature seed heads over paper resulted in more aphids than seeds. I’m still undecided as to whether the Florence fennel kept the aphids off nearby plants, or merely encouraged the little so-and-sos to invite all their pals into my garden for a meal. Since then I have ignored the plants, despite the other half’s pointed suggestions that perhaps I should chop them out as they have been falling over other plants and looking untidy.
I’ve read suggestions that now would be the ideal time to plant Florence fennel as the cooler months would be less likely to induce the plant to bolt.
Apparently Florence fennel can inhibit the growth of the plants around it. The only way in which it’s hindered the daikon, rocket and other salad veges I grew near it in summer was to get blown over in a wind and lie across them, but I thought maybe I’d pull out the old plants and replant in the same spot, away from my brassicas, just in case.
I’ve also read that the plant is very frost tender, and will not withstand any but the mildest frosts. However, when I examined my old plants, they obviously haven’t been reading the same articles as me. We’ve had some hard frosts this season, yet they’re sending forth new, tender shoots from the base – and most of these aren’t the feathery secondary growth that is quite common, but bona fide developing bulbs. To prove it, I picked four small bulbs and braised them for tea last night with a tender and tasty result.
In the meantime, I’ll still plant half a dozen seeds as an experiment.
Encouragingly, I read a post on a gardening forum from a kiwi gardener who defies the rules by planting Florence fennel year round. She starts seeds in pots then transplants them when 10cm high. “If well watered, they won’t bolt,” she writes.
She also says her bulbs sometimes grow as big as smallish soccer balls. Perhaps I should be reading that little item to my own plants to induce in them a sense of competition.