Some years ago I bought a punnet of fennel seedlings from my local garden centre. I was going through my "it's exotic - give it a go" phase in the veggie patch. The fennel prospered, leaving me wondering what to do with the plump white bulbs that appeared under the feathery foliage. A European friend gave me some mouth-watering recipe ideas and kick started my love affair with this delicately aniseed flavoured vegetable.
Sometimes known as Florence Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare azoricum is believed to be native to the Mediterranean. It was cultivated by the Romans who thought it kept them in good health, prevented obesity and improved eyesight.
Fennel is a versatile vegetable - the whole plant can be eaten. The leaves can be used as a substitute for dill in cooking, or chewed raw to combat bad breath. The seed is used as a staple spice by many cultures - Chinese Five Spice is a prime example. The seeds can also be ground and used as a natural flea powder.
The bulb is crisp and sweet with a light aniseed flavour and can be used in just about any cooking; it can be sautéed, braised, roasted, grilled, added to stews, added to a light cheese sauce or (one of my favourites) sliced finely and added raw to salads.
Harvest the bulbs from the plants when they have matured - cut them off about 2.5cm above the ground. The rootstock will regrow feathery shoots which can be used for seasoning. If you leave some of the regrowth alone, it will go on to produce yellow flower heads which eventually go to seed. Dry out the seed heads and harvest seed (gently tap or bang the dried heads onto newspaper or into paper bags to collect the seed). Plant out the seeds in spring.
Despite its lack of popularity amongst cooks in this country, fennel is very easy to grow in NZ, coping well with dry soils and coastal conditions.
When I first grew fennel, I let the seeds dry out in the flower head and fall where they were growing. Once the seeds germinated and plants had emerged I transplanted them to a well prepared bed and planted in rows. I had limited success with this method - only around 50% of the plants grew. I am told it is because they don't like their delicate roots to be disturbed. For that reason I recommend you collect the seeds and put them into a well drained soil - mix compost with your soil and prepare rows leaving approximately 30cm between rows. Put the seeds in at 15cm spacing and sprinkle a little compost over the top and water.
The seedlings will sprout like little weeds and take 80 - 140 days until harvest. Whilst fennel can cope with dry conditions, the best bulbs will develop if you keep them watered over the dry summer months - but not waterlogged.
Slugs and snails really enjoy this plant; take care to protect them from the seedling stage right through to harvesting.
If you grow more than you and your friends & family can eat, try selling them at your local farmers or growers market. Make sure you have a few recipe ideas printed out for people to try. It is almost a dead certainty that they will be back the following week, for more fennel and more recipe ideas after they have tasted this delicious vegetable. You'll also find it's good currency if you barter with your friends and neighbours - I've managed to swap fennel for some amazing fruit and veggie deals. I once got a bucket of avocados for a single fennel bulb!