Cooking florence fennel | Growing florence fennel | Site and Soil | Varieties | Sowing | Watering | Picking | Pests
While all kinds of fennel have a tendency to make a swollen crown at ground level as a young plant, the kinds grown for these swollen leaf bases are known as Florence fennel, or sometimes Florentine fennel. It is an Italian vegetable and not much grown in Northern Europe until relatively recent times. It is widely available in recent years in supermarkets, almost certainly imported since the ‘bulbs' are usually much bigger and more rounded than the specimens that are grown in gardens.
The bulbs are really just the swollen leaf bases gathered together to produce an energy source to over-winter and generate the tall flower stem in the second summer. It would appear that these plants were continuously selected for those that produced large, well-developed bulbs. While uncommon as a vegetable, florence fennel is easy to prepare and it is pleasant to eat, quite sweet to taste with a distinctive flavour and scent of fennel. However, it can be a bit tricky to grow well.
Cooking florence fennel
With few calories but plenty of fibre and good amounts of potassium and Vitamin C, florence fennel is considered a very healthy food, eaten cooked or raw. It is credited with stomach-calming properties, may ease menstrual pain and reduce appetite, and is thought to have anti-bacterial effects. It can be eaten in many ways: salads, roast in olive oil, stir-fried, very good raw with cheese and can be mixed with other vegetables for flavour.
Growing florence fennel
Site and soil: Fennel is an Italian vegetable and needs all the sunshine and warmth it can get in our gardens. Full sunshine and a rich, deep fertile soil that does not dry out. A raised bed, especially if well furnished with rotted compost is ideal.
Older kinds such as ‘Sweet Florence' and ‘Perfection' have be superceded by modern varieties such as ‘Sirio', ‘Amigo' and ‘Victoria'.
A big problem is a tendency to ‘bolt', to produce a flower stalk while still small. Low natural light levels, cool weather and dry soil tend to encourage this, when no usable ‘bulb' will be formed. Sowing is best done in May or June, and into July, to reduce the chances of bolting, but good soil preparation and covering with horticultural fleece, to keep temperatures up, will help. The seeds are large and two or three seeds can be sown about 15 centimetres apart and thinned to one strong seedling. It germinates quickly and easily.
Make sure to water when a dry spell is threatened.
Pick the roots when as near fist-sized as possible. Do not leave them when growth slows or they might bolt, or become tough.
Watch for greenflies in the foliage and for snail damage to the seedlings.