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Florence Fennel

Foeniculum vulgare var. Azoricum

Fennel being kept company by some Little Gem lettuce – late May

Human history is rich with references to the perennial herb fennel. It’s a member of the carrot family and has given its name to places all over the world. In Greek, ‘marathon’ means fennel, and the capital city of Madeira Funchal is so named because the early settlers found so much wild fennel growing – in Portuguese, the word for fennel is ‘funcho’.

Fennel is indigenous to the Mediterranean, probably where it was selectively bred to create what we know as Florence fennel. This is a smaller plant than wild fennel.

The bulb is well swollen and provides a large extra source of food from a plant that, in its wild state, grows leaves and seeds. Bulb fennel is hugely popular in India, where it accounts for half of the world’s production.

Fennel leaves catch moisture and light up the autumn garden – mid-October at Homeacres
Zefa Fino, a Florence fennel, in October – these were sown under cover in late June and transplanted in July
Micro leaves of Colossale fennel in September, on a bed of shallow compost – these have been in the greenhouse for twenty days and are now ready to eat

This lesson is about bulb fennel – a hardy annual, not the perennial herb plant. I shall just share one tip on herb fennel, such as Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’ – once established it can be difficult to remove, and the tall plants set seed prolifically, almost to become a weed.

Harvest period

  • Days from seed to first harvest: 85–120

  • Best climate is temperate to warm, moist, or dry with irrigation.

Why grow them

Florence fennel grows fast, and in the spring it’s one of the first harvests that is not a leaf. The flavour is anise, fresh and quite strong. It works well both cooked and raw.

  • We love it roasted – it softens to a juicy tenderness and has lovely mild flavours.
  • Chopped fine in salads it brings a delicious, fresh flavour and a crunchy texture.

Fennel leaves are quite beautiful, especially in the mornings – they shimmer with gorgeous reflections. Growing a small block of fennel in any garden is good both for food and beauty.

Late October – all of these vegetables are second plantings; the fennel was transplanted ten weeks earlier
Frosty fennel after being in -1.3 °C/30 ° F conditions for five hours – the bulbs were ok, although it was borderline
Now in later November – mid-afternoon sunlight on four-month-old fennel just before harvesting, as there was an impending -3 °C/27 ° F frost

Swelling bulbs and good companions!  

Gardeners have been discouraged from growing fennel in two ways. One is a misunderstanding about its life cycle, the other is a false rumour.

  1. From spring sowings, fennel has a propensity to bolt or flower prematurely, before swelling into a nice bulb. The harvest is no bulb and many leaves.
  2. A perceived problem is fennel’s reputation for not being a good companion to other plants.

From my extensive experience, I have found this to be simply untrue.

  • Yet I see it written time and time again, which sadly puts people off growing it.

Pattern of growth

The bulbs of fennel swell fast, after a slow start. In most climates, there are two seasons of growth, divided by the flowering season in the summer.

  • You can enjoy harvests at the very beginning of summer.
  • Then the second period of harvest is through autumn and up to early winter.

Fennel’s speed of growth and small size make it a fine interplant and catch crop – see the examples below. Plants are susceptible to frost damage but are not killed by slight frost. It’s often hard to know, during the evening before a frost in late autumn, whether fennel will survive the night. Covering with fleece is a useful precaution.

Suitable for containers/shade?

Both of these are possible. However, growing in shade may draw the plant up a little, searching for light, which elongates the bulb. It’s still good to eat.

In a reasonably large container, say 30 cm/12 in wide, you could transplant four fennel. Keep them well watered, particularly as the bulbs swell.


I have grown many different varieties and do not notice a huge difference between them. Zefa Fino is sometimes a little fatter than the others, Selma a little earlier. My go-to choice for both early and late harvests is Perfektion, which you can see in many of the photos.

Zefa Fino fennel on 7th September, from a sowing in late June
Vegetable harvests in mid-November include Perfektion fennel, celeriac, celery, leeks, kale, and carrot with root fly damage
Selma Fino fennel on 29th October – these are three months on from sowing; we transplanted them beside a trial sowing of autumn peas

sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems


This depends on your picking method, and whether you twist out the main roots – if so, clearing is done. After removing any residual main stems, following a summer harvest, simply rake the surface level before replanting.

Or, after an autumn harvest, spread compost mulch on the bed and either plant garlic or broad beans, or leave empty until spring.

Follow with, in summer

Summer harvests give you much time ahead for new plantings. They include dwarf French beans, beetroot, late cabbage and kale, leeks and many salad plants.