Originally from the eastern Mediterranean, it has been associated with Italy since Roman times, and has been grown in the UK since the 18 th century. It has not been popular here until quite recently when Italian food became fashionable. Contrary to what is stated in many books, I find that this is a relatively easy “gourmet” plant with a mild aniseed flavour. All it needs is a good fertile soil with plentiful moisture at all times. Modern seed varieties seem to crop all at the same time, so succession sowing is suggested.
Sow in succession in May and June, with the seeds placed 1 cm deep and 25 cm apart in drills 45 cm apart. Keep the young seedlings well watered as drought can cause them to bolt. Make sure that you have slug and snail protection from the start.
Harvest them by cutting them off the roots at the base plate when they are about tennis ball size. By leaving the roots in the ground, you will get a second crop of small fennel fronds which can be used for salads or flavouring for fish dishes. Similarly, in the same way you can use the youngest of the feathery leaves from full sized bulbs. If any plants do start to bolt, pick them and use as before.
Some books suggest blanching the bulbs to make them sweeter. To do this, scrape the surrounding soil till it is halfway up the bulb.
If you still have plants in the ground in late Autumn, you will need to give cloche protection as frost will decimate them.