Hartley Magazine

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I’ve started liking fennel. Really liking fennel. It’s not that I ever actively disliked it, but I was fairly indifferent. I certainly never craved it, never pounced upon each occasional bulb that lucked up in the vegetable box, never searched it out, and never grew it myself. But once you’ve slow baked baby fennel in butter and a little oil until it turns soft and gooey in the middle and crispy on the edges, something clicks. There’s no going back. There is a savoury sweetness and that odd aniseed taste and it’s completely addictive. Enlivening but comforting all at once. Im hooked and the odd rare event in the veg box wont do any more. I need a guaranteed supply.

This is not the easiest time to sow fennel, but Im hoping that with a bit of help and protection from the greenhouse and the right choice of variety I may pull it off, the benefit being that I will start getting my beautiful white bulbs forming early, and roast them in butter all through mid and late summer. Generally fennel behaves a little like basil or pak choi, in that you need to wait until the day and night time temperatures even out a little, towards midsummer, or at the very least well into May. Given strongly variable night and day temperatures it will ‘bolt’ or quickly run to flower and seed before it has had a chance to build up that gorgeous anise-flavoured white bulb. It most certainly doesn’t want to be sown direct into cold soil, but it also doesn’t like root disturbance, so can’t be down into a seed tray and teased out later on. My first trick is going to be to try ‘Montovano’ from Real Seeds, easily confused with the Italian detective, but actually a fennel variety that has been bred for spring sowing, purposely picked for its ability to withstand these more varied days and nights. They say it has strong bolt resistance and ‘produces a nice white bulb, slightly flattened in shape’ so says the catalogue. The second trick is going to be to grow it in a plug of compost, rather than in a seed tray. This is something I do for lots of my seeds in fact, as you can just pop the whole plant out and into the ground without and troubling of roots and the potential breakage that may ensue, but it’s obviously more important when the plant is known as a bit of a diva, and likely to throw a bit of a strop if manhandled.

Obviously this being such an easily troubled thing, it is important not to shock it too much when it comes to planting out. Whip it straight out of the cosy (well, ish) greenhouse and onto my blowy hilltop allotment and all my trouble will have been for nothing. The diva will bolt. So there will be a gentle introduction to its new home: a few nights with the greenhouse door open, a few on the back step of the house, and then perhaps a week under a cloche once it’s out, just to acclimatise it. Liking a well drained soil I may be onto a hiding to nothing anyway, with my plot’s cold, claggy soil not suiting them. And so my back up plan is to try a few in pots by the sunny back door in lovely, free-draining compost and a warm spot that they wont be able to resist, or throw up a complaining stalk of flowers and seeds. Either way, I should have my supply sorted, from mid-summer on.