In this country we have been a bit slow to catch on to the European favourite of finocchio or Florence fennel and it is only very recently that it has sometimes become available at the fruit and veg counter. But we rate it very highly as a crop to grow at home and regard it somewhat like celery to eat (which is not at all easy to grow well). It can be finely sliced or grated and eaten raw in salads, it is delicious roasted whole like a parsnip or used in stirfries. It is genuinely versatile and has a good crisp texture raw or lightly cooked without the strong aniseed aroma of the seeding fennel (which is foeniculum vulgare). Florence fennel is foeniculum vulgare azoricum and it produces a fleshy, bulbous base to the stems. This is the section that is eaten.
It is not difficult to grow and it holds well in the garden. As with most vegetables, it needs to be sown into well cultivated soil in full sun. As it germinates, thin out the baby plants to about 20cm spacings. The thinnings can be eaten as fresh greens. Seed sown now will be ready to harvest in summer. We usually sow again between the end of January to early March for winter harvest. It is pretty forgiving as a crop so timing is not critical but seeds sown from late October onwards will tend to bolt too quickly in summer, before they have formed the edible bulb. However, if those plants are cut back and left, they will come again and be edible the following winter. The fluffy green tops look similar to ordinary fennel but lack its flavour so are really only good for a garnish. If you can’t find seed at your garden centre, try Kings Seeds or Italian Seeds Pronto who both have websites for on line ordering.
(first published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission)