For those in the Northern Hemisphere the longest day of the year falls on either the 21st or 22nd of December). The longest day of the year marks a distinct turning point in the gardener’s calendar, with summer well and truly in command and, hopefully, the first flush of harvests coming and thick and fast if not already snaffled up.
With the likes of early peas and potatoes, broad beans and carrots lifted and plucked, the first free gaps on the plot will be making an appearance round about now. Of course, no vegetable grower worth his salt needs reminding that this is the perfect signal to sow and plant once more, for crops that will be enjoyed in a few months’ time and on into autumn. For me, spring is very much a mad rush to get everything up and running before the really good growing weather arrives; starting off veg from midsummer is a more relaxed affair – a far cry from the sprinter’s pace of those earlier sowings.
Fabulous Florence fennel
Perhaps the most indulgent vegetable to start off at this time of year is Florence fennel, otherwise known as finocchio or, more commonly, bulb fennel. The handsome feathery foliage of this crop is matched only by its exquisite aniseed flavour that makes a fine pairing with fish (try baking parcels of mackerel with slices of fennel and lemon for a sublime dinner). But fennel has more strings to its bow than this – pop chunks into a stew to freshen things up, or finely slice a bulb over a garden-gathered salad using a chef’s mandolin. The leaves can be used in place of herb fennel.
Bulb fennel is perhaps a slightly misleading name, as the ‘bulb’ is in fact the swollen stem base of the plant. But this is nitpicking as all you really need to know is that this is a vegetable to luxuriate in – a gourmet kitchen gardener’s treat!
The right site
One of the reasons to sow bulb fennel at midsummer is its love of sunny conditions. Hailing from the Mediterranean, it is at home in a fertile yet free-drained soil that’s lovingly basked by the warming rays of summer. While those in Mediterranean-equivalent zones can of course sow in spring, those at more northerly latitudes must bide their time to be sure of success. By midsummer the soil will have warmed up more than adequately and success will be all but assured.
Despite its sun-kissed origins, however, bulb fennel will not tolerate dry conditions. While a moisture-starved soil isn’t necessarily bad for the plant itself, it’s not great news for us; dry soil encourages plants to run to flower prematurely at the expense of those juicy bulbs. Soil that was manured for a previous crop and that’s topped with a mulch of organic matter will stand a better chance at retaining that all-important soil moisture.
To be sure of adequate moisture it is likely you’ll need to thoroughly water the ground before re-sowing with fennel. Beware the thick canopies of the potato, which exclude all but the heaviest downpours of rain. Having lifted all of your spuds the soil that’s left has a tendency to be dust-dry. Either wait for a good rainstorm to pass before sowing your fennel, or go over the ground several times with the watering can or hose to re-wet. Bulb fennel can also be grown in containers of multipurpose compost.