• Maureen Little

Remembering Funchal

It’s amazing the sort of snippets of information you pick up along the long and winding road of horticultural life. No, I’m not going all philosophical on you, and I’m also not going to give you a list of things that, once I’ve told you, you’ll wish I hadn’t! The only piece of, arguably useless, information I would like to share with you now is to do with fennel.

When I visited Madeira for the first time a few years ago, I went on the obligatory ‘round the island’ trip, starting and finishing in Funchal, the island capital. The first thing I learned about that fascinating island is that Funchal was so named because of the abundance of wild fennel growing in the vicinity. Apparently, the Portuguese for fennel is funcho; take the o away and add –al and we have ‘a plantation of fennel’.

Now you may wonder what this has to do with growing fennel here in the UK. The point I want to make is that, as with just about every other type of plant, if you can replicate the conditions, in both soil and climate that it has in its ‘wild’ surroundings, then the chances are that your attempts at growing it will be successful. So, if you can provide your fennel with Madeira-type conditions during our domestic growing season then your crop will not only survive, it will, hopefully, thrive.

In a nutshell, fennel needs evenly moist, but not waterlogged, rich, fertile soil and warmth – just like in Madeira. This applies to both types of fennel that we are familiar with in the UK: the herb fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, and the vegetable that is known as Florence fennel, Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce. It’s the latter that I’m focussing on here.

Florence fennel is grown for its swollen, bulb-like, leaf bases. This variation came about by selecting and re-selecting species fennel so that eventually a bigger, tastier ‘bulb’ developed. Florence fennel has been grown and eaten in Mediterranean countries, and especially Italy (hence the ‘Florence’ bit) for centuries. In England we have known about this type of fennel for about two hundred years, and during that time it has never really caught on. Perhaps this is because of its strong aniseed flavour which many loathe, but others love.

Fennel can be a bit of a diva in the veg plot. If things aren’t exactly to its liking it will throw a tantrum, turn its nose up and swiftly run to seed. Apart from summer warmth, which, alas, we gardeners have little control over, it is as well to try to provide it with the other conditions it enjoys most; that way it will be happy. As I said earlier, fennel needs soil which is fertile, moisture retentive but not too soggy. It also requires uniform moisture, so you should never allow the soil to dry out: if lack of rain threatens, make sure your fennel is at the top of your watering list.

Fennel won’t tolerate root disturbance either. See what I mean about being a prima ballerina? The best way to ensure as little root disturbance as possible when growing your fennel plants is to sow the seed in individual modules and to plant them out as soon as the roots fill the container, hardening them off before you do so. Timing is of the utmost importance here. There is no point sowing the seeds too early, because you won’t be able to plant them out until all danger of frost has gone and the soil has had a chance to warm up a bit.

Fennel is also quite sensitive to day length, as reflected in light levels. I speak from experience: more than one early sowing has bolted and flowered prematurely because I’ve ‘jumped the gun’, as it were. If your fennel does bolt and starts flowering, there is no point in trying to salvage it: the stems will always be tough. If you are feeling in a generous mood at the time, though, you can leave a couple of flowering plants for beneficial insects: fennel flowers provide excellent sustenance for a number of pollinators.

Alternatively, you can sow your fennel seeds outdoors, from May onwards, depending on the weather. I have found the best way to do this is to ‘station’ sow, sowing three seeds together, about 1.5mm deep, at 30cm intervals and then thinning each ‘station’ to leave the strongest seedling. You should make sure that you space your rows about 30cm apart.

Keep the growing plants well watered and fed – a high potassium fertiliser applied every fortnight or so is beneficial, as is a good mulch to conserve moisture. As the bulbs start to swell, earth them up carefully to exclude the light, taking care not to displace them. This way you will ensure that the bulb blanches to a creamy white. This practice will also keep the plant stable if the wind gets up. The bulbs are ready to harvest when they are about 7-10cm across. Cut them off with a sharp knife at ground level and you will find that the plant will re-sprout and throw up some feathery shoots that you can use as you would the herb fennel.

Fennel is relatively disease-resistant and largely pest-free. The only trouble you may have is from our perennial nuisance, the slug. If nothing else is on offer they may have a bit of a munch on the young shoots; so be vigilant and deal with the slimy little monsters as you deem necessary.

As far as varieties of Florence fennel go, there are a number that are worth trying. The first two I suggest here have received the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit (AGM), so you can be certain that they are up to scratch. The last two are also worth a try. ‘Amigo’ produces uniform, slightly flattened, bulbs and is resistant to bolting. (Be aware, however, that just because it is resistant to bolting, it doesn’t mean it won’t bolt at all: you still have to give it as near optimal conditions as you can.) ‘Heracles’ is a fast-maturing variety with good sized bulbs. ‘Perfection’ is resistant to bolting and can be sown early. ‘Victorio’ has uniform bulbs with a tinge of green.

If you’re wondering what to do with your Florence fennel after you’ve taken the trouble to go them here are a few suggestions.

You can simply slice some very thin shavings and add them, raw, to a mixed salad.

If you want to cook with them, however, try cutting the bulb into quarters and roasting them. Fennel works well with fish dishes too – there’s a recipe below for Baked Mackerel with Fennel. In Italy, fennel is often paired with pork, so there’s also a recipe for Fennel and Sausage Meatballs. Or you could just make up your own dish!

Baked Mackerel with Fennel

You can use just about any fish in this dish, but I find the aniseed flavor of the fennel complements the oiliness of the mackerel in really well. You can bake the fish in the oven or grill it on the barbecue – if we get any barbecue-worthy weather that is!


8 whole mackerel fillets

A little oil

1 bulb of fennel

2 cloves garlic

4 spring onions

Grated zest of 1 lemon

4 fennel fronds (optional)


Preheat oven to 200°C, gas mark 6

Take four sheets of foil, each large enough to accommodate a fish fillet, and sparingly brush with some oil. Slice the fennel bulbs and spring onions very thinly and divide them into 4 portions.

Place a fish fillet, skin side down, on each of the sheets.

Crush the garlic into a paste and spread evenly on each fillet. Sprinkle the sliced fennel, spring onions and lemon zest over the garlic and finish off with a frond of fennel, if you have any. Lay another fillet on top of your ‘mountain’, skin side up, to form a mackerel sandwich and lightly brush with oil.

Fold the foil to make a perfect parcel.

Bake in the oven or on the barbecue for about 20 minutes or until the fish is cooked.

Fennel and Sausage Meatballs

This is makes a tasty alternative to using beef for your meatballs. Serve them with spaghetti or tagliatelle and a generous helping of satisfying, home-made, tomato sauce.


500 g good quality pork sausage meat (or use skinned sausages)

1 small fennel bulb, finely chopped

Pinch of crushed fennel seeds

Oil for frying


Put the sausage meat in a medium sized bowl and mix in the chopped fennel and crushed seeds and shape the mixture into small balls between the palms of your hands – you should aim for about 24 balls. Heat the oil in a frying pan and cook the meatballs, turning them occasionally, until they are golden brown and cooked all the way through.

Serve with pasta and tomato sauce.