The various utensils, paper bags and home-made envelopes that have been accumulating all summer were grouped together recently for examination. I find it hard to resist when seed is there for the taking and it is something that I want or could do with more of. If I am lucky and have had a pen handy, the makeshift envelopes are scrawled with notes to make identification easy. The unmarked vessels might need a rattle and a closer look to remind me, but the excitement of a haul usually burns the find into the memory, as long as I act before winter blurs the clarity of this past growing season.
Fortuitously, autumn is the best time to sow the hardy plants and I would rather have them in the cold frame, labelled up and ready to go than degrading and waiting until the spring. In the wild, seed will start its cycle within the same growing season, so emulating the natural rhythm makes perfect sense. Most seed will now sit through the winter to have dormancy triggered by the stratification of frost, but some will seize the damp and comparative mild of autumn to germinate before winter and begin their grip on life.
The giant fennel are a good example. In the Mediterranean and Middle East where they are dependent upon the winter rainfall for growth, summer-strewn seed is now germinating with the first rains. My own sowings from August have already produced their second true leaf and are now potted on in long toms so that they can continue to establish their strong tap roots in the mild periods ahead of us. The winter green of Ferula communis (main image) is remarkable for this late season regeneration, gathering strength when it isn’t too cold and pushing against the general retreat elsewhere.
I first saw giant fennel in my early twenties when I was a student at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. Michael Avishai, the Director, had driven me to the Golan Heights to see them in the minefields where they grew freely and undisturbed. We stood at the roadside, taking heed of the sign saying ‘DANGER MINES! Go no further.’ Mile upon mile of cordoned-off ground, back-dropped by the mountains of Syria, was populated by a legion of uprights which bolted skyward in a scoring of perfect verticals. You understood why the Romans had used them as ferules, their stems making a lightweight measuring rod. Amongst their feathery mounds of basal foliage, a flood of acid-green euphorbia and scarlet anemone scattered the rocky ground between them.
You need open ground and the room to be able to let giant fennel have its reign in the garden. Whilst the plants are gathering strength, the early foliage needs the air and light they are accustomed to. Once they have bolted all their energy into the lofty flower stem, the foliage withers to leave a space, so you need to plan for a companion such as Ballota pseudodictamnus that can take a little early shade, but will cover for the gap in high summer.
I first flowered Ferula tingitana ‘Cedric Morris’ in my garden in Peckham and brought seed from there to here. It is the first of several giant fennels to have flowered here and did so in its third year after planting out. This lustrous form of the Tangier fennel is spectacular for its early growth, which is as shiny as patent leather, but finely-cut like lace. The flowering stem, which is shorter than F. communis, which can grow to 3 metres, holds an inflorescence that is just as flamboyant, despite reaching just half that height. My plants originally came from Beth Chatto where it appears in her gravel garden and this is how they like to live, with guaranteed good drainage in winter. I mean to ask if she was given the plant by the great man himself, for I am amassing quite a number of his selections and enjoy the connection of these horticultural hand-me-downs.
Coincidentally, I was given a brown paper bag with ‘Ferula tingitana blood’ scrawled on it by one of the gardeners from Great Dixter at a lecture that I gave for the Beth Chatto Education Trust earlier this summer. It is one of several ferula that Fergus Garret has passed on to me over the years. He too is under their spell and has given me seed of several of his wild collections from his homeland in Turkey. Once, when I asked him what the mother plant was like, he said, ‘No idea. It’s bound to be good though. Try it !’. And with giant fennels I am very happy to take him on trust.
Fergus uses them as punctuation marks in the garden where they bolt above moon daisies and rear over the hedges like giraffes. They have started to hybridise there and, when they are established enough to plant out next spring, the ‘tingitana blood’ seedlings are destined for my new planting. The secret to growing them successfully is to plant them out before the long tap roots wind around the pot for, to support the huge flowering stem, they need their purchase deep in the ground like a skyscraper needs its footings.
This summer, whilst on holiday in the Dodecanese, I collected a hatful of Ferula communis that had flowered beside the road and somehow escaped the ravages of the island goats. Though I had not seen it in flower, it was impossible to pass it by and the thought of it reappearing as a memory in the garden here will allow me to relive this find when it comes to flower. The seed left after my own sowing is now sitting in a bag waiting to go to Fergus, with a scrawled message of well wishes and the happy thought that they will soon be on their way to another good home.