Dill (Anethum graveolens), a member of the carrot family, has been a favorite culinary herb for centuries. It is valued both for its flavorful foliage and for its pungent seeds. The name "dill" comes from an old Norse word, "dilla," which means "to lull," this plant having been frequently prescribed as a tea to treat insomnia and digestive problems. In the Middle ages it was regarded as a charm against witchcraft. In modern times its essential oil is used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and liqueurs. Dill is a delightful herb with many culinary uses. Native to southern Europe, it is a staple in Greek cooking. It is common in Scandinavian and German food as well. Fresh or dried, dill leaves add a distinctive flavor to salads, fish, vegetable casseroles and soups. Used whole or ground, dill seeds add zest to breads, cheeses, and salad dressings. The seeds are the best way to use dill in dishes that require cooking over a long time. Of course, dill is best known as a pickling herb for cucumbers, and also green beans, carrots, and beets. Annuals, dill plants die each year, but their seeds can winter over in the soil to pop up the following year. Dill grows well in gardens throughout the US and southern Canada (zones 3-10).
Dill as an Ornamental
Dill adds an ornamental element wherever it grows. Combine it with flowers in a bed or border. Its fern like foliage provides a soft background for smaller sun-loving petunias, daisies, marigolds and others. Plant it with other herbs near the kitchen or in containers such as windowboxes or planters so its fine texture contrasts with the coarser foliage of basil, mints and others. Its yellow umbrella-like flowers make great cut flowers. In the garden they attract beneficial insects, including bees, parasitic wasps, and tachinid flies. In orchards, it attracts insects that control codling moths and tent caterpillars. Wherever dill blooms it contributes to the welfare of neighboring plants.
Common garden dill grows 3 to 5 feet tall, but dwarf versions grow from 24 to 36 inches tall. Its distinguishing feature is its narrow foliage. Its nickname "dillweed" refers to its multiple feathery, bluish-green fronds, which branch readily from the single round, hollow main stalk that emerges from its taproot. When they mature, dill plants develop tiny yellow flowers that bloom in flat, lacy clusters resembling airy umbrellas. They eventually develop dark brown seeds that are narrow, ribbed, and flattened. About one-sixth of an inch long, their pungent flavor is similar to caraway seeds, which are cousins.
Properly sited and planted, dill is so fast-growing that some of its foliage is mature enough to be harvested in only eight weeks. Plan to sow several crops in succession, three weeks apart, to assure a supply over the entire growing season. Dill does best in full sun (with a bit of afternoon shade in the South). While fairly tolerant of poor soil conditions, it prefers a sandy or loamy soil that drains well. It is a light feeder, so extra fertilizer is not necessary in a reasonably fertile soil. To sow seeds directly into the garden in rows, trace shallow ¼ to ½ inch deep indentations in the soil with a stick or pencil to guide planting. Then dribble the tiny seeds through your thumb and forefinger into the indented rows. Mixing them first with some dry sand distributes them more evenly. Firm soil over the rows of seeds and water softly. Expect to see sprouts in 10 to 14 days. For a more naturalistic planting, scatter the seeds over a patch of ground; cover with 1/2 inch of soil, and water. Choose an overcast day or wait until late afternoon to plant homegrown or commercially raised young seedlings so they will not have to cope with hot sun as they overcome transplant shock. Dig holes in the prepared soil in the planting area about the size of the containers the seedlings are growing in. Space the plants 8 to 10 inches apart if harvesting leaves, or 10 to 12 inches apart if harvesting seed. Gently pop each seedling from its container by tapping it on the bottom of the pot. Take great pains to avoid disturbing the taproot that has formed. Set a plant in each hole and firm the soil over the rootball and around its stem to support it. Water immediately. Shield new transplants from bright sun the first day or two while they cope with the shock of transplanting. Depending on the variety, these fast-growing dill plants will grow to maturity and set seed in about 60 days.
Growing Dill in Containers
Dill, especially dwarf type, grows very well in containers alone or with other plants. It is a good companion for other sun-lovers like flowering annuals, other herbs, or vegetables such as patio tomatoes. Use a container that is at least 10 inches deep to accommodate its taproot. Be sure the container has drainage holes. Fill it with moistened soilless potting mix to within 2 inches of its top. Either add some granular, slow-release fertilizer to the mix before planting or plan to feed container plants once a month with a dilute general-purpose liquid fertilizer when you water. Plant the dill seedlings in the container and water them well. Keep them out of bright sun the first day or so while they adjust to their new situation. Water often to prevent the container plants from drying out during hot summer days. Because dill matures relatively quickly, spent plants will have to be replaced with new ones during the season.
Caring for Dill
When growing from seed, reduce crowding by pulling up weak, spindly sprouts to allow 2 to 6 inches of space between them. Dill prefers fairly moist soil throughout the growing season. Once plants have established good root systems, water only when rainfall is sparse if your soil is decent and mulched. In thin, poor and unmulched soil, dill needs watering a couple of times a week when it does not rain. If possible, avoid overhead watering in favor of a drip or porous hose system. Spread a 2 to 4 inch layer of mulch on the soil around the plants when they are about 6 inches tall to discourage competing weeds. Mulch also helps keep soil moist and contributes organic matter to the soil as it gradually breaks down over the season. As the mulch decomposes in the summer heat, add more to maintain optimal mulch depth.
Harvesting and Storing Dill
Dill leaves taste better picked just before flowers form on the plant. Start picking the fresh leaves just as soon as they are large enough to use. Pick early in the morning or in the late evening, clipping them close to the stem. If you prefer to harvest dill seed, allow the flowers to form, bloom, then go to seed. Cut the seedheads when the majority of seeds have formed--about 2 to 3 weeks after the blossoming starts--even though some tiny florets may still be blooming. Hang the seedheads upside down by their stems in a paper bag. The seeds will fall into the bag when they mature and dry out. Freshly picked dill leaves have the best flavor. However, they keep for several days in the refrigerator, their stems in a jar of water and covered with a plastic bag. They store for several months if you layer them with pickling salt in a covered jar in the refrigerator. When you are ready to use the leaves, simply wash them and use them as fresh. There are several ways to store dill longer term. Dry it by hanging bunches of stems upside down in a dark, dry, airy place until they are crumbly. Store them in a tightly sealed jar away from light and use within 4 to 6 months. Or use a food dehydrator according to instruction in its package. Freeze dill by cutting the leaves--long stems and all--into sections short enough to fit into plastic bags. Do not chop the leaves into bits because fragrance and flavor will be lost. They will keep in the freezer for 6 months.
Dill is typically a disappearing target for pests. Its rapid growth and quick harvest allow little time for aphids and others to establish a presence on plants. Occasionally parsleyworms or tomato hornworms attack its foliage. Handpick parsleyworm and transfer it to another favorite, Queen Anne's lace, so it can survive to become a butterfly. Hand pick hornworms and drop them into a plastic bag to discard in the trash.
- 'Fernleaf' Dill is a 1992 All-America Selection winner. This unique dwarf dill reaches only 18 inches tall, so it needs no staking. It is also slow to go to seed, which gives you more time to harvest leaves. 'Fernleaf' dill is an excellent plant for container growing and looks great in flower arrangements.
- 'Dukat' also known as 'Tetra' is grown for its abundant foliage, which is perfect for salads. The seeds are great for seasoning various condiments. Sow seed in clumps. This variety is considered a tender annual, so start seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last spring frost and transplant young seedlings outdoors after all frost danger is well past.
- 'Superdukat' introduced in 1997, has a tall, more uniformly straight stems for easy harvesting. It is reported to have more essential oil than 'Dukat'.
- 'Bouquet' is an early bloomer that sports large seedheads and dark blue-green foliage. Ideal for pickling.
- 'Long Island' or 'Mammoth' dill is so reliable that it is commonly grown by commercial growers.
We credit Liz Ball as the author of this article