How to Grow Delicious Dill

growing dill

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dill is most closely identified with the pickles that hamburgers wouldn’t be the same without, but numerous other dishes are enhanced with this herb’s unique, savory essence
  • There are several dill types, including dwarf varieties, but dill grows 3, 4 and even 5 feet tall, requires full sun and is best sown directly in your garden from seed rather than transplanted seedlings
  • Prevent dill from flowering too early, which it does in hot weather, by watching for signs like thickening stems and sparse leaf growth, at which point you need to nip flowers in the bud
  • Carvone in dill oil has been used for centuries as a medicinal and is what gives this herbal favorite its distinctive flavor and aroma

By Dr. Mercola

Dill is an uncommonly versatile perennial herb. If you enjoy growing dill and using it in your recipes, you already know that, but many people, upon tasting the deliciously light, savory flavor in salads, sandwiches or soups, wonder what it is and want more. Of course, many identify dill (Anethum graveolens) with the hamburger pickles of the same name. That's how famous dill is; a pickle is even named after the herb that made it famous!

When you sprinkle on a little fresh dill, "plain old" takes on a whole new level of panache. Cottage cheese and eggs, for example, adopt a warm, distinctive essence. And many people may be familiar with the classic cucumber tea sandwiches made by mixing dill weed with cream cheese. You can also whip up a dill sauce to top wild-caught fish, tender-crisp veggies or salad. Once you've tried it, you won't want it any other way.

While it's possible to purchase fragrant dill fronds or "starts" from farmers markets and grocery stores, the freshest dill will always come from your own garden. Even if you're not a garden enthusiast, this herb is so easy to grow, care for and harvest, the hardest part may be deciding which recipe to try it in first.

Dill Varieties

There are several dill varieties. Bouquet dill is smaller and has fewer blossoms and seeds. Hardy varieties like Delikat, which is dense, and Fernleaf, a dwarf type, do well even in areas with fewer than six hours of sun per day. Other popular cultivars include:

  • Dukat, a smaller, brighter green and more compact variety that's good for containers and flavorful in salads
  • Superdukat contains more essential oil than Dukat
  • Long Island and Mammoth can reach 5 feet in height and are excellent for pickling
  • Vierling takes longer to bolt than other types, which means you can harvest the herb longer
  • Hercules takes a long time to flower, but its leaves are coarser than others, so it's best to harvest early when the plants are young and leaves are still tender

Dill in Your Garden Starts With Seeds

One of the most popular herbs, dill lends a unique flavor to many dishes, but what you may not hear very often is how beautiful dill is growing in your garden, both when it's fresh, feathery and bountiful, like the tops of a carrot (which is a relative) and when it produces the spiny flowers that look like yellow Queen Anne's Lace.

From the outset you should know that dill doesn't necessarily like to be moved, especially when it's small. Further, seedlings emerge in about 10 days, germination takes from 21 to 25 days and harvest can usually take place within 57 to 70 days. Soil quality doesn't (necessarily) hamper how well it grows, but compost will certainly give it a boost. Gardening Know How has additional advice about how to start dill:

"The best way to grow dill is directly from seeds rather than from a transplant. Planting dill seed is easy. Dill planting is simply done by scattering the seeds in the desired location after the last frost, then lightly cover the seeds with soil. Water the area thoroughly."1

Finding a spot in the back of your garden is also a good idea as its height can conceal things you've planted around it. Another idea is to sow dill seeds close to a wall or fence because dill gets so tall, a brisk wind can break the slender stalks. It may not kill the plant, but it could prevent them from standing upright.

You can remedy this by using slender stakes to loosely anchor the plants once they've reached a few feet in height, because, as mentioned, they can grow 3 or 4 feet high and even taller. Until the tiny, feathery fronds begin emerging above the soil surface, you may want to keep the ground slightly moist, especially in dry weather. You don't need to thin dill sprouts, as they like having the mutual support of the other seedlings to keep them standing.

How to Grow Dill for Herbal Use

With dill, you get multiple benefits, as the green leaves are good for cooking, they're easy to dry to use later and the flowers produce seeds that are also useful in recipes and can be saved to expand your dill crop for the next season.

When dill weed gets tall enough to harvest, be aware that hot weather brings on bud formation, called bolting or the colloquial "going to seed." If you want to keep using the dill for culinary endeavors, you'll want to impede the growth of the seed-producing flowers. Once a dill plant begins flowering, the foliage backs off almost entirely.

If you know what to look for, you can prevent dill from flowering too early. The plant becomes "leggy," the stems begin thickening and the feathery leaves become more sparse. To prevent flowering, you need to literally nip them in the bud when they begin forming. This also ensures a bushier plant. Once it decides to bolt, though, it will.

One way to get the best of both worlds is to plant dill at intervals to ensure you have at least some of the dill weed in its earlier stage. Make sure you save some room in your garden plots for later seed sowing.

As for snipping dill weed to dry and have it at the ready in your kitchen, you can dry it to store in an airtight container for several months or even a few years, although in time it will lose its amazing pungency. To dry dill weed, spread the stems on a screen in a cool, dark place. Once dried, you can also use plastic bags to freeze the herbs, but be sure to press all the air out to retain the most flavor.

Let Dill Flower for Seed Production

If you want your dill to flower for the express purpose of harvesting the seeds, Garden Know How notes that the best thing to do, basically, is nothing:

"Allow the plant to grow without trimming until it goes into bloom. Once dill weed plants go into bloom, they'll stop growing leaves, so make sure that you don't harvest any leaves from that plant. The dill flower will fade and will develop the seed pods. When the seed pods have turned brown, cut the whole flower head off and place in a paper bag. Gently shake the bag. The seeds will fall out of the flower head and seed pods and you'll be able to separate the seeds from the waste."2

You can also snip off the flower-bearing stems before they've dried completely and hang them upside down in a warm, dry location. Once you've collected the seeds, store them in a tightly closed glass jar in a cool, dark place. Although they'll lose some of their pungency after a year or so, if you harvest plenty, you'll have plenty.

It may seem like a bit of trouble, but to quickly and easily separate the seeds from the chaff or dried bits of the plant, Heirloom Organics suggests the following:

"Spread a sheet out on the grass, set a portable fan at one edge of the sheet facing the center, and turn it to 'low.' Pour the collected seed in front of the fan's breeze, and it will blow away the light chaff, allowing the heavier seed to collect on the sheet below. Store dill seed as you would dried leaves."3

Another idea is to save your dill seeds by keeping them in pickle vinegar. When they turn brown, they're very flavorful and become more so the longer they're in the vinegar.

Companion Plants and Beneficial Insects

Companion planting is all about locating certain herbs, vegetables and other plants in close proximity to benefit all the plants at the same time. Asparagus, cucumbers, basil, onions, lettuce and crucifers like cabbage are good companions, while peppers, potatoes, cilantro, eggplant and lavender are not.

Pests — and aphids may be the worst, often exacerbating disease — are the thing to watch for to ensure healthy plants. Often, getting rid of aphids is the best method.

That said, there's such a thing as beneficial insects, but spraying insecticides on your garden often kills these helpful bugs. Experienced gardeners know these "good guys" can help create a symbiotic atmosphere for your entire garden. Dill can help attract some of the most common beneficial insects, such as:

  • Hover flies look like tiny bees that fly like drones and lay eggs near aphid colonies so the hover fly larvae can begin eating aphids as soon as they hatch, controlling the majority of an aphid population.
  • Parasitic wasps can't sting, but do have an ovipositor they use to pierce a wide range of unwanted pests to deposit their eggs, which, when hatched, feed on the bad insect. This cycle, repeated several times a year, is better than insecticides.
  • Ladybugs are a good insect to attract to your garden because they help get rid of pests like aphids, mites and scale, a small, oval bug that sucks the life out of plants and excretes mold- and fungus-causing sap. Ladybugs like pollen, which plants like dill produce.
  • Praying mantises are interesting, beautiful and carnivorous, eating aphids, leafhoppers, spiders, crickets and other larger pests, helping to maintain a healthy ecological balance in your garden.
  • Honeybees pollinate flowers, including dill, which is crucial to healthy plant growth. Pollen and nectar are important to the survival of honeybees; more honeybee pollination means a healthier garden.

Additionally, according to Heirloom Organics, black swallowtail butterfly larvae depend on dill as a food source.

Benefits of Dill Oil

Dill oil has been used since the time of the Roman gladiators, who purportedly used it to quell nervousness and stress. It was also rumored to be an effective love potion.

Dill oil comes from two varieties: European dill (Anethum graveolens), grown where its name implies and parts of the Middle East and the U.S., and Indian dill (Anethum Sowa). There are around 10 compounds that give dill its unique aroma, with numerous but separate phytochemicals from the seeds as opposed to the "weed."

Dill oil can come from the seeds as well as from the graceful-looking leaves and each has a different smell. Oil from the seeds may remind you of caraway seeds due to its high carvone content. Used in aromatherapy, it has a fresh, spicy, grassy aroma. The carvone in dill seeds is identified as antimicrobial. Mixed with lotions or creams, dill oil is used for wound healing. It's also known as an antispasmodic because of its ability to calm, ease tension and have a sedative effect.

Dill oil is noted as aiding digestive issues such as constipation and upset stomach, and helps keep gas from forming (carminative). There's evidence that it may have other diverse uses as reducing mouth and throat inflammation and treating urinary tract infections (UTIs).

One study suggests that mixing dill oil with chamomile tea may help alleviate attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and protect against head lice if it's rubbed on the scalp. Pregnant women are advised against using dill oil internally, although it has a reputation of increasing the flow of milk production and easing colic in babies. Gardenware says:

"To brew a stomach-soothing tea, use [2] teaspoons of mashed seeds per cup of boiling water. Steep for [10] minutes. Drink up to [3] cups a day. In a tincture, take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon up to three times a day. To treat colic or gas in children under [2], give small amounts of a weak tea. Many herbalists recommend combining dill and fennel to ease colic in infants."4

Growing Potted Dill Indoors

Planet Natural says that increased indoor gardening has resulted in products designed to make year-round herb growing more efficient and successful, and added:

"Truth is, growing sustained, harvestable amounts of herbs indoors require long periods of intense light. Abundant light is also required for plants to produce the oils that give herbs their flavor. Cool fluorescent grow lights are an improvement over your kitchen fluorescents if properly positioned and reflected. And the new generation of high-intensity discharge lamps give the expert grower the possibility of large harvests."5

Do It Yourself6 maintains that the best times to plant dill indoors is between October and early spring, with harvesting dill from your own kitchen windowsill in six to eight weeks a very real possibility using five easy steps:

  1. Fill 6- to 8-inch pots with drainage holes at the bottom to just over three-quarters full of compost-rich, easily drained soil. Plant seeds about 9 inches apart.
  2. Dill loves sunlight, so if light doesn't reach your pots for at least six hours a day, use grow lights for 12 hours a day. Fluorescent grow lights should be placed about 8 inches above the plants, while high-intensity lights like sodium lights should be several feet higher than your herbs.
  3. Dill should be fertilized every six weeks with a natural half-strength liquid or fish fertilizer. While dill is somewhat drought-resistant, it grows better inside when watered regularly. Water until the soil is moist, then let the soil dry in between.
  4. Dill tends to grow tall, so unless it's a dwarf variety, use a slender stake fastened loosely for future adjustment if the plant wants to begin listing sideways.
  5. Once flower buds form, leaf production will cease, so keep harvesting your dill, even it's just to slow flower formation. If you want the herb, not the seeds, cut the plant down to a few inches and your dill should grow back in about eight weeks.
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