Summer days bring Texans outdoors to enjoy warm weather activities. A big part of this pleasure is the picnic table laden with potato salad, home style pickles, and meats smoking on the grill. Flavoring these foods and the butters and sauces that accompany them you’ll find the seeds and leaves of dill.
Common Varieties of Dill
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a tall annual herb that can grow as far north as Zone 2. It forms thick, hollow stalks that rise rapidly to four feet or more. The medium green leaves are composed of thin, lacy strands. It grows best in full sun with regular watering. In summer dill produces umbrella-shaped clusters of tiny white flowers that ripen into light brown dill seeds.
If you want something not as tall, try growing ‘Bouquet’ dill, a dwarf version of heirloom dill. It grows only to about two and a half feet tall, blooms early, and produces large seed heads. It’s grown more for seed than leaf production. This is the variety to plant for gardeners who make their own dill pickles.
Gardeners growing herbs in containers will enjoy ‘Fernleaf’ dill. It is a compact variety that only grows to about 18 inches high. Its size plus its ornamental dark green fern-like leaves make this a good choice for container gardens. ‘Fernleaf’ dill is slow to bolt and set seed which will provide you a longer season when fresh leaves can be picked for the kitchen
‘Dukat’ is a more tender dill than other varieties mentioned here. It grows to about two feet tall with blue-green foliage. This variety of dill is reported to have a higher essential oil content (the substance that gives herbs their flavor) but a more mellow taste than other dills. This is the variety to be included in salads.
Care and Feeding of Dill
You can start the seeds of dill in pots indoors before setting them out in your garden. However it’s much simpler to sow them in place in mid-spring. They will germinate easily and you won’t have the task of transplanting. Dill can be sown outdoors early in the growing year – as soon as overnight lows remain above freezing. Gardeners in hot climates (where dill will quickly go to seed) may find it helpful to sow a little dill every three to four weeks to ensure a steady supply of the fresh leaves throughout the year.
To encourage healthy growth, water dill during dry periods. Dill doesn’t like competition, so it also needs regular weeding to keep the plant healthy. In the border garden, plant dill in the rear so the tall stalks won’t hide other plants. Grow it near a bay tree or other dark-leafed shrub where the finely cut leaves will provide an interesting contrast.
Dill reseeds with the slightest wind. Wherever you sow it, be prepared to have dill growing there in following years. To forestall reseeding clip off the flower heads when they appear.
Disease is rarely a problem with dill. The biggest danger is from aphids, which attack the seed heads. Application of insecticidal soap should keep this pest under control.
Dill is a valuable member of any pollinator-friendly garden. The flowers attract beneficial insects that prey on harmful sucking insects. Dill is also a host plant for the caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly. Although they nibble on the dill leaves it’s a small price to pay for the beauty of the adult swallowtail.
Harvesting and Enjoying Dill
Dill leaves are is best harvested just before use because they will wilt and lose flavor more quickly than other herbs. Clip no more than twenty 20 percent of available leaves at one time. To use dill fresh, harvest the leaves and refrigerate them with their stems in water. The leaves can also be dried by laying them on a flat surface for 7-10 days. Once they become brittle, store the leaves in an airtight container. Avoid using heat (oven or microwave) to speed up the drying process as the leaves will lose too much flavor.
The seeds of dill should be harvested as soon as they turn brown. Clip the seed heads and place them upside down in a brown paper bag. Allow the seeds to ripen for about a week before removing them from the seed head and storing in an airtight jar.
In the kitchen dill plays a range of roles. Fresh leaves can be used to flavor baked fish. It is especially good with salmon. The finely chopped leaves are used in tartar sauce and other dressings. This summer try making tzatziki, a sauce made with Greek yogurt, cucumber, and fresh dill leaves. Chilled grain dishes made from bulgur, quinoa, or farro benefit from the fresh taste of dill. And don’t forget the indispensable flavor of dill in pickles.
Humble though they may be, dill and fennel are good in the garden and even greater in the foods we love as part of summer fun.