Growing Dill

Dill (Anethum graveolens), a member of the carrot family, has been a favored culinary herb for centuries. Not only its flavorful foliage, but its pungent seeds are used. Native to southern Europe, dill is a staple in Greek cooking. Though dill is best known as a pickling herb for cucumbers, the leaves can be used fresh or dried in salads, meats, vegetable dishes and soups. Used whole or ground, the seeds add zest to bread, cheese, and salad dressing.

Dill grows well in gardens throughout the entire United States. Its delicate foliage provides an ornamental element wherever it is grown, making it an ideal candidate not only for herb gardens, but for flower beds as well.

In flower beds, its fern-like leaves provides a soft background for smaller, sun-loving plants – petunias, marigolds, verbena, and others. Or, plant it with other herbs near the kitchen door so it can be harvested and used fresh during meal preparation time.

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Dill also grows well in containers. Since it has a long taproot, choose a pot that is at least ten inches deep and add a small amount of a slow-release fertilizer. For an ornamental herb garden in a container, plant it with other herbs so its fine texture contrasts with the courser, broader foliage of basil, mint and others. Or, plant it around the base of a potted patio tomato (use a pot at least twelve inches in diameter). Dill’s yellow, umbrella-like flowers resemble Queen Anne’s lace, and are a great addition to informal flower arrangements.

Dill also contributes to the welfare of neighboring plants by attracting beneficial insects, including bees, parasitic wasps and tachinid flies. Near fruit trees, it attracts insects that control codling moths and tent caterpillars.

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Common garden dill grows from three to five feet tall, but dwarf versions that will remain under three feet are also available. Its distinguishing feature is its narrow foliage, which consists of feathery, bluish-green fronds. When they mature, dill plants develop tiny yellow flowers that bloom in flat, lacy clusters. They eventually develop dark brown seeds that resemble caraway seeds, to which they are related. Though dill is an annual plant that will not last through the winter, fallen seeds often survive to pop up the following year.

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Dill is so fast-growing that even if you start it from seed, you’ll have foliage ready for harvest just eight weeks after planting. Dill is a warm-weather annual, so wait until all danger of a late frost has passed. To sow seeds directly in the garden, make shallow furrows, ¼ to ½ inch deep, with a stick or your finger. Then dribble the tiny seeds through your thumb and forefinger into the furrowed rows.

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The seeds are so very tiny that mixing them first with some dry sand helps to ensure they’ll be distributed evenly. Firm the soil over the rows of seeds and water. No additional fertilizer is necessary if you plant in reasonably good soil. You can expect to see sprouts in just ten days.

If you don’t want to plant in rows, try a more naturalistic planting. Pick a spot in full sun and scatter seeds over a patch of cultivated ground. Cover with ¼ to ½ inch of soil, press it down gently, and water.

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If you are planting out young transplants from the nursery, try to plant on an overcast day or in the evening so they will not have to cope with the hot sun while overcoming transplant shock. Dig holes half again as large as the container the plants are growing in. Space the plants eight to ten inches apart. Gently pop each seedling from its container by tapping on the bottom of the pot – take care not to disturb the long taproot that is probably already present. Set a plant in each hole and firm the soil over the rootball. Water immediately. If the weather is very hot, provide the young plants with some shade while they adjust. Fast-growing dill plants will mature and begin to set seed in just sixty days. Because of their long taproots, they are very drought tolerant plants once established.

Because dill matures so quickly, spent plants may have to be replaced mid-season, especially where the growing season is long.

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When planning for the harvest, remember that dill leaves have the best flavor before flowers form on the plant. Start picking fresh leaves as soon as they are large enough to use. It’s easy to store leaves in the refrigerator with their stems in a glass of water. To use fresh dill in cooking, simply snip the fine leaves with a kitchen scissors.

If you prefer to use dill seeds, prepare for the harvest by allowing flower heads to form and go to seed. Cut the seed heads when most of the flowers are gone, and hang them upside down by the stems in a paper bag. The seeds will dry and fall into the bag. They can then be stored in a glass jar.

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To store dill leaves for the long term, dry it by hanging bunches upside down in a dry, airy place, then crumble the dried leaves into a jar with a tight lid. Or, freeze dill by cutting the leaves into sections short enough to fit in plastic bags. Don’t chop the leaves into tiny bits because much of the flavor will be lost. Store the bags in the freezer for up to six months.

Pests and diseases

Parasitic wasps prey upon all sorts of caterpillars. They are very tiny and kill off caterpillars by laying their eggs inside the body cavity. The larvae that hatch devour the caterpillar before it can pupate into a moth or butterfly to start the whole process over again. Dill attracts the parasitic wasp because the aroma it gives off will attract butterflies and caterpillars.

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Black Swallowtail caterpillar

Parsley worms are the caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly. Although the parsley worms can do enormous damage to plants as they go through several molts to become the final green and black striped version, the butterflies are beautiful creatures and you should not try to destroy all the caterpillars. The caterpillars are large enough to be removed from the plants by hand so you can transfer them to plants that are not so valuable. If you keep a small patch of weeds in your garden, that would be an ideal location for them. If you want to keep some of the caterpillars you can also sacrifice a few dill plants.

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Aphids are a plant nuisance that have strong mouth parts and are able to chew into leaves and stems and siphon out the juices. A few aphids are sustainable but they multiply quickly and can severely weaken an infested plant. In the face of an aphid attack, dill is its own protector. The small flowers of the dill plant attract lady bugs and they consume huge numbers of aphids every day. If your dill has not flowered or if you do not want it to flower you can buy ladybugs and introduce them to your aphid infested dill.

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