Dill - Herb of the Year 2010

Madeline Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

This year May 1 was designated International Herb Day by the Herb Society of America and the International Herb Association. This year the Herb of the Year is dill, Anethum graveolens, a member of the Umbelliferae family as are fennel, parsley, and cilantro. Native to the Mediterranean region, dill was used by the ancient Romans and Greeks to crown returning war heroes; they also used it medicinally for digestive problems (a use that was to persist for centuries, even to today) and burned the seeds as incense. (The aroma of the plant is delicate—tones of anise, parsley, and celery—while the scent of the seeds is reminiscent of anise and caraway.) Dill later spread north through Europe to the British Isles and Scandanavia where leaves were used to add flavor to fish dishes and the seeds were used to preserve pickles as well as to flavor breads, sauces, and salads.

Dill was brought to <America by the European colonists. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Shakers sold dried seed as a medicinal herb to brew into digestive infusions and to carry in one’s handkerchief to chew like gum. In Colonial America dill seeds were often called "Meetin’ seeds" to help quiet fussy children and suppress hunger pangs during sermons that could last as long as three hours. Dill seed tea was also given to colicky babies. Today it is used in salads, egg dishes, with chicken and fish dishes, as well as pickles, of course (and still for colicky babies!)

There are a number of varieties of dill on the market. They are all annuals and the seeds of all

germinate easily. Some of the most popular are: ‘Bouquet’ which is fairly compact for the home garden; ‘Delikat’, which is compact with bushy growth and thick dark green leaves; ‘Dukat’ is best known for its strong flavor; and ‘Fernleaf’, a dwarf plant and slower to bolt, is good as a potted plant. New introductions for this year are ‘Green Sleeves’ purported to be very resistant to bolting and ‘Monia’ said to be the best variety for growing in pots.

If you’re in a hurry for dill, you can purchase a small, young plant to get started. Plant the dill along with all its dirt; it has a long tap root and larger plants do not transplant well. It also doesn’t grow too successfully indoors because of the need for space for its 12"-18" taproot when fully grown. Since dill likes cool weather and long days, when a minimum 25 degree Fahrenheit night temperature is reached, direct seed dill seed on a smooth, slightly acidic, well-prepared field every few weeks (in a spot somewhat sheltered from the wind) from early spring to late summer.

A medium to heavy, well-drained, organic soil is preferred, as is six to eight hours of full sun. To help with germination, you can soak the seeds for four days in water with 50 mg of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Plant 15-20 seeds per foot of row and thin to three or four plants per foot. Dill is sensitive to water stress, so when the plant reaches 2 feet tall, stop overhead sprinkling and water at ground level. Early fall dill plantings will produce leaves for several weeks, even after the first light frosts. Late-fall sowings will germinate the following spring. If grown in a greenhouse, it will need full sun. There is no truth to the rumor that you cannot plant dill and fennel near each other; they will not cross-pollinate and produce ‘dennel.’

Dill does not compete well with weeds, so must be weeded regularly. It may also be subject to Fusarium root rot, as well as aphids (especially in the dill heads). Insecticidal soap may help. Dill may be harvested throughout the season, but seeds should be harvested as soon as they start to turn brown. Although dill weed is best used fresh, it can be chopped and frozen for later use. Dill has a frustratingly short 8-10 day season of foliage production before flowering and dying. Any seeds left on the ground from spring plantings will germinate in the fall when the weather has cooled off. To harvest the seeds, allow the umbels (flower heads going to seed) to form and the seeds to turn light brown. Cut the tops with about a foot of stalk and hang upside down in a paper bag to catch the seeds. Be sure they completely dry.

Garden expert Jim Wilson suggests planting dill with parsley, fennel, oregano, and nasturtiums near sunny paved areas to attract butterflies. Dill is a valuable food source for black and anise swallowtail butterfly larva, so please plant plenty to share with those beautiful striped caterpillars. While you’re at it, plant enough for the rabbits, too (helps to lure them away from the rest of the garden if the dill patch is off to itself.) Try the recipe below for a new kind of potato salad featuring dill:

Polish Potato Salad (Serves 4-6)

2 1/4 lbs. potaotes (boiled)
1/2 lb. fried chopped bacon
1 onion (chopped) 2 chopped dill pickles
3 diced boiled eggs 2 Tbls. parsley
1 Tbl. dill
5 Tbls. wine vinegar (pref. dill herbal wine vinegar)
4 Tbls. olive oil 1/2 cup chicken or beef stock
salt and pepper to taste

Boil the potatoes with the skins on; cut into cubes and put in large mixing bowl. Pour chicken or beef stock over potatoes and let sit for 15-30 minutes to allow potatoes to soak up the stock. Add the other ingredients and mix well. May be served warm or cold. We think its flavor improves if the flavors are allowed to blend in the refrigerator overnight.

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Read other gardening articles by Madeline Wajda