How to Plant, Grow, Care For, and Harvest Dill
Are you thinking of adding some dill to your garden? Dill has a variety of different uses, and is quite popular as a flavor in many cooking dishes once dried and added. In this article, gardening expert Taylor Sievers walks you through the easiest way to plant, grow, care for, and harvest dill from your garden.
What’s a plant with a long history of culinary and medicinal use that attracts beneficial insects and pollinators and is easy to grow in the garden? Why, the herb Anethum graveolens may be just what you’re looking for! Confused by foreign languages of the past? This distinctly-scented herb with hollow stems, bluish-green foliage, and yellow umbel flowers is also known as dill or dill weed.
Dill is a member of the Apiaceae family (also known as Umbelliferae), and this family also includes such herbs as parsnip, fennel, coriander, cilantro, anise, angelica, and the fleshy, commonly orange, tap-rooted vegetable known as carrot. Amongst the common cultivated herbs and vegetables mentioned here, there are also several “weedy” species in the Apiaceae family that you can often find growing on the local roadside. Some are not so pleasant, such as the deadly poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).
The herb dill may only conjure images of jars of dill pickles or even the bright yellow potato salad your grandma makes at a Summer family get-together, but dill has long been prized for its medicinal and even “magical” uses. In fact, gladiators were fed meals with dill sprinkled on top in hopes that the herb would bring courage and valor. While you may not believe in the “magic” of dill, it’s still a useful, beautiful, and easy-to-grow herb that can be grown both in the garden or in a container! In this article, you’ll learn all about how to grow this precious plant and the history behind the herb known as dill.
Dill Plant Overview
Plant Type Biennial Zones 2-8, Perennial 9-11
Native Area Mediterranean Region
Hardiness Zone USDA 7
Exposure Full Sun
Maturity Date 65-75 Days
Growth Rate Fast
Plant Spacing 6-12 Inches
Planting Depth 1/8 – 1/4 inch
Height 18-60 inches
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests and Diseases Aphids, Caterpillars
Tolerance Cool to Warm
Soil Type Fertile, Well-draiing, Slightly Acidic
Attacts Bees, Butterflies, Ladybugs
Plant With Brassicas, Asparagus, Cucumber
Don’t Plant With Carrot, Fennel, Peppers
Family Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae)
Anethum graveolens, or dill, is a member of the parsley family (Apiaceae), which has distinct characteristics. This family is made up mostly of biennial or perennial herbs that have hollow stems and leaves with sheathes at their base. The thick, most singular, deep roots are considered to be taproot plants.
The flowers are umbels (which is why the family was originally called Umbelliferae), which means that the inflorescences are held upon equal length stems that radiate from a central point to create a flat or curved-shaped top.
The stems, petioles, and seeds often contain oils that can be useful in cooking and medicine. Some members of this family are poisonous to humans, so be aware of this characteristic before touching or ingesting a plant of this family.
Dill foliage is described as being fern-like, as the foliage is very finely cut. The color of the foliage is typically a bluish-green or bright green color. The flowers are typically bright yellow. Dill has a very distinct odor that is fresh and strong.
The seed heads mature into brown parallel-lined schizocarps (a dry fruit that splits into two seeds, essentially). The seeds of dill have long been a prized spice along with other Apiaceae family members like anise, fennel, and caraway.
Annual or Perennial?
Dill is often grown as an annual, which is a plant that germinates, grows, flowers, and sets seed within one year. However, dill is technically a biennial and can become perennial if grown in warmer growing zones.
Biennials usually form a basal rosette within the first year (clumping of low-growing leaves radiating from a central point). After the first year, the plant will then send up a flower stalk in the second year and set seed. After seeding, the plant will generally die. Perennials will come back each year, though they may go through a dormant period of growth during the Winter.
Dill can survive winter temperatures down to 25 degrees Fahrenheit, so it can sometimes be grown as a perennial in USDA Zones 9b to 11, and some say it can be grown as perennial in Zone 8 (depending on microclimate).
Many varieties will flower and set seed within the first year, which is why dill is often grown as an annual plant.
Plant History and Cultivation of Dill
The herb known as dill or dill weed has a long and well-documented history of human use. In fact, several historical sources pinpoint dill, caraway, and spearmint to be among the oldest herbs known and used.
The name “dill” is derived from the Norse word “dilla,” meaning to lull or soothe, which is synonymous with the plant’s ascribed abilities to calm troubled stomachs and colicky infants. In fact, dill’s Latin name, Anethum graveolens, is also descriptive of its herbal characteristics, with the Latin translating to “a tall plant with vigorous growth habit that has a strong smell.”
In the Bible, dill was referred to in the book of Matthew by its original Greek name Anethum (Matthew 23:23).
Dill is believed to have originated in the Mediterranean region, but it first appeared in the written record about 5,000 years ago in Egypt. Babylonians were known to have grown dill in their gardens around 3,000 B.C., and the Greeks and Romans had various uses for the herb’s foliage and seeds, including burning dill oils in homes for fragrance, making wine, and using dill seeds to heal wounded soldiers.
Dill seeds were also known as “meetinghouse seeds,” as they were chewed to keep attendees or children awake and paying attention during long gatherings, such as church services. The seeds were also used to quiet the stomach and freshen the breath.
Throughout history, dill seeds were used for treating stomach ailments, colic, bad breath, flatulence, and hemorrhoids. At one time dill was used to treat scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. Its effectiveness for this ailment is likely due to dill’s high vitamin C content. There are areas where dill seeds are still in use medicinally, but it has not fully been accepted into Western medicine.
Today, dill is harvested for its leaves for fresh use (known as dill weed), and the seeds are popularly sold as a spice. Flowers, leaves, and seeds are used when pickling. Essential and aromatic oils are extracted from the leaves, flowers, and seeds.
Propagation of Dill
Dill is propagated from seed, and though it can be started and grown indoors, it is best to sow the flat brown seeds directly into the garden. Dill seedlings do not transplant well due to their long, thick taproot.
Plant the seeds at ⅛ to ¼ inch depth in an area of full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight). Dill prefers well-drained soil. Typically, you’ll want to sow your dill seeds after your last estimated frost in the Spring. However, dill is considered a cool-weather lover, so you can try experimenting with direct-sowing a few weeks before your last frost.
Dill seeds can be planted every two to three weeks until midsummer for successions of harvests.
How to Grow Dill
When growing this plant, there are several factors you’ll need to consider. You want to ensure that you have adequate soil conditions, light, a proper place to plant them, and the right fertilizer and water combination. Let’s take a look at each of these factors in more detail.
Dill prefers moist, well-drained soils rich in organic matter that are slightly acidic. Seeds should be planted in rows approximately two feet apart, and as seedlings germinate they can be thinned to 10 to 12 inches apart. In some cases, you may be able to keep seedlings as close as 6 inches apart, depending on the variety of dill you plant.
Make sure to plant dill in full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight), but keep the soil moist. The stems of dill are hollow and the plant can grow rather tall, so it is prone to flopping over. Dill should be staked if planted in an area subject to much wind.
Dill can be grown indoors, but make sure that the plants receive at least 6 hours of light. If not, you will need to add supplemental light. Also, plants will require staking as they will become rather tall and leggy compared to garden-grown plants due to low light.
Planting in Containers
Make sure the pots are rather deep for your dill plants in order to accommodate the plant’s root system, which is a long taproot like other members of the carrot family. Also, make sure that the pots have drainage holes in them.
Some varieties of dill can also be grown in containers. See the “Varieties of Dill” section below to select the best compact varieties of dill for your patio pots!
Dill does not need to be fertilized if the soil is properly amended at or before planting with compost, but a low dose of fertilizer can be applied if needed. Try to choose a well-balanced fertilizer (equal parts nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) or add some compost around the base of your plants.
Overfertilization will result in poor quality plants, so don’t freak out if you weren’t able to fertilize your plants. Dill is one of the plants I don’t waste much time babying in my garden because it’s so hardy.
Once established, your dill plant can tolerate drier soils, but you should still water your dill planting at least one or two times a week. If in drought-like conditions, you may need to water your dill more.
Dill is an excellent companion crop for certain asparagus varieties, onions, and members of the Brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc.), and cucumbers. It repels insects like cabbage loopers that feed heavily on members of the Brassica family.
Dill attracts lacewings and ladybugs, which feed on aphids that can attack asparagus. It can also attract predators of the tomato hornworm, which can do significant damage to tomatoes. However, dill should not be allowed to flower and go to seed if planted next to tomatoes, due to the ability of dill to stunt the growth of tomato plants.
Dill is not recommended to be planted next to other members of the Apiacaeae family (fennel, carrot, parsley, etc) due to cross-pollination.
The jury is still out on whether or not dill should be planted with members of the nightshade family, such as peppers and tomatoes. Some sources argue that you shouldn’t plant dill or other members of the Apiaceae family next to peppers due to “various reasons” that are not mentioned, while other sources say that dill is excellent to interplant with peppers and eggplant to repel certain pests.
Planting dill next to tomatoes is recommended until the plant begins to flower and set seed because mature dill is reported to stunt the growth of tomato plants. Dill is also an excellent re-seeder. In some areas, dill is even considered invasive due to its ability to quickly re-seed an area.
While the jury is still out on companion planting dill with nightshade family plants, just be aware that because dill can repel certain insects, re-seed easily, and stunt plant growth, it may be better to keep your dill away from your nightshade family garden plants.
When and How to Harvest Dill
Dill foliage can be harvested any time before the flowers open. Cut the leaves just where they meet the stem and discard the rest of the thick, hollow stem. The stem can continue to be cut back to harvest leaves to delay flowering. The foliage can be stored in the refrigerator to keep fresh, but it is best to wait to harvest until right before you are to use the leaves. Stems can be submerged in water to keep the foliage fresh also.
Some prefer to use the foliage dried instead of fresh, so you can lay the foliage flat on wax paper in a room with good air circulation to dry your dill, or you can dry the leaves in a food dehydrator. Store dried leaves in a sealed container to keep them fresh. You can also freeze fresh leaves. It is recommended to freeze the leaves in water for optimum freshness. This can be done by placing dill leaves in ice cube trays filled with water.
To harvest seeds, cut the stalk of dill just before the seed ripens, about two to three weeks after flowering, and hang the seed-head upside down with a paper bag around it. Seeds will shatter if the seed is allowed to ripen fully on the plant (basically, scatter everywhere), so it is best to harvest the plant for seeds prior to the seeds fully ripening.
Cut holes in the bag for good air circulation. The seeds will fall into the bottom of the bag as they ripen. Store the seeds in a dry area and make sure all the seeds are free of any moisture, otherwise, they will spoil.
To make dill pickles, leaves and flower heads are placed in jars with cucumber slices. Flower heads should be beginning to give way to seeds, but the seeds do not have to be fully ripened.
To use dill in fresh-cut flower arrangements, cut the stems any time after the yellow flowers begin to open.
There are several varieties of dill, all known for their specialties. See the list below for information about common varieties:
- ‘Mammoth‘ is the typical variety of dill grown for fresh use. This variety can reach up to 4 feet tall (and some sources say 6 feet tall) with flowers reaching 15 to 18 inches across.
- ‘Bouquet‘ is a more compact form of ‘Mammoth’ that is used for fresh cut use in flower arrangements. The seed is often used in pickling.
- ‘Dukat’ has fine-textured foliage with strong flavor and a high aromatic oil content. This variety grows up to 48 inches tall typically and is heat tolerant.
- ‘Fernleaf’ is slow to go to seed. This variety is compact and tops out at 18 inches. The foliage is very finely cut.
- ‘Ella’ and ‘Monia’ are excellent as container herbs due to their compact nature. ‘Ella’ is slow-bolting, which means it is delayed in pushing out flower stalks.
Dill has few pest problems, and this plant is resistant to deer as well. Aphids and powdery mildew may be an issue on occasion, but it is also the host of black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. This is considered to be an attribute to growing dill as the butterflies are very beautiful, though the caterpillars can do considerable damage to the foliage.
If this is a concern, caterpillars can be plucked off the plant. Ensuring that your garden is full of host plants for butterfly larvae will make it more attractive for butterflies to lay their eggs, and it allows you to view this insect’s entire life cycle.
Promoting excellent air circulation throughout your garden by increasing plant spacing will lessen the incidence of foliar diseases, like powdery mildew. Releasing beneficial insects that feed on aphids, like lady beetles, will help reduce aphid populations.
You can also use a forceful stream of water to knock off adult aphids and kill young aphids. These tiny insects can transmit plant viruses and cause stunting, yellowing, or malformed leaves if feeding is heavy. Their waste is frequently called “honeydew” because of its high sugar content and stickiness.
The high sugar content encourages “sooty mold” fungus growth, which is not typically harmful. However, it will turn the honeydew spots into a dark brown or black color, which affects the cosmetic appearance of the plant. If a plant is severely infested with aphids, I will often remove the entire plant from my garden to prevent spread.
Dill foliage can be dried in a well-ventilated area by laying flat on paper or it can be hung upside down to dry. Foliage can also be dried in a food dehydrator. However, the flavor is severely diminished by drying, so it is suggested to freeze dill foliage to preserve its flavor, and freezing in water is highly recommended if using this method.
Dill seeds should be stored in an airtight container in a cool place and be free of moisture, so make sure that the seeds are allowed to dry out for a few days after collecting them.
Modern Day Uses
Dill is high in vitamins A and C, low in calories, and well-balanced in carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Dill is used to flavor fish, lamb, potato salad, egg dishes, pickled vegetables, and soups. The entire plant is used for flavor when pickling. The seeds in particular are popular for pickling, but the seeds need not be fully ripe when used for this purpose.
Dill is also used as a filler in fresh-cut flower arrangements, as the small yellow umbels create a light and airy feel to an arrangement. An umbel-shaped flower is a characteristic of the Apiaceae family (carrot family), which means that the flower stems of equal length radiate out from a center point and form a flat or curved surface.
Dill has long been used medicinally for the treating of upset stomachs, flatulence, and as a breath freshener by making herbal infusions and tinctures with the seeds and leaves. The volatile oil of dill seeds is the main component of gripe water, which is a liquid mixture used to treat infant colic and hiccups. This volatile oil is also said to promote milk flow in nursing mothers.
Dill seeds and foliage can be used in compresses to treat bruises, clogged milk ducts, overloaded breasts in nursing mothers, and gum infections. A few studies reported that rubbing dill essential oil on the skin can help treat nausea.
Dill essential oil is rich in carvone, a compound also found in herbs such as spearmint. Essential oils high in carvone are often used for flavoring in oral products, like toothpaste and chewing gum. The food industry uses dill essential oils in candies, pickles, and chewing gums for flavoring.
After I discovered that dill seeds were often chewed to pass the time and freshen the breath, I thought I would try a handful of these “meetinghouse seeds.” Dill weed has a particularly strong odor, and honestly, before I tried chewing the seeds I imagined the seeds to taste much like a dill pickle. Wow—I was wrong! The seeds had a delightfully fresh taste to them and produced a cooling sensation in my mouth, much like mint. I was pleasantly surprised!
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I prolong dill leaves after harvest?
Dill leaves do not last long in storage after being picked. The best way to extend the storage life of dill leaves is to harvest in the early morning. Wrap the leaves in moist paper towels and place them in the refrigerator or put the cut stems into the water in the refrigerator. Even so, dill leaves need to be used within a few days. Freeze leaves or dry them for long-term use. This will prolong storage time.
What plants can I use dill as a companion plant for?
Dill is an excellent herb to deter certain pests while also attracting beneficial insects that can feed on pests of other plants. Members of the Brassica family, such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, and brussel sprouts, will benefit from companion planting with dill due to its ability to repel the cabbage looper. Dill will also attract lacewings and ladybugs, which feed on the tomato hornworm eggs and younger caterpillars.
Dill should not be allowed to flower and set seed if planted next to tomatoes due to its ability to stunt the growth of tomatoes. Dill is also an excellent companion plant for onions, asparagus, and cucumbers. Do not plant dill with other members of the carrot family (like fennel, carrot, and parsley), because of cross-pollination.
Is dill still good after it flowers?
Most of the dill or dill weed is grown for its leaves or seeds. The question is: what are you growing your dill for? If you’re growing your dill for dill weed (or its leaves), then you want to prevent flowering so that all of the plant’s energy is being pushed towards the flower stalk and seed production.
For high-quality dill weed, you will want to cut back any flower stalks that may begin to emerge. If you desire to harvest the seeds for use, then let your plant flower and set seed. Just make sure you harvest the seed before it’s too dry so it doesn’t shatter on the plant when you go to harvest it. Some people will keep their dill cut back for most of the season to harvest the leaves, and then let the plant flower and set seed when they’re done harvesting fresh leaves.
While this heavily-scented and distinctly-flavored herb may not be as precious to you as it was to people in ancient times, dill is an excellent herb to grow because of how easy it is to plant and its ability to deter pests and attract beneficial insects.
The cheerful yellow umbels of this plant are also excellent for cut flower arrangements! If you’re interested in making your own pickling spices or herbal infusions, then growing your own dill is an easy way to get started. Give this awesome herb a try!