Few flavors say “summer” to me as distinctively as dill. At my house, dill is a salad seasoning. Specifically, we use it to flavor potato salads and pickles and virtually never add it to anything we plan to cook. (Well… I might add dill when I bake seasoned yeast bread.) Dill is almost certain to make it into our homemade dressings, and it extends the flavors of garden salads—especially ones that feature cucumbers. If I liked fish, I’d season it with dill for at least some meals.
Happily, dill is easy to grow! Depending on your gardening methods, you could plant dill seeds once and harvest fresh dill every season thereafter. It’s not because dill is a perennial, but because a single plant produces hundreds of seeds. Those seeds winter over happily on your garden soil and are among the first things to sprout as soil thaws in the spring.
Grow Your Own Dill
I’ve heard from several “experts” that dill doesn’t transplant well, so you should direct-seed it a few weeks before your average last frost date. Consider: historically we call the plant “dill weed.” In my experience, dill is tenacious. Many times in early spring, I’ve dug up young volunteer dill plants from my garden and re-planted them in other areas, depending on the layout I’d planned for the season.
That said, I’d offer an alternative rationale for direct-sowing: Dill plants mature in two to three months and you can harvest leaves from the plants in as little as six weeks. For such a short-lived plant, you don’t HAVE to start seeds indoors to extend the growing season; save your shelf space for tomatoes and peppers!
Plant seeds by distributing them on loose soil in full sun and working them in so they’re about a quarter inch deep. I usually sprinkle seeds over a 2 foot by 2 foot rectangle, and then tease the soil with a rake. Water gently but deeply and moisten the soil every day until sprouts appear—which can take 10 to 20 days.
Typical planting instructions tell you to thin so plants are 8 to 12 inches apart. My dill plants seem happy when I leave 3 to 4 inches from one to the next. Don’t rush to create spacing; if two plants are crowding each other, harvest from one aggressively and harvest lightly from its neighbor. No problem if you happen to kill one by taking too many leaves.
A dill plant grows more leaves closer together when nights are cool and days are warm. When summer turns up the heat, a plant bolts, sending up a flower stalk on the main stem. As that blossoms, branches emerge and produce more (usually a tad smaller) flowering stalks.
So… to ensure a season-long supply of dill leaves, plant seeds every two or three weeks until mid-summer. But dill isn’t just about the leaves.
The Dill Harvest
For salads, dressings, seafood seasonings, breads, and roasted vegetables, harvest a bouquet of leaves by picking just one or two leaf stems from each of several plants. But don’t limit your harvest to leaves.
Typically, the dill flavor in dill pickles comes from dill flowers. For each pint jar you fill with cucumbers and brine, add a full flower head from a dill plant. If you’re canning pickles in quarts, you might add two or three dill flower heads per jar.
If you want to collect dill seeds to plant next season, leave some flower heads alone on the plants. Eventually, the petals fall and seeds emerge. Let these dry on the plants and collect them before they fall. It may be challenging because when seeds are ready to harvest, simply bumping the plant can knock dozens to the ground.
Varieties of Dill
I’ve grown dill for years from seeds I buy locally. I’ve found only the Mammoth variety in local stores. It’s an exciting variety! Crowded, plants tend to grow three feet tall, but I’ve had lone plants grow five feet and extend branches 2 or more feet to the sides.
You may find other varieties in your area—I’ve read a variety called Bouquet is the most popular among gardeners. Shop online if you want to fill a particular hole in your garden, there are shorter varieties, and varieties that flower more than others. Here is a partial list:
Mammoth – Grows between 3 and 5 feet tall and bolts quickly in hot weather.
Bouquet – The most popular variety has a strong flavor that holds up well in pickles. Very productive and considered a “tall” variety meaning it should grow about three to four feet.
Vierling – Another tall variety. This one is slow to flower, leaving a longer season to harvest leaves.
Superdukat – This variety grows about two to three feet and flowers a bit later than Bouquet.
Fernleaf – A compact variety that produces a lot of leaves. Plants grow about 18 inches tall and can do well in containers.
From Garden to Kitchen
Harvest “dill weed” by breaking off leaf stems where they attach to larger stems—or by snipping off the outer sections of leaf stems. Leave branch leaders intact so they can develop flower heads.
Harvest flower heads at any point from when buds appear through flowering. Simply cut the stem beneath the flower or snap it off. If petals start to drop, leave the flower head in place until it produces seeds and turns brown; collect the seeds to plant next season.
Dill tastes way better fresh than it does dried, so use your harvest in-season as much as possible. When you have extra, run it through a dehydrator at a low temperature—about 90 to 100 degrees—until the stems are brittle. It can take as little as an hour but may take three or even six hours. I pulverize my dried dill in a small food chopper and re-fill a spice jar with the resulting coarse powder. When you dry your own dill, it tastes remarkably more like fresh dill than any dried dill you’ll buy in a grocery store.
To preserve the most authentic fresh dill flavor, puree dill leaves in a small amount of water—just enough water to make the mixture blend. Fill ice cube trays with the resulting slurry and freeze it overnight. Then transfer the cubes to zippered bags and return them to the freezer; a single cube will impart deliciously fresh summer flavor to a mid-winter potato salad or grilled fish.