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Dill is a host plant for black swallowtail caterpillars and has a variety of uses. (Photo by Tamara Boyce)

I start planning my garden in November, but no matter how painstakingly I plan, there are always surprises. By harvest time, my garden often becomes a learning environment, teaching me important lessons about my place in my garden space. One of my more memorable lessons came from growing dill (Anethum graveolena).

Dill is a beautiful, versatile plant, both as an herb and a spice. The leaves are considered the herb, and dill seeds are used as a spice. While most people are familiar with dill for pickling, it is also a flavorful ingredient for many other dishes like fish, salads and soups.

Growing dill taught me a lesson about including a place for unexpected companions, such as pollinators, in my garden. Last summer, while I was harvesting some aromatic leaves for dinner, I was surprised and horrified to find small, brown “worms” munching my dill. I removed as many as I could, but I missed a few. As the days passed, they grew into large, green caterpillars with alternating black and yellow markings. I did some research and realized these were black swallowtail caterpillars, and dill is a key host plant for them. This year I planted extra dill, so there is plenty for both the humans and the caterpillars.

If you’d like to grow dill in your garden, there are many varieties to try. The tallest is Long Island Mammoth, and there are dwarf variants such as Teddy and Dukat that are great for growing in containers. Vierling and Greensleeves are slow to bolt in summer’s heat.

Because dill has a long taproot, the plant will not transplant well. Direct sow seeds in a prepared container or ground garden two to three weeks before the last frost date. Choose a location with at least six hours of direct sunlight.

Here are some additional tips to make dill planting successful:

• Don’t over water.

• If you’re using a container, make sure it’s at least 12 inches deep to accommodate the tap root. Taller varieties may need staking.

• While dill can be planted in poor soil, it prefers well-draining, slightly acidic loamy soil; it will benefit from an amendment of high-quality compost.

The joy of dill is that so much of the plant is edible: stems, flowers, leaves and seeds. To harvest fresh leaves, gently cut the foliage with pruning scissors close to the stem and before the onset of flowering. Pruning also encourages bushier plants.

Once your dill has flowered, you can harvest seeds for next year. Leave the seed head to dry on the plant until the seeds turn light brown. Then cut the seed head and place it in a paper bag in a cool, dry, and well-ventilated location. Collect the seeds after they fall from the seed head, and store them in an airtight container.

I highly recommend growing dill in your garden, and don’t forget to plant a few for the caterpillars!

Tamra Boyce is an Anoka County Extension Master Gardener Intern. The Master Gardeners’ Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinics are 6-8 p.m. Wednesdays at the Bunker Hills Activities Center in Andover through Aug. 18. Residents are invited to bring in plant and insect samples for identification and diagnosis. Visit anokamastergardeners.org for more information and for other ways to connect with Anoka County Master Gardeners.

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