by Ellen Orabone
originally published Austin American Statesman
Spring might not officially start until March 20, but here in Central Texas, the emergence of cheerful fuchsia redbud blossoms and the appearance of butterflies — including the elegant black swallowtail — tell us that it’s well on its way. And now that early spring is here, it’s the perfect time to plant an herb that both black swallowtail butterflies and gardeners consider delectable: dill.
Dill’s use as a culinary and medicinal herb stretches back at least to ancient Greece and Rome, and mention of its use appears in European writings from throughout the Middle Ages. A laundry list of benefits has been ascribed to the consumption of dill, from aiding digestion and relieving gas (”dill” comes from the Norse word “dulla,” meaning “to sleep or soothe”), to stimulating lactation in mothers, to aiding with sleep and relieving anxiety. Dill also has antimicrobial effects, contains antioxidants, and is rich in Vitamin A, calcium, iron and magnesium. The herb is striking and graceful, standing 2-3 feet tall at maturity, with lacy dark-green leaves and clusters (or umbels) of yellow flowers that look like tiny fireworks exploding.
Happily for new gardeners inspired by the arrival of spring, dill is also very easy to grow.
To plant dill, find an area of your garden that receives full sun and is protected from strong wind, and mix in a layer of compost. Broadcast the small seeds over the loosened soil, gently cover them to a depth of ¼ of an inch by raking through the soil with your fingers or a hand cultivator, and water them in. After the seedlings emerge, 10 to 21 days after planting, thin them to 6 inches apart. As the plants grow, thin them again to a final 12-inch spacing. (Don’t forget to eat what you thin.) Once seedlings are established, it’s OK to begin harvesting the leaves by pinching or cutting off small sections. Keep plants evenly watered and well mulched. Dill is hearty, but at its full height, it will get blown over in strong winds, hence the need for wind protection. One idea is to plant it alongside well-established crops of the Brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, kale), which are companion plants to dill. For a continuous harvest all season long, plant seeds again every two weeks through mid-April. This herb will thrive until the weather gets too hot for them, in late May or early June.
Dill attracts beneficial insects including lacewings and syrphid flies, both of which prey on aphids, and has few problems with pests. In fact, one of the only pests for dill is the larval stage of an insect that is beneficial as an adult: the black swallowtail butterfly. The fat, stripey black swallowtail caterpillar, which will stand out boldly among the fronds of dill, will do some damage to your plant, but helping this pollinator through its life cycle is worth it, so plant enough for both of you.
This species illustrates the fact that some insects can’t be classified cleanly into “good guy” or “bad guy” categories, so it’s worthwhile to learn your bugs in the various forms they take throughout their life cycles.
Dill leaves, seeds and flavorful immature seed heads all can be enjoyed. To harvest seeds, cut off the seed heads after they are brown, and turn them upside down in a paper bag, so the seeds fall in. Dill leaves are best eaten fresh but can be preserved by freezing or drying. Try dill in yogurt, with fish, or in one of our favorite vegetable recipes, Lemon Dill Carrots. For a particularly vibrant rendition of this recipe, try using rainbow carrots available at Sustainable Food Center farmers markets.
Lemon Dill Carrots
4 medium carrots, cut into rounds or semi-circles
1 Tbsp. olive or canola oil
1/8 tsp. salt
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. fresh dill or 1 tsp. dried
In a medium pot, boil or steam the carrots until they are slightly cooked, about seven minutes. Drain the carrots.
In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add carrots, salt and dill. Saute until carrots are nicely coated, about three to five more minutes.
Remove from heat and add lemon juice. Serve warm.