3 Staple Culinary Herbs

This past week, in the Seed House, we took a physical inventory of all our packed seed and found a few surprises. The biggest being that we had 348 packets of dill ready to go! 

Normally we keep about 50-150 of a given variety packed at any time depending on past sales. Needless to say, 348 packets of dill is a bit excessive. 

In light of this we are going to be including a free ‘thank you’ packet of dill in every order for the rest of the season and I expect we will be donating a lot of dill to community gardens next year as well! 

I consider dill to be a staple garden herb, and you should too!

Dill is versatile, fresh tasting and can be used at all stages from greens to flowers and seeds. I love that it volunteers around my garden each year- usually popping up wherever I had a seed crop in previous years. 

The greens are packed with nutrients and the seeds have long been used medicinally as a digestive aid.

To grow dill in the garden I usually start the seeds in trays but it can also be directly seeded. The seeds are on the small side. Sow them about ¼ inch deep in potting soil and germination should occur in about 5-7 days. This herb lends itself well to being planted in clumps so it is fine to sow 2-4 seeds per cell and treat the small cluster as a single plant. 

Transplant these small clusters about 12 inches apart in the garden. 

One thing I love about dill is its adaptability to our climate. It is native to Eurasia- think the Mediterranean region and has had a prime spot at the table in many cuisines and medicinally from the Middle East to the Greeks. Evidence shows it was used in ancient Egypt 5000 years ago!

Dill can be sown in the fall and overwintered in zones 9+ as a cool season green. It can also be sown in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked because it will tolerate light frost. The earlier you can plant it the more time you will have to enjoy the leafy greens. Then, as the summer progresses and heats up the plant will inevitably “go to seed”. 

Use the fresh flowers in pickles or salads. Seeds can be harvested when the umbells dry. Cut the heads into a paper bag and massage the seeds out with your fingers. At this point take some care to not break too many sticks from the umbells into the seed since they can be difficult to remove. 

The dry seeds are a good spice in the kitchen for pickles, herb blends or a digestive tonic tea. The leaves can also be dried for future use. 

In my kitchen I use dill in two main ways.

1. Fresh! I love to chop this herb up in salads. It is especially amazing in mid spring when my lettuce is popping and I crave deep greens after the winter. 

2. Pickles! I pack the flowers and seeds into jars of brine pickles using our Persian cucumbers. These cucumbers are a great pickle variety when harvested small around 3 inches long. 

Other staple culinary herbs in my garden include cilantro and basil. Like dill, these are also annuals that will go to seed in the same season they are planted. 

Basil: Like dill, basil can be direct seeded but I usually prefer to start it in trays. Basil is more of a warm season herb than dill or cilantro and needs warmer conditions for germination. Transplant the seedlings around 8-12 inches apart and keep cutting the plants for more leaf growth. Once the plants start to flower they will concentrate on producing seeds instead of greens.

Pro basil tip- Basil will root from cutting. To start fresh, just cut 4-5 inches of growth off the mother plants before they are flowering, trim away the bottom leaves and you can root these stalks in jars of water! Roots should develop in about 2 weeks and the new plants can be put in soil. 

If you are intending to save basil seeds, let the flowering stalks mostly dry on the plants before cutting them to get the seeds out. Birds also love basil seeds so you may need to cover the plants with netting or row cover as they mature. Basil seed is hard to get out of the stalks and will need to be manually rubbed then winnowed. 

Cilantro: I’ve heard many people comment that cilantro is all dried up by the time their salsa garden is ready to harvest. True! Cilantro loves cool weather and northern CA is very short on that in July and August. It will bolt quickly to seed in hot weather. There are a few options. 

1. Grow your Cilantro in the cool season and then freeze the harvested greens for later use in salsa. 

2. Plant a succession of cilantro through the summer and experiment with using shade cloth in your garden. 

Cilantro, like basil and dill, can also be grown in a small clump.  It easily starts from seed directly in the garden or in trays. The seeds can be sown around ¼-½ inch deep in a shallow trench in the garden and come up quickly. I always lay some row cover over my directly seeded crops to prevent the birds from feasting! 

This herb is also multi-purpose. The greens, flowers and seeds are all edible and delicious. 

I use all three in pesto.

My quick deep green garden pesto is chopped herbs- (dill, basil and/or cilantro), combined with a few TBSP olive oil, garlic, salt and walnuts. I blend this all up in my vita mix and add just enough water to make the mixture flow. 

Then I freeze the combo in ice cube trays or as blobs on a cookie sheet. Sometimes we eat it with pasta but often I just add the frozen cubes to soups, stews or whatever I’m cooking over the winter as a way to ingest some green sunshine!

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