I think the Greeks got it right when they described oregano as "joy of the mountain." This aromatic, ancient culinary herb, also referred to as "wild marjoram," originates from the hilly, Greek countryside, and is now grown all over the world.
Oregano is a must-have in a culinary garden. Its pungent, spicy, slightly bitter flavor pairs well with almost any vegetable preparation. And just as easy to grow as chives, oregano is another go-to for the first-time gardener.
Why Should I Grow Oregano?
Like chives, which we highlighted last week, oregano is another low-maintenance herb, and it performs well both in the garden or indoors, when given the right conditions.
There are actually two main categories of oregano: Mediterranean and Mexican. Emily wrote a great breakdown of these two different herbs. The main difference is that Mediterranean oregano is a member of the mint family, and Mexican oregano is a relative of lemon verbena. The flavors are slightly different, but the means to grow them are quite similar.
Perennial or annual? Although oregano thrives in a warm climate, it is a hardy perennial that returns year after year, without much work. A couple of my oregano plants are almost 10 years old, and they have withstood many a snowstorm and still continue to produce healthy, vibrantly colored leaves. Older plants still yield delicious leaves, but their potency decreases once they reach three or four years in age.
How to Plant Oregano
- Where: Oregano is one of those plants that looks beautiful planted within the landscaping or along a path. It is a "garden anchor" that comes back every spring, providing height and dimension within the garden. Oregano also grows well in containers, so if you live in a high-rise apartment or have a limited growing space, it is a great option. Oregano also performs well indoors, when given enough light and warmth.
- When: You can grow oregano by planting from seed, by dividing, or from a cutting taken from a healthy, established plant. When planting from seed, plant seeds outdoors about six weeks before the last frost. If you are planting a cutting or transplanting a seedling or small plant, make sure the ground temperature is at least 70°F.
How to Cultivate Oregano
- Soil: Plant oregano in light, well-drained soil. Oregano actually grows better in moderately fertile soil, so no fertilization or addition of compost is necessary. I let my oregano do what it does on its own. My only complaint might be that I can't keep up with the harvest!
- Sun: Oregano performs well in part to full sun, but the flavors intensify when it receives a full day of sunshine. Oregano will grow well indoors, but it is important that the plant receives adequate heat and sunshine in order to grow.
- Water: Don't overwater oregano. Water thoroughly, only when the soil is dry to the touch.
- Spacing: Plant oregano eight to 10 inches apart in your garden. Oregano grows up to two feet tall and spans about 18 inches across. If you are planting oregano in a container, be sure the pot is about 12 inches in diameter; oregano is a prolific grower. If you're limited on space, read this post on creating a small-space kitchen herb garden.
- Companion planting: Oregano is a great companion plant to almost anything, so don't worry about planting it next to something it won't get along with. I plant oregano alongside my tomatoes and peppers. Oregano keeps away a tomato's archenemy, aphids, by means of predation. Aphids actually love oregano, but oregano also attracts syrphidae (flower flies), which then dine upon the small bugs. Oregano's thick foliage also provides humidity, which supports peppers' growth.
How to Harvest Oregano
Harvesting oregano couldn't be simpler. You may harvest oregano once the stems are at least four inches tall. I tend to let mine grow to about eight inches tall, and then I cut back up to 2/3 of the plant. Reference the photo above and cut just above the leaves. And don't worry if you think you've cut back your oregano too much — regular trimming encourages new growth and prevents "legginess."
→ Tip: Want to know the easiest way to harvest oregano? If you won't be drying your oregano by the bunch, and you only need the leaves, simply grab the stem about 2/3 down the length of the plant and run your fingers along the stem. The leaves will collect in your hand, and then all you'll have to do afterwards is trim the now-leafless stem. Eureka!
To obtain the optimum potency of flavor, harvest oregano leaves just before the plant flowers, if you can time it perfectly. Even the subtly flavored flowers are great topped on salads. Otherwise, either clip as needed or, as I do, trim your oregano plants all at once and turn on the dehydrator. More on what to do with your oregano when we discuss the best way to preserve your harvest in tomorrow's post.