Oregano (the “pizza herb”) is a well-known ingredient in tomato sauces, but is also used for flavoring meats, bread stuffing and vegetables. Supposed benefits also include treatment of respiratory tract and gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, skin conditions and a litany of other problems.
Having a supply of oregano keeps my chef happy, so I grow it each year. Here are some notes.
Common oregano (Origanum vulgare) originated in the Mediterranean basin, but its leaves have little flavor. The most widely used cultivar for culinary purposes, and the most strongly flavored, is Greek Oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum).
Olive colored leaves have high levels of antioxidants and are a good source of vitamin K. Small white flowers appear in mid-summer.
Normally, I prefer to grow plants from seeds because it is more economical and lots of fun. But with oregano, I don’t advise it because germination is slow and erratic, and you probably only need a plant or two anyway.
Pick a sunny site with well-drained soil. Next to a sidewalk is ideal because brushing against the plants will release some wonderful scents. Work organic matter into the planting hole and plant at the same depth that the plant was in the nursery container.
Space 18 to 24 inches apart. Water deeply on a weekly basis. Fertilize sparingly.
Because it is a member of the mint family, Oregano is easy to grow — perhaps too easy. It spreads using underground runners; and keeping it from getting out of its assigned area can be a chore.
So, I grow it in a large pot on our deck. When buds start to form, the plant gets a fairly severe haircut to eliminate the flowers and keep it nice and bushy. At the end of the season, the pot goes into the garage and is allowed to dry out.
In March I start watering again, and when the first sprouts appear, I dig out a few and repot in a new container. Anything left in the old container gets thrown into the regular trash (I don’t want to contaminate the city compost pile).
By mid-May, I have a thriving new plant.
To dry oregano, hang some twigs upside down in a paper bag in a cool dry space. Poke some holes in the sides of the bag to allow good air circulation or the leaves may get moldy. To dry only the leaves, strip them off the stems, wash and allow to dry thoroughly (wet leaves cook instead of drying).
Place the leaves on a paper towel, and cover with another paper towel and layer of leaves. Repeat until you have couple of layers with a paper towel on top.
The oven light of an electric oven or the pilot light of a gas oven is usually sufficient to dry the leaves overnight; or microwave a single layer between paper towels, following the directions for your particular microwave. Store dried leaves in bags or jars.
Two other plants are commonly sold as oregano. ‘Mexican Oregano’ (Poliomintha maderensis) is a different species entirely, hardy only in coastal areas. ‘Italian oregano’ (Origanum x majoricum) is a cross between common oregano and sweet marjoram that is hardy in USDA Zone 6, but is sterile and must be propagated from cuttings (Greek oregano is hardy to Zone 5).
Jim Janke is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828-456-3575.