Oregano is one of those affable plants that is perfect for beginners to experiment with, indispensible to the more experienced gardener, and fantastically versatile in the kitchen. A couple of mature plants should be enough to provide you with all the oregano you ever need.
A 2015 investigation led by food fraud expert Professor Chris Elliott, Director of the Institute for Global Food Security, found that out of 78 samples of dried herbs packaged as oregano, 25% contained ingredients that were not oregano – olive and myrtle leaves being the most common stand-ins. If that isn’t enough reason to grow your own, I don’t know what is!
Just to be clear, oregano (Origanum vulgare) is the same as wild marjoram, and similar but different to the annual herb sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana).
The easiest way to start growing oregano is to purchase inexpensive young plants. Many varieties can only be propagated by stem cuttings or division, so are only available as plants, not seeds. Grow them about 20cm-30cm (8-12in) apart. Sunny or lightly shaded positions are fine, but the soil must be well-drained – waterlogged plants are likely to rot.
If you’d prefer to start oregano from seed, spring is the time to do it. Sow a few seeds on the surface of a pot of seed compost then cover with a thin layer of compost. Water the pot and put it in a propagator until the seeds germinate. Once they’re big enough to handle, transplant the seedlings into individual pots of multi-purpose compost. Grow them on until early summer and then plant out or pot on into larger containers.
Feeding isn’t usually necessary unless the leaves start to look yellow, in which case a drench with a balanced organic liquid feed and a mulch of compost should sort things out.
Beneficial insects love the flowers, so they’re a welcome edible addition to a pollinator garden. If you have space it’s worth growing one or two extra plants solely to produce flowers for bees and other desirable bugs.
More Oregano for Free
A pretty variegated oregano called ‘Country Cream’ was one of the first herbs I ever purchased. It still lives in my garden – or rather its descendants do, since every few years oregano benefits from being lifted and divided.
Division is best done in spring or autumn. First, cut off the old stems. Dig up the plant and flip it over, so the roots point skywards. Insert two forks back-to-back in the centre of the clump then lever it apart. If it’s too congested, slice it apart with a sharp spade or edging iron. You can usually divide one mature plant into several sections. Throw the old worn out centre of the clump onto the compost heap.
Replant young, healthy-looking sections from near the edges of the clump into weeded soil. Water them in, and keep the soil lightly moist while the plants establish. Dividing clumps has to be one of the easiest ways to make more plants for nothing!
Harvesting and Drying Oregano
While oregano can be used fresh at any time, it’s convenient to have a supply of dried oregano at the ready in the kitchen. Oregano is considered to be at its peak of flavor around midsummer, just before it flowers. Cut handfuls of stems on a dry morning, after any moisture has evaporated.
Bundle sprigs together and secure them with string or a rubber band, then hang them up somewhere warm, dry and airy. Alternatively, spread stems out on a wire rack.
Once they’ve dried out, gently rub the crispy leaves off the stems and store them in an airtight jar. Use either a dark-coloured or opaque container, or keep clear glass jars in a cupboard out of the light.
Fresh or dried oregano is perfect for pizza, tomato sauces, roast meats and vegetables. Add it near the end of cooking to preserve its pungency. What are your favourite ways to use oregano? Share your tips in the comments section below.