Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

The ‘joy of the mountain’ herb

Oregano, or marjoram, is prized for its beautiful flowers and foliage and is a stalwart in the herb garden you shouldn’t be without.

If ever there was a herb which lives up to its name then its probably oregano.

Grown for its strong tasting and pungent leaves, oregano is a perennial herb that thrives in a warm, sunny position. 

It is said to have been derived from the Greek 'oros' meaning mountain and 'ganos' meaning joy – hence ’joy of the mountain’.

It’s heady aroma fills the air on a hot day and lifts the spirits, a property which has been harnessed medicinally since ancient times.

An important herb in Italian, Greek and Mexican cooking, oregano is often used dried rather than fresh in strongly flavoured dishes in which ingredients such as chilli, garlic, tomatoes, onions, olives and wine predominate. Leaves and flowering tops are infused for tea.

Oregano is a must-have in any herb garden. Its pungent, spicy, slightly bitter flavour 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.

Although oregano thrives in a warm climate, it is a hardy perennial that returns year after year, without much work. Oregano plants can last ten years, and will withstand snowstorms and still continue to produce healthy, vibrantly coloured leaves. Older plants still yield delicious leaves, but their potency decreases once they reach three or four years in age.

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 have a limited growing space, it is a great option. Oregano also performs well indoors, when given enough light and warmth.

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. 

Plant oregano in light, well-drained soil. Oregano actually grows better in moderately fertile soil, so no fertilisation or addition of compost is necessary.

Oregano performs well in part to full sun, but the flavours intensify when it receives a full day of sunshine. 

Don't overwater oregano. Water thoroughly, only when the soil is dry to the touch.

Plant oregano eight to 10 inches apart. 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.  

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.  Many gardeners plant it alongside 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.

Harvesting couldn't be simpler. You may harvest oregano once the stems are at least four inches tall. Let the plant grow to about eight inches tall, and then cut back up to two thirds of the plant. 

If you won't be drying your oregano by the bunch, and you only need the leaves, simply grab the stem about two thirds 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. 

To obtain the optimum potency of flavour, harvest oregano leaves just before the plant flowers, if you can time it perfectly. Even the subtly flavoured flowers are great topped on salads. 

Oregano potOregano or marjoram?

The names are interchangeable. Origanum vulgare is called wild marjoram in the UK and oregano in the Mediterranean. Others say when grown as a culinary herb it is referred to as oregano. The only species with a name that hints at marjoram is O. majoraba (sweet marjoram) therefore some believe that this is the only true marjoram. Sweet marjoram originates from Italy and was introduced into the UK in the 16th Century when it was put into nosegays used to ward off the plague and pestilence and also used as snuff. The herb was not commonly eaten in the UK until package holidays took off and people enjoyed the herb in Italy and when pizza became popular.

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