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Thursday, May 12, 2005 10:11 pm

gardening 5-12-05

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The International Herb Association has declared oregano the 2005 Herb of the Year. Most of us can’t imagine what a pizza would taste like without the warm, spicy flavor of oregano, one of the most familiar herbs used in cooking.

Oregano loves heat and thrives in a full-sun garden location with a light to medium-rich well-drained soil. Good drainage is a must to prevent root rot. Allow plenty of room between plants for their branching roots to spread out.

True oreganos, genus Origanum, are aromatic, herbaceous perennials with erect, hairy stems. Plants vary from 6 inches to 2 feet.

The genus comprises 44 species, but the best oregano for cooking is Greek oregano. Greek oregano, Origanum vulgare var. hirtum, gives the truest biting, pungent flavor. Although the flavor may vary from plant to plant, this is usually a dependable variety for culinary uses. Plants grow up to 18 inches tall, and the white flowers attract butterflies. Winter survival for Greek oregano is marginal in Zone 5.

Wild oregano, Origanum vulgare, generally doesn’t have the best flavor for culinary uses, but it’s fairly invasive and makes a great ground cover. With flowers ranging from pale pink to dark purple, the plants are beautiful in a landscape or as a container planting, and fresh-cut stems add character to flower arrangements. Be sure to plant wild oregano where you can control its spread.

It’s best to buy oregano as a plant. When selecting a plant, taste a tiny bit of a leaf. The flavor should bite back with a sharp flavor and intense sensation. True-to-type oregano plants are mostly grown from cuttings. Most oreganos do not come true from seed. Seedling plants, even from seeds of tasty plants, vary widely in their culinary intensity.

Harvest oregano when the plants are about 6 inches tall. This early harvest will make the plant branch and become more compact and sturdy. When harvesting oregano, leave two or three pairs of leaves on the stem and cut the stem back to just above a leaf axil (the point where a leaf connects to the stem).

The culinary use of oregano dates back to the Renaissance. Good culinary oregano has a hot, peppery flavor with a hint of clove and balsam. Oregano is used in a wide variety of tomato dishes, pizzas, pastas, salads, soups, stews, vegetable dishes, breads, Italian and Mexican dishes, and herb blends. It’s usually added near the end of cooking so that the aromatic oil is preserved.

Oregano leaves may be used fresh, frozen, or dried. Compared with other herbs, oregano maintains a high quality of flavor when dried. To dry oregano, lay the stems on a screen or tie them in small bunches and hang them upside down in a warm, dry location.

Whole sprigs of oregano may be laid flat on a baking sheet and frozen for an hour or two. Once they’re frozen, store the sprigs in a tightly sealed freezer bag with the air removed. When you remove oregano from the freezer, chop and use it immediately. Be sure to always label and date the container — you don’t want any mystery herbs in your freezer!

For more information about oregano — its history, popular varieties, culture, harvesting, culinary uses, and recipes — visit the International Herb Association’s Web site, www.iherb.org.

Information for this article was adapted from the booklet Outrageous Oregano and Mild-Mannered Marjoram, written by Charles E. Voigt.

Vegetable garden design

The typical vegetable garden of the last century was often quite large and traditionally utilitarian. Today’s garden is smaller but, more often than not, an integral part of the home landscape.

“Vegetable Garden Design: Beyond the Straight and Narrow,” a program offered at 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 17, and again at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 19, will take you through the various elements that make a garden appealing as well as productive. Jim Schmidt, a horticulture specialist with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, leads each session.

The programs will be held at U of I Extension Building at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. To reserve a seat and a packet of information, call 217-782-4617. There is a $2 charge.

Annual flowers program

Join University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard master gardeners at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 17, for a free demonstration on “Planting Techniques for Annual Flowers.” This 30-minute hands-on demonstration will provide gardeners with information on full-sun annual flowers for the home garden and proper planting techniques.

The demonstration will be followed by a question-and-answer session. This program will be held in the demonstration gardens at the U of I Extension Building at the fairgrounds.

For more information, call 217-782-4617.

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