Ornamental And Edible Oreganos

Mediterranean Kitchen & Garden Delights

Edible or ornamental, perennial oreganos are among my favorite easy-going border edgers. Deer and disease resistant, their long lasting flowers are always lovely and sometimes fabulous, even (or especially) in their dried stage, making them a welcome addition to the winter garden as well. Perhaps because they come from stony, sun blasted Mediterranean regions, all oreganos look especially beautiful when partnered with rocks and grasses. For a dazzling display, pair Hopley’s Purple oregano with pink Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), or partner Barbara Tingey oregano with Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissma) and wait for the wows.

A happy spreader, oregano grows best in full sun and open, well drained soil. Most forms do better in poor, lean soils than in rich ones; excess nutrients and water dilute their zesty flavors, and heavy soils can make oreganos prone to root rots. In my garden, they are especially flavorful and beautiful when grown in sandy loam, with a generous top dressing of aged dairy manure. For the kitchen, harvest foliage before the plants bloom, removing about half of each stem (usually 2-4 inches from the non-woody parts). Dry in hanging bunches in a warm, dry, dim place, or in wetter climates/summers, dry them on racks or screens so the leaves dry evenly and don’t mold(!). Freeze, well packaged, for a year or even more, or store in tightly sealed jars in a dim cool place for up to 6 months.

Your Basic Kitchen Oregano

The mother of our kitchen oreganos is Origanum vulgare, native throughout Europe and the Mediterranean and into Asia. A traditional medicinal plant, it’s also been a common culinary herb for thousands of years. Many of its forms and subspecies have been selected and preserved by gardeners and cooks and today, a little searching will introduce you to oreganos that offer a surprisingly wide range of tastes and textures.

The straight species forms dense mounds of aromatic, deep green foliage, threaded in summer with soft purple flowers on slim stems up to 2 feet high. Though less assertive than Greek oreganos, most forms of O. vulgare have a lively flavor. A handsome form called Hot and Spicy is similar in size, with a pronounced bite that makes it  perfect for pizza and pasta dishes. There are quite a few variegated forms of which Aureum Gold is is especially pretty in the spring, spreading in joyful splashes of clear lemony yellow. Golden Crinkled (O. vulgare crispum) is quite compact (to about 6”) and the quilted leaves are lovely in salads. Taller (6-12”) and subtly gilded, Jim Best is probably an O. vulgare form with a savory, spicy flavor that’s great in dressings, rubs, and salt blends. Westacre Gold (O. vulgare variegata) boasts old gold foliage and rosy flowers on foot-high, copper-pink stems. Another form called Variegated (also O. vulgare variegata) marries olive green leaves edged with butter and cream with white to pink flowers.

Kitchen Kin

A tiny-leaved creeping oregano, Mini Compact (Origanum humile), has equally miniature flowers from spring into midsummer. It makes 6-inch mounds that look at home in the rock garden and do well in kitchen garden containers, where its delicate sprigs are often gathered for tasty garnishes. As with any plant with so much variation and human history, there is some discussion about the legitimacy of various names. Some folks insist that Origanum compacta (or sometimes compactum) nana and Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum Humile are identical, though different nurseries sell quite different plants under each of these names. I’ve ordered both plants from different nurseries and what I received were always different plants.

The version I’m growing as Greek Kaliteri (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum) has fuzzy silver leaves on rather open mounds, with tall bloom stalks. This one has amazing flavor, especially if grown a bit dry. It was imported, not surprisingly, from Greece, where it is a commercial crop for high-end herb sellers. Kaliteri means “the best” in Greek and I believe it! My form of Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum is sold as Greek oregano, which it is, being a wild form collected from Greek mountainsides. This one has smooth green leaves with rich, spicy flavor that makes it a kitchen favorite with anything that includes tomatoes. A compact, carpeting green leaved form from Crete called Greek Mountain Oregano (O. herocleoticum) is prized as both a medicinal and culinary herb. A full flavored Italian Oregano is the one to sprinkle over sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella as well as pizza.

Marvelous Marjorams

Marjorams are hardy perennial oregano cousins with a sweeter, gentler flavor. Fresh foliage of Sweet Hardy Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is tender and mild, and I often use them whole in salads and on sandwiches or minced for dressings. A Middle Eastern Mediterranean species, Origanum syriaca, has several heritage forms, including Zaatar marjoram, with thick, fuzzy leaves and purple stems. It has a complex flavor that suggests sweet marjoram blended with sharper oregano, with perhaps a hint of thyme. A sister form called Cleopatra is suitably stylish, making lovely mounds of silvery foliage that is delicious fresh or dried. Cleo tastes a bit minty, making the chopped leaves pleasant in salads and as a beautiful garnish.

Ornamental Oreganos

These hardy perennials are mostly edible but usually not as tasty as the culinary varieties. Their role is to provide fascinating textures and subtle color, which they do brilliantly. As it happens, my dear Hopley’s Purple (Origanum laevigatum) is as tasty as it is pretty, an effortless edger that looks good for most of the year. Kent Beauty (O. rotundifolium x O. scabrum) spills its darling pink and green bracts in ruffled clusters above grey-green foliage. Showiest in a hanging basket or positioned on a slope, this bushy little herb smells better than it tastes. A sister version of the same cross,  Barbara Tingey boasts blue-grey foliage and similarly tinted bracts that overlap to form rounded balls that dangle from wiry stems like cat toys. Another hybrid, Amethyst Falls, offers chartreuse to silvery pink, hoplike bracts, overlapping like fish scales, each involucre plump and tapering as magical mermaids tails and tipped with a flurry of shocking pink florets.

A highly ornamental form of culinary oregano, Bristol Grass (sometimes sold as Bristol Cross), combines fine-textured foliage with long-stemmed, slim bracts shaded green to pale purple, with swinging floral skirts of lively pink. It’s especially good in hanging baskets or tall containers and, not surprisingly, is delicious as well as intriguingly good looking. Finally, a charming Greek wildflower, Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus), makes a stunning little rock garden plant, its silver frosted foliage setting off cascades of pink bracts ending in silvery lavender flowers. Tenderest of all the oreganos I’ve grown, dittany demands extremely sharp drainage and full sun all day. Bon appetite!

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Gardening Without Pain

Stretch Or Kvetch

All week, I’ve visited with groaning friends who can’t stand up straight, or don’t dare sit in a soft chair, can’t turn their heads, or can’t bend without yelping. I too am somewhat incapacitated by a pulled rib. What dreadful disorder lies behind all these physical woes? Sadly, the culprit is the garden, or to be more precise, the gardeners. Though advancing age could conceivably play a tiny part in this scenario, I  was weirdly pleased to note that some of the complainers were far younger than I (though admittedly none were under 40. Hmmm.) I gladly dish out arnica gel and cannabis muscle soothing cream and offer hopefully not-too-smug reminders about stretching BEFORE gardening as well as after.

If I am smug (I probably am), perhaps it’s partly because I have deliberately moderated my gardening techniques quite a bit over time, as arthritis and variously damaged this-es and thats have cramped my original style. Also, sad but true, I am not as strong as I was a decade or two ago, nor as sure-footed on ladders or when climbing up in trees. Though I still garden often, it hasn’t regularly been a daily activity for me for some years now, largely due to family obligations that kept me inside more than out. Thus, I am newly learning my own pace, balancing lifetime skills with changing abilities. I have never been fond of accepting limitations so this is not really a whole lot of fun. However, accepting reality turns out to be a whole lot less painful than denying it. Sigh.

Gardening As Tai Chi

One of the greatest aids to limitation acceptance has been my return to tai chi. After some twenty years of total abandonment of the practice, I was lured back in January by a dear friend. At first it felt very odd; my mind remembered very little, but my body delightedly recalled exactly how it wanted to feel and move (though wanting and doing are not exactly the same, sadly again). By the second practice session, even my clumsy, unaccustomed versions of the moves felt blissful and now I find myself grinning like a happy fool through every class.

We are blessed with a kindly and compassionate teacher who offers his students the freedom to do the tai chi form their particular body is inclined or able to do on a given day. That’s quite a new idea for me, and I am finding it refreshingly realistic and pleasantly uncharged with expectation. That’s not to say his form is sloppy or casual, not at all. However, his teaching style thoughtfully accommodates both the energetic, youthful, and skillful as well as the lame and the halt (or the tired and the wounded).

A Supple Spine Promotes Athletic Gardening

I had forgotten just how beautifully tai chi helps to build balance and core strength, even when done imperfectly. Even, or perhaps especially, the simple drills I practice at home help enormously. Walking attentively, shifting weight through the feet, dropping the center of balance, keeping the lower back open, all work to restore some suppleness to stiffening backs and knees. This is extremely helpful, and when I bend and stoop and kneel and crouch or roll about on the soggy ground, or find myself leaning over backwards or turning almost upside down to fit a saw or pruner into a tight tangle of branches, I am deeply grateful for all those stretching and balancing exercises.

For gardeners, the most important tai chi concept may be that of the straight and elongated spine. Sitting (which most of us do far too much of) compacts the spine and causes a lot of lower back issues. Standing around (usually depending mainly on one foot) isn’t much better, but tai chi offers a magic move: the Pelvic Tilt, a little forward tuck of the tailbone that involves the abs and core muscles. This small adjustment shifts one’s weight downward to the lower belly, dividing evenly between both feet and making one’s stance a lot more stable.

Simple Warm-Ups For Safer Pruning

Many, many unfortunate accidents occur because armed and dangerous people attempt to work with sharp tools. Pruning becomes both safer and far easier when we are internally grounded, our weight held low in the belly instead of high in the chest (or worse, the head). We can then stand securely on one foot with our saw-bearing, outstretched arm counterbalanced by an uplifted back leg rather than a flailing foot. Similarly, planting is a breeze once one has mastered (mistressed?) the art of the Third World Squat, a fairly straight-backed position that allows amazing freedom of arm and hand movement. For how-to’s, consult  a National Geographic for a folks-around-the-fire picture.

If soreness has plagued you in the past, here are some excellent ways to avoid it in the future. However, please internalize the fact that that knowing is not enough; one must also DO to get the benefits. First of all, to keep heavy gardening chores pleasant and invigorating, don’t try to make up for a winter of neglect in a weekend from hell. Do just a bit at a time, and create a new habit: from now on, always start any gardening, heavy or light, by warming up your neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. The whole business takes about ten minutes so there is really no excuse for not doing these very simple, body-saving stretches. None!

Neck Rolls First

Begin with 10 neck rotations, avoiding the backward position: Drop your right ear toward the right shoulder, letting the shoulder slope away earthward. Roll your chin to your chest, then repeat to the left. Return your chin to your chest between each side, but don’t roll your head backward, which can strain the neck muscles.

Next, circle both shoulders 10 times, forwards and backwards. Raise your arms and rotate them at shoulder height 10 times in each directions. Now, with your arms at your sides, lightly clench your hands and circle your wrists 10 times forwards and backwards, then squeeze and release your hands 10 times. Shake out your hands lightly; they should tingle just a bit.

Hula Aloha

To loosen the waist, do 10 hip circles forwards and backwards (pretend you are using a hula hoop). Shake out each leg for a few seconds and jump almost-but-not-quite off the ground on both feet together 10 times. Now end up by shaking out your hands and arms again for 5 seconds. After all that, you should feel brisk and warm, with all joints loosened up and ready for action.

If you feel sore after working, do the hula aloha again, then do some pelvic tilts and gently rock the spine forward and backward. If your back still feels tight, lie down on a yoga mat or rug and press the small of your back to the floor, holding through five full breaths before releasing. Do that gently a few times and then take five minutes to reverse the blood flow to your legs; relax against a wall with your feet up, heels pointing toward the ceiling, and your legs supported by the wall. Onward!

Posted in Health & Wellbeing, Pruning, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Protecting The Earth With Benign Neglect

Nature Loves (Benign) Slobs

For decades now, I’ve been researching ways to help nurture flora and fauna as well as the planet. Increasingly it seems like many of the same things are devastating or beneficial to every living thing, from sequoias and and whales down to worms and soil dwelling bacteria. Not surprisingly, devastators include destructive logging, extractive mining, and soil degrading agricultural practices as well as the widespread use of toxic pesticides at work and at home. Basic beneficials include leaving nature environments alone and doing as little harm as possible. That includes using few or no pesticides, but it also includes being benign slobs.

Benign slobs don’t toss trash everywhere, but they also don’t keep homes and gardens or landscapes obsessively clean and tidy. Nature, as has often been observed, is not tidy in human terms. Generous, bold, abundant, inventive, and endlessly fecund, yes, but tidy, not so much. Thus, when we humans impose our ideas of beauty and order on the natural world, the natural world suffers.

Consider the Bee

To paraphrase Carl Jung, people do not change destructive habits and behaviors unless they hit bottom or fall in love. No sane person cheerfully looks forward to the bottom hitting bits, but falling in love is a more appealing prospect. On the premise that we are most apt to protect what we love and care about, it behooves us to learn all we can about our astonishing planet, because quite truly, to know it is to love it.

For the past few decades, numerous campaigns have been organized to try to save the bees. The result has been, if anything, an increase in bee loss for both native and imported species. There are many factors at play but it’s horribly obvious that too many of us prefer pesticides to pollinators. If you really want to help nurture bees, and butterflies, and birds, and all kinds of creatures, here’s the simplest way to go about it.

Allow A Little Wildness

Indoors and out, do not use pesticides, herbicides, weed-and-feed products, toxic pre-emergents, or even nasty household cleaners and hand ‘sterilizers’. Just don’t. Instead of attacking the problem you see, support the solution that will eliminate the problem. Build soil health, spread mulch deeply, and provide adequate water (but not too much) as needed. Choose plants that can thrive in your conditions and place them where they get the conditions they need.

Once the land you live on is not being poisoned, find a place, or a few places, where you can encourage a touch of the wild. Here you can create your pollinator habitat or sanctuary. Even a small spot will do; many small lives can be protected in very little space. Native plants are obvious choices for such places, but just growing natives is not quite enough. We must also steel ourselves to allow a little disarray. Mulch is fine, but letting native perennials and grasses (aka ‘weeds’) infiltrate is even better. In the untidy tangle, birds and bees can build nests and lay eggs, butterflies can hang cocoons, and slug-eating garden snakes can find shelter. A host of beneficial insects can also camp there, happily preying on insect garden pests.

Pollinator Homes & Gardens

To accommodate these beneficial creatures, it’s most helpful to grow plants that provide an ongoing sequence of blooms from late winter into late autumn. Make sure there are lots of flowers, since they offer pollen and nectar that feed native pollinators as well as European honeybees. Don’t worry if you don’t have acres wide to devote to the cause; even a few pots of long bloomers can support a significant number of bees (and what gardener doesn’t appreciate a righteous excuse to grow flowers?).

Here in Western Washington, the Ed Hume seed company sells packets of seed mixtures blended to nurture pollinators, including hummingbirds and butterflies as well as all sorts of bees. This is good, since there are hundreds if not thousands of native bee species in these parts, from mason bees and leafcutter bees to digger bees and carpenter bees. Most are solitary bees, which don’t live in colonial hives. Instead, they make homes in tangles of grass, in empty shells, in hollow logs or abandoned rodent runs.

Promoting Pollinators Promotes Produce

Solitary bees lay eggs that hatch into larva (white Pillsbury dough boy puffsters), then become pupa (bug-eyed baby space aliens) before turning into adults. Solitary bees can be generalists, resilient species that willingly visit many kinds of flowers, or specialists that can’t survive without very specific plant species. Bumble bees are the only native bees that are colonial, like honeybees, but they are seasonal workers that die at summer’s end. Only young, fertilized queens will hibernate until spring, when they awaken to start creating new colonies.

To please this wide array of bee species, the folks at Ed Hume Seeds consulted with the Xerces Society For Invertebrate Conservation, an extremely effective entity founded by Robert Michael Pyle (a fellow Washingtonian). The mix they put together contains some 18 species of wildflowers, including lance leaved coreopsis, purple coneflower, sunflower, perennial lupine, annual lupine, blanketflower, crimson clover, partridge pea, california poppy, Mexican hat, cosmos, lacy phacelia, plains coreopsis, butterfly milkweed, blue sage, poached egg flower, meadow-foam, Rocky Mountain penstemon, lemon mint, and bee balm. Obviously there are many non-native species mixed in, but overall, it is a blend designed to appeal to and nurture native solitary bees, bumble bees, honey bees, butterflies, and  hummingbirds from spring into autumn. Having these pollinators around will boost crops of many fruits as well as tomatoes, peppers, squash, and cucumbers, and the produce will be heftier as well.

Here’s the link to learn more about Xerces: http://www.xerces.org/story/

Posted in Growing Berry Crops, pests and pesticides, Pollinators, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Tomatoes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Plants That Increase Happiness & Harvest

Floral Abundance Promotes Pollinators

Like most gardeners, I welcome any excuse to grow more flowers. Therefore, it’s very good news that by raising as wide a variety of blooms as possible, we are doing our bit to aid and abet pollinators. Native pollinators and European honeybees alike are currently endangered by loss of habitat, virulent diseases that attack weakened insects, and widespread pesticide use and abuse. This is bad news for people who enjoy eating a variety of food, since a good third of the most popular human crops require insect pollinators, from almonds to zucchini.

While bees get a lot of the press, their distress is shared by dozens if not hundreds of native pollinators, from mosquitoes (which pollinate blueberries and bog orchids) to bats (which pollinate night bloomers, such as datura and agave). Birds too, though they mostly pollinate sunset-colored flowers with little or no fragrance. Here in the Northwest, hummingbirds prefer tubular flowers such as those on our native honeysuckles. Even butterflies do their part, though lacking in pollen-transporting abilities, chiefly drawn to nectar-rich flowers like buddleia as well as columbines, thistles, and goldenrod.

More Blooms Mean Better Bugs

When diverse and abundant pollinator populations thrive, so do farm and garden crops of many kinds, from berries and tree fruit to the squash and cabbage families. For instance, when notoriously productive zucchini plants fail to set fruit, it’s usually because there are too few pollinators around. A zucchini can be fully pollinated by 10-15 visits from a native squash bee, but it might take 2-3 times that for a less efficient honeybee to accomplish the same task. Lacking that volume of traffic, zucchini will form incompletely, failing to fully develop. Thorough pollination results not only in more fruits and vegetables, but often in significantly larger ones. Thus, supporting a wide variety of pollinators will positively impact our garden’s fruitfulness.

Naturally enough, many native pollinators prefer nectar and pollen from native plants, but many will also forage happily on non-native ornamentals of many kinds. Each specific pollinator has its own preferences but they also share some general favorites, so you don’t need a text book to create and enticing habitat. Pollinators that congregate on native huckleberries will also visit blueberries and other ericaceous plants, from heathers and heaths to salal and  manzanitas. Those that thrive on native roses or columbines or  penstemons will also feed happily on more ornamental versions, though single blossoms will be more heavily visited than doubles, which can be difficult for pollinators to access.

Pretty & Practical

Some folks think of native plants as frumpy, but there are some serious showboats amongst them. Here in the maritime Northwest, various species of California lilac (Ceanothus) provide sheets of brilliant bloom from spring into summer. Puget Blue forms a rounded mound some 6 feet high and wide, covered with fine textured, deep green foliage and lake blue flowers in astonishing abundance, while Joyce Coulter forms a wide, spreading mound smothered in soft blue and compact Snow Flurry blooms in icy white. All kinds and colors of Ceanothus are prized by all kinds and sizes of bees which flock to feed on the abundant nectar, while several native butterflies feed on the crisp, crinkled foliage.

Ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) is one of my own favorite natives, spilling its creamy floral fountains in May and June (usually). Deciduous and arching in form, ocean spray can reach to 20 feet, though 10 is more typical. It’s a butterfly favorite too, both as a larval host and nectar producer, making it equally popular with native bees. So is the native Pacific rhododendron, which is also a larval butterfly host and a magnet for hummingbirds as well as bees and butterflies in blossom season.

Handsome & Toothsome

Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is a stunner from mid spring into summer, its dangling clusters of blossoms attracting birds, bees and butterflies alike. The red forms in particular are favored by hummingbirds, which often dive bomb each other in fierce territorial disputation. Handsome serviceberry (Amelanchier species) can be shrubby or form small trees, covered in spring with fluffy off-white flowers followed by tender fruit that tastes as good to birds as humans.

Serviceberry nectar attracts hummingbirds as well as native bees and butterflies, some of which also use the plant as a larval host. Humble salal is no stunning beauty, but the glossy foliage is a flower arranger’s staple and a butterfly staple as well as a larval host, and the nectar is appreciated by native and honeybees. Visiting Monarch butterflies will flock to the native Northwestern milkweeds, especially Asclepias speciosa, which can be grown throughout the maritime regions.

Garden Variety Nectar Sources

Many non-native garden plants will find plenty of takers when in bloom, especially long flowering catmints. These easy to please perennials produce soft blue flowers over a very long season and are usually abuzz with a variety of bees, hoverflies, and butterflies which relish both nectar and pollen. All sorts of herbs, from mints to sage, will also nurture pollinators. Both rosemaries and lavenders can attract all kinds of bees, and in the space of half an hour, you might see bumblebees, carpenter bees, digger bees, honeybees, and even the curious little leaf-cutter bees coming to dine.

You’ll also spot lots of kinds of bees on the spiky blue plumes of Russian sage, as well as hummingbirds and butterflies. Sunflowers too attract native bees and butterflies, as do California poppies, sweet alyssum, zinnias, and many other colorful annuals. Grow as many as you can find room for and you’ll have flowers galore and a garden that’s lively and life supporting for the beautiful, fascinating pollinators that bring such bounty to our tables.

Want to know more? Check out these links:





Posted in Easy Care Perennials, Gardening With Children, Nutrition, pests and pesticides, Pollinators, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment