Oreganos For Kitchen And Garden
This past week, I’ve been working on designs for three very different gardens, two public and one private. The private one is my own, and the simplest; a modest P-Patch, formerly a raised bed. In departing, the previous gardener removed both the wooden sides and the top foot or so of soil, leaving a sloping mound of weary earth. As I’ve recently mentioned, I’m restoring the bed to health by heaping on compost and planting peas and beans to add nitrogen to the soil. One of the public projects is at our local Senior Center, where a group of hardy volunteers will similarly renovate the soil before replanting the main entrance bed with an array of tough, easy-going evergreen plants. The third project is a still-under-construction play area at a local park, where challenges include full sun and frequent but erratic foot traffic. In each case, my solution to a number of issues is the same: oregano.
Really? Yup. In my own plot, transplanted clumps of oregano are already starting to spread along the sloping bed edges. By summer’s end, the edging will be complete, stabilizing the slope so I can heap on still more compost without worrying that winter rain will wash it away. At the Senior Center, a variety of oreganos will perform a similar task as the clumps knit together, anchoring soil along the edge of the bed and providing evergreen ground cover year round. In the park setting, sheets of oreganos will alternate with large patches of mint, creating tough, enduring ground covers that will stand up bravely to the playful meanderings of a multitude of active kiddos.
A Plant Of Many Virtues
Hardy, perennial, drought and deer resistant, and almost disease-free, oreganos are among my favorite evergreen border edgers for full sun situations. Edible or ornamental, their small but profuse flowers are always lovely, even in their dried stage, making them a welcome addition to the winter garden as well. Like many plants that hail from stony, sunny Mediterranean regions, oreganos look most at home when partnered with rocks and grasses. One favorite combination of mine is to pair a prolific bloomer, Hopley’s Purple oregano, with airy pink Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), a dream of pastel prettiness for months on end. I also like to let golden oregano tumble over rocks, along with softly waving clumps of Mexican Feather grass (Nasella tenuissima), or match vigorous Greek mountain oregano with coppery Pheasant Tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana).
A willing and vigorous spreader, oregano grows best in full sun and open, well drained soil. It’s not a threat to run, though the larger, more robust forms can certainly swamp daintier companions. Again like many Mediterraneans, oreganos prefer poor, lean soils over rich ones; excess nutrients and water dilute their zesty flavors, and heavy soils can encourage root rots in oreganos. As with thyme, sage, and lavender, oreganos are most compact, shapely and flavorful when grown in sandy loam (which I used mounded over native clay soils). An annual top dressing of compost or aged dairy manure will keep these hardy herbs happy for many years, but commercial fertilizers promote lax, looser growth and reduce the intensity of the volatile oils that provide scent and savor.
Highly Ornamental Oreganos
Though edible, many of the highly ornamental oreganos are not as flavorful as the culinary varieties. What they do provide is year round good looks, from the tight winter carpets to billowy masses of blooms that persist well into winter. My favorite Hopley’s Purple (Origanum laevigatum) actually tastes pretty good, but I value it most as an effortless edger that needs only an annual post-bloom trim to look good all year. Smaller and less lusty, Kent Beauty (O. rotundifolium x O. scabrum) spills sheaves of pink and green bracts in ruffled clusters above grey-green foliage, a good choice for a hanging basket in full sun. 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 tipped with hot 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. Like the other danglers, it’s especially good in hanging baskets or tall containers. Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus), a diminutive Greek wildflower, makes a lovely 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.
Kitchen And Garden Oreganos
Most kitchen oreganos are forms of 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.
There are quite a few variegated forms of which Aureum Gold is is particularly pretty in the spring, spreading in cheerful splashes of lemony yellow. Golden Crinkled (O. vulgare crispum) is especially compact (to about 6”) and the quilted leaves are attractive and tasty as garnish or in salads. Westacre Gold (O. vulgare variegata) boasts old gold foliage and rosy flowers on foot-high, copper-pink stems. Another form simply called Variegated (O. vulgare variegata) marries olive green leaves edged with butter and cream with white to pink flowers. All of these can double as ornamental ground covers and will thrive in any sunny, well-drained setting, taking a surprising amount of foot traffic in stride once well established. What’s not to love?