Alice May Brock, who inspired Arlo Guthrie’s famous ’60s song, Alice’s Restaurant, knew that flavor is key to culinary culture: “Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good.”
For those who love the flavor of the Italian countryside, with its fresh vegetables and savory pasta, there is no better way to dabble in cuisine than by growing your own herbs. Dried remnants of a previous harvest can’t hold up to the fresh bunches from the market. But even the slightly wilted market clippings can’t rival the unique bite of freshly picked herbs.
The reason they’re so different? The moment you pick an herb, its aromatic oils begin to evaporate through tiny pores in the leaves. Even those bought at today’s farmer’s market will have already lost some of their punch.
If you’re a novice gardener or have just a little space, follow Brock’s advice and plant some oregano. It is the quintessential Italian flavor, derived from a tough perennial that will last for years. They’re also so vigorous they’re downright hard to kill, so even a rank beginner will find success.
Oregano is the herb for spaghetti sauce and homemade pizza. It’s a tough little ground-hugging perennial that goes by Oreganum vulgaris, which is hardy to Zone 5. Mediterranean in origin, it will tolerate a surprising amount of heat and drought. Don’t worry about soil, because these plants are native to dry rocky soils, so beware of overwatering, particularly in heavy clay soils. To ensure the highest oil content, oregano requires at least a half-day of direct sun daily, preferably more.
These plants spread underground stems. If you know someone with an established herb garden or patch, chances are he or she will be happy to dig you up a clump. Just replant in full sun and well-drained soil to start your own source. If you are given more than a single clump, spot the oregano into various places around your landscaping to provide a much larger source for cutting.
If you live in a climate colder than Zone 5, you can try a different approach with this fast-growing perennial. At the end of the season — after frost comes, but before the ground freezes — dig your oregano and pot it up to bring indoors for the winter.
Where it is hardy, oregano will die back to the ground with the first frost of fall. It remains dormant until spring temperatures rise enough to stimulate new sprouts from the roots. For this reason, many gardeners cut their oregano to the ground in late fall to harvest and dry the foliage.
While you can dry oregano by hanging it in upside-down bundles, it’s so short-stemmed this isn’t the most efficient choice. The best way is to use an old window screen. Take the freshly cut oregano pieces apart, then strip the leaves from the hard stems. Scatter the leaves on the screen in a single layer. Place the screen in a dark, well-ventilated place such as a garage or closet for a week or two. This allows the leaves to maintain their oils while slowly drying out. Drying herbs in the sun is tempting because it’s quicker, but much of the flavor will be lost to evaporation. Once it is dry, store oregano in an airtight container to prevent further evaporation of the oils.
Check out the Herb Society of America’s website, www.herbsociety.org, for more information.