Culinary oregano is the common name of many herbs. It can refer to Greek oregano (Oregano heracleoticum or O. onites) which is usually used for Mediterranean cooking. Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) is used in Spanish and Mexican dishes, and it is more pungent. Common oregano (O. vulgare) is often used in French or English dishes for its sweeter, less pungent flavor. The common names are sometimes wild marjoram and pot marjoram. There are often other plants referred to as oregano, including Mexican oregano, which may refer to O. longiflora, which has a stronger flavor.
It is easy to grow oregano from seed, but the flavor may be variable. To know exactly how it will taste, start with small plants after tasting them at your local garden center. You can also grow oregano by dividing plants or by rooting cuttings. Plants can get 30 inches high and 18 inches wide and will send out runners, but regular harvesting will keep them under 1 foot high. You can start harvesting when they reach 4 inches in height.
Oregano tastes best before it flowers and you can prolong the time before blooming by harvesting regularly. Its flowers are spiky purple, pink, or white blooms. As plants get older, the centers tend to die out and the stems will become woody, at which time you can divide plants to rejuvenate them in the spring or fall. Cutting plants back to the ground will encourage a fuller plant with more stems.
You can grow oregano in containers or use it as an edging plant. Like most Mediterranean herbs, oregano prefers well-drained soil that is not too rich and full sun. Oregano grown in nutrient rich soil tends to be less flavorful. Oregano can be used fresh, or stored after drying or freezing.
Oregano can be a hardy perennial or a tender perennial. Most oregano is hardy to zone 5, but this depends on the variety. In colder zones you can try to overwinter it by covering it with mulch or pine boughs to provide winter protection. Wait until after the ground freezes, since the goal is to keep the roots of the plant mildly frozen all winter and to protect it from freeze-thaw cycles, not to keep it from freezing. If the winter is not too brutal, it will grow back from the roots in the spring.
How to Grow Herbs: Basil
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual herb which is often used in Italian cooking. There are many varieties of basil, including sweet basil, Thai basil, lemon basil, lime basil, cinnamon basil, purple basil, and many others. Basil is originally from India, and it is easy to grow in warm weather and full sun. Growing several varieties of basil and using them all in the same dish adds a rich, complex flavor.
You can grow basil from seed by starting it inside a few weeks before your last frost or by sowing seeds directly in the garden after the soil has warmed up. Basil varieties will come true to the variety that is stated on the seed packet if you buy quality seed. If you plan on saving seed, basil easily crossbreeds with other basil varieties, so if you have other varieties in the same area you will not get the same flavor of basil from seed next year. Basil will not tolerate frost, and will turn black and die, so wait until it warms up in the spring to plant it.
Basil heights vary by variety, but most get to be about 3 feet tall. There are some varieties which only get to be 6 inches tall, and these do well in pots. To keep basil from blooming, harvest regularly. The flavor usually changes after flowering. The flowers are not significant, but bees love them. When the plant reach 6 inches in height, start pinching to encourage bushing and discourage flowering.
Basil makes a good companion plants for tomatoes, and the more ornamental types make good edging plants. Unlike most herbs, basil likes moist, nutrient rich soil. Aphids, beetles, and slugs are the main pests to bother basil.
Fresh basil is good in salads, pesto, and sandwiches. Large-leafed varieties make a tasty alternative to bread or pitas when used as a wrap. It can be used fresh, dried, or frozen. To dry basil, a dehydrator or the lowest setting on your oven works best. Since basil has a high water content, slower methods of drying usually result in mold.
How to Grow Herbs: Basil Indoors
You can grow basil indoors, if grown in direct sunlight or a few inches from grow lights in a warm place. To grow basil indoors, you can start from seed. Or to grow basil indoors for winter, take cuttings to root of your plants in the fall. Basil needs richer soil than most herbs, so fertilize with fish emulsion or kelp seaweed every month.
How to Store Herbs
To store herbs, always choose your freshest and healthiest plants. Cut them in mid-day after morning dew has evaporated, but before the hot afternoon sun causes them to wilt or decrease in water content. You can harvest any time your plants get big enough, but never do not more than 1/3 of a plant at a time.
How to Store Herbs by Freezing
To freeze herbs, stuff a few leaves or chopped leaves in ice cube trays and fill halfway with water, trying to keep the herbs mostly under water. Put them in the freezer until they are mostly frozen. This helps the leaves to stay submerged. Add more water, and now the herbs should be completely covered with water. Freeze them completely, and then transfer them to a sealed container to return to the freezer.
Alternatively, lay them out on a cookie sheet in a single layer, cover to prevent freezer burn, and freeze. When they are frozen, quickly transfer them to a plastic bag and return to the freezer. This will prevent them from freezing together, and will make it easier to use your herbs in small portions.
If you are planning to use your herbs for pesto, you can make the pesto like normal, and then freeze it in ice cube trays. Transfer it to an airtight container after the cubes are completely frozen, and return it to the freezer.
How to Store Herbs by Drying
To dry herbs, cut lengths of herbs from your garden, strip the bottom leaves, and tie them together with string or rubber band. If they need washed, make sure to dry them completely or they will mold. Hang them in an airy and warm location until they are dry. Make sure to check the tightness of the string or rubber band periodically, since the stems will shrink as they dry, and the herbs could drop out onto the floor.
When completely dry, strip leaves off of stems and store in airtight containers in a dark place. Bundles of dried herbs also make nice gifts, or try weaving them into a wreath or adding them to a pre-made wreath.
When cooking with the herbs that you have stored, remember to use less of dried herbs because their oils are more concentrated. For herbs frozen in water, just drop them into your soup or sauce. To cook with frozen leaves, use the same amount as you would fresh leaves, but keep in mind the texture will not be the same. Add basil near the end of the cooking time to preserve its flavor.