With its trailing green leaves and small white or purple flowers, oregano can just as easily be an ornamental plant as a culinary herb. It has a robust, herbaceous flavor that frequently stars in Italian dishes and pairs well with almost any type of vegetable or meat.
Even better, oregano is one of the easiest herbs to grow and harvest. It favors beginner gardeners with its unfussy attitude and will quickly become established in your garden to return year after year.
It won’t take long for you to get an abundant crop of fragrant leaves, which you’ll then want to harvest and either use or store for later.
Here’s what you need to know about growing the best plants, how to harvest your oregano, and how to dry and preserve it for months to come.
Benefits of Drying Oregano
Happy oregano plants will grow like crazy, leaving you with an abundance of fresh, fragrant leaves. In fact, the more you harvest from your plants, the more they’ll produce.
Unless you’re a chef or always in the kitchen cooking, you’ll likely end up with more fresh herbs than you know what to do with. Drying is one of the best ways to preserve your harvest so that you don’t lose any of what you’ve grown.
With its pretty purple or white flowers, oregano can easily be grown as both an ornamental and edible plant. Its pungent, spicy leaves are used to flavor a wide range of dishes.
Dried oregano also has some advantages over the fresh version when it comes to cooking.
The fresh herb makes a great addition to salads and other uncooked dishes but doesn’t stand up well to prolonged heat or cooking. You can still use it fresh by adding it in at the very end of your cooking process, but dried oregano can be added from the beginning to make more flavorful sauces and recipes.
The flavor of oregano also gets more intense with drying and will last in storage until the next growing season.
Tips for Growing Happy Plants
Oregano is very easy to grow from seed, cutting, or as a transplant bought from your local nursery. It grows equally well in the ground or in a container garden.
However, there are some important tips for growing the healthiest herbs possible.
- Once established, oregano is a perennial that’s very cold hardy. However, when you first plant it, you want to make sure all danger of frost has passed and the ground has warmed up. Soil temperature should be around 70°F before you plant.
- Like other Mediterranean herbs, oregano loves the sun. Plants should be grown in full, strong sun, although it will take partial shade, especially in extremely hot climates. The more sun it gets, the more intense the flavor will be.
- Oregano prefers drier soil than most other plants, but it will need watered during dry spells. The best method is to water plants deeply and infrequently. If you are growing in containers, soak the soil until water comes out through the drainage holes. Then, leave it alone until the soil is dry again.
While established oregano plants are cold hardy and can take a little frost, new plants need warm soil to get started in. Wait until the soil temperature is around 70°F to plant.
- Because oregano prefers drier soil, mix in some sand if you have heavy clay soil to get better drainage. Homemade compost mixed in with your soil will be enough to provide nutrients for your plants through the whole growing season.
- Trim your plants consistently as they grow to encourage bigger, bushier plants. You can start lightly trimming as soon as they reach about 4” tall. Just pinch off stems back to an intersection of leaves and use the trimmings in your next meal.
- Oregano is an excellent companion plant. It can easily share a pot or a garden section with other herbs or with vegetables like tomatoes, beans, and peppers. The herb will actually make a nice carpet effect that helps keep soil moisture in and cuts down on weed growth.
When to Harvest Oregano
The best time to harvest oregano is right before it flowers, just as the flower buds are starting to form.
You can still harvest either before or after this stage, but this is when the leaves will have their best and most intense flavor.
Leaves will be at their most flavorful just before the plant starts to flower. Try to harvest at this point for the purpose of drying the herb, but harvest at any time for fresh use.
If you have a perennial patch of oregano, you’ll likely want to harvest in late spring or early summer (typically around the beginning of June). If you just planted your transplants or cuttings this spring, you’ll have to wait a little longer before they get ready to bloom.
The best time to harvest is on a warm morning after the dew has evaporated from the leaves. The flavorful essential oils that give oregano its pungent taste will be at full force this time of day.
How to Harvest Oregano
There are two easy ways to harvest oregano depending on whether you want to use it fresh or dry it.
Harvesting for Fresh Use
If you want to add some oregano to a recipe, use this quick method anytime.
Pick out a stem that’s at least 6-8” long and hold it with one hand about ⅔ of the way down the stem. Using your other hand, slide your fingers up the stem so that the leaves come off and you’re left with a bare stem.
Harvest as much as you need using this method as long as you leave at least ⅓ of the leaves on each stem.
You can then come back when it’s convenient and trim off the bare part of the stems back to the leafy section. Alternatively, you can cut the stems first and strip off the leaves afterwards in the kitchen using your hands or an herb prepper.
Harvesting to Dry
If you’re ready to dry your oregano, you’ll want to collect a much larger amount than you normally would. The herbs will shrink quite a bit as they dry, so harvest 2-3 times more than you want to end up with.
All you need is a pair of scissors or some garden clippers and a small basket to put the herbs in as you harvest.
Oregano can stand a lot of trimming, but you’ll want to leave at least 2-3” of stem and leaves so that the plant can recover and keep growing.
To harvest, select the stems you want and cut off each one right above a growth node. You can find growth nodes by looking for sets of leaves coming out from the stem with smaller leaves that represent new growth.
Cutting about ¼” above these growth nodes will cause your plant to start branching out and becoming bushier. Longer stems are better when it comes to air drying, but you can make due with any length.
Place harvested stems in your basket or bowl and try to keep the ends of the stems together to make it easier on yourself later.
How to Dry Oregano
Oregano, like other herbs, is very easy to dry and store for long-term use. Its small leaves mean that it will dry fairly quickly, but you still need to plan on a few weeks of drying time.
For quicker drying, use a food dehydrator if you have one.
First, you need to get your herbs ready for drying by washing them off gently but thoroughly. Swirl the stems and leaves in a bowl or sinkful of cool water and remove any damaged or discolored leaves.
These oregano leaves are perfectly healthy and ready to dry. Make sure you discard any bruised or yellowing leaves.
Then, lay out the stems on a clean towel and pat them dry. Leave them to dry on the towel until all surface moisture has evaporated, usually 1-2 hours. This is an important step to prevent the formation of mold.
If you have a salad spinner, you can toss the stems into that before laying them out on your towel to speed up the drying process.
After your oregano has gone through its first drying period, it’s time to get serious. Gather the stems into bunches of 4-8 stems per bunch. Don’t make the bundles too big or they won’t dry properly.
Tie each bunch at the end (where you made the cuts) with some string or garden twine. Loop a longer piece of twine through each bundle so that you can hang them up.
It’s a good idea at this point to put paper bags that have holes or slits cut in them around each bunch. This protects your herbs as they dry and will also catch any leaves that fall off during the drying process. However, you can skip this step if you don’t have paper bags.
Tie up each bundle of herbs somewhere warm, dark, and dry. Try to place them somewhere that gets good air circulation.
You’ll know the leaves have finished drying when they are crispy and easily crumble into pieces. This is a sign to take down your bunches and put your herbs into storage.
You’ll know the leaves are completely dry when they get crispy and crumbly. They will also shrink quite a bit as they dry.
Air drying oregano will take about 2-3 weeks depending on air circulation and humidity levels.
Using a Food Dehydrator
Using a food dehydrator to dry herbs makes the process go much more quickly while still retaining maximum flavor.
To use your dehydrator, wash your stems and leaves like you would for air drying. Be sure to let them dry on a towel until all surface moisture has evaporated before placing them on your trays.
Once they’ve air dried for an hour or two, lay out the stems in a single layer on your dehydrator trays. Make sure there isn’t any overlapping and discard any bruised or discolored leaves.
Look at the instructions for your food dehydrator to find which temperature setting to use for drying herbs. It will likely be one of the lowest settings and no higher than 95-100°F.
Let the dehydrator do its work, but check on it every so often to make sure none of the leaves are burning or getting too crispy.
Once you’ve finished drying your oregano, it’s time to store it properly so that all your hard work pays off. Use glass containers with tight fitting lids and store somewhere like a pantry or cupboard.
Once all the leaves are properly dried and crumbly, remove the trays and let the herbs cool for at least an hour before storing them.
Storing Dry Oregano
If you’ve followed one of these methods for drying oregano, proper storage will make your herbs last for at least 6 months with all their flavor still intact. Here’s how to do it:
Step #1: Strip Off the Leaves
While you can store whole stems of oregano, taking the leaves off now will save you time later.
With the herb being all dried out, the leaves should easily separate from the stem. Just grab a stem from the bottom and gently but firmly slide your fingers all the way up so that the leaves come off into your hand.
Do not crush or crumble the leaves at this point. Keeping them as whole as possible will retain the maximum amount of flavor. Only crumble them when you are cooking with them.
Step #2: Pick Out the Right Containers
While you can store in plastic, glass containers with tight fitting lids are a much better choice.
You can use a small glass herb container to store some of your oregano for cooking with. Put the rest in a larger glass container, and fill up your smaller one as necessary. Make sure all containers have been washed and thoroughly dried before storing your herbs.
Your newly dried oregano should last for about 6 months with all its flavor intact. Use it in all your favorite recipes at ⅓-½ the amount of fresh herb.
Step #3: Store Your Containers
Once you’ve filled up your containers with herbs, store them somewhere dark and dry. Keep them away from light and heat as much as possible to best preserve the flavor.
Check your containers once a day for the first few days to make sure there isn’t any condensation forming.
When you’re ready to cook with your herbs, simply crush up the leaves and add as much as you want. If your recipe calls for the fresh herb, use about ⅓-½ of that amount dried.
You now should have a good supply of oregano to last through the winter and all the way until it starts growing again!
And now that you know how to harvest and dry oregano, maybe you’ll be inspired to dry and store some basil or any other herb growing in your garden.