Saturday, June 28, 2014

Oh the Oregano!

Last fall, after about 15 years of talking about moving to the country and looking at properties and not finding "the place," we finally purchased a little three-acre farm. We fell in love with the lay of the land and the trees and the sweet view of the Coast Range.

Like all farms around here, our little farm has a history, and part of the fun of buying the place has been piecing together that history from limited information and new discoveries. Some of that history is about the house, which is a work-in-progress that I'll discuss at another time. The real fun for me has been watching the flora and fauna popping up everywhere.

Having first looked at the place in the early fall, we had a pretty good idea of the late-summer plants and we knew there was a grape arbor and an orchard with plums, pears, apples and cherries. The previous owner, we were told, loved to garden and had planted herbs, medicinal plants and perennials around the house and yard, but all had finished their blooms by the time we saw the property and, in many cases, we weren't certain what we were looking at just from the leaves. The place had been vacant for a while, so the deliberately-planted perennials were so overgrown by the grasses, invasive weeds and other native volunteers we weren't sure what all was out there.

As the first shoots started breaking through this spring, we still weren't sure which ones to pull up and which ones to leave in place. So we just left everything in place until it bloomed for easier identification. (Now we have an epic amount of weeding to do, but I digress...)

Just figuring out the array of beautiful flowers here has been a joy. Springtime surprises like the snowball bush and bleeding hearts and late-spring peonies were gifts from nature. We've identified many of the plants now, but we still have a number of green, leafy things we haven't quite put a name on.

We've had some help. Thanks to the Oregon State plant identification folks, we found out the "uncertain" plant growing along the driveway wasn't poison hemlock but, rather, Sweet Cicely, which has delicate white spring flowers and leaves that have a lovely, subtle, fennel-like flavor when added to salads.

Most of the herbs were pretty straightforward, though, as we've grown herbs before. Lemon balm is cropping up everywhere (to the point of being too much...I prefer lemon verbena for flavor). We have a nice patch of spearmint, and I'm looking forward to making my first mojito. But, more than anything else, we have lots of oregano. We lost some of it due to some trenching through the garden that was required for electrical work on the shop/studio, but even after that, we still have lots of oregano.

This oregano is tough stuff. It seems to be the most successful plant in the yard, with the exception of wild grasses. We have deer wandering around our property daily. They browse on just about everything (including my flowers >:-\) , but they don't seem to touch the oregano.

Bugs don't seem to like it either. Other than the occasional spider, I never see little critters on the oregano and the leaves appear untouched by insects. Whereas most of the garden has been taken over by invasive plants, somehow the oregano is managing to effectively choke out the weeds. Even the bindweed vine that has twined itself around a number of oregano plants is having a hard time. It's now riddled with holes from some bug that makes it look like we've had a visit from the retired ticket-taker in Amelie. Bien sûr, Monsieur did not touch the oregano. (I still pull out the bindweed as it tries to choke everything...)

Honestly, the only natural enemies of all this oregano appear to be the dogs, who always try to run over and lift their legs on it. Needless to say, we've been steering them in other directions... (You knew I'd have to work the scruffy dogs in here somewhere, didn't you?)

Anyway... I've been using the oregano occasionally in cooking, but I've found the fresh oregano loses much of its flavor when cooked. On further research, I learned that oregano is best and most flavorful when cut just prior to flowering and air-dried. The oregano-drying experts also say it's best to cut it in the morning, just after the dew has dried and before the heat of the day has a chance to wilt it.

Of course, as if on cue, on my busiest work week, the oregano started putting out flower buds. Must act fast!

So this morning I grabbed my scissors and began my first round of oregano pruning. There is still a lot of oregano and much of it is just going to have to bloom and be decorative unless I want to go into oregano drying as a business. (Not a bad idea, actually...I might have to rethink that...)

I brought an armload of it into the house, lightly rinsed off the dirt and two spiders (yes, only two in a whole armload of oregano), gently spun away some of the water in a salad spinner and placed the stems on a kitchen towel. As I continued rinsing and spinning, my husband rounded up some string and tied the oregano into bunches and hung it from the cupboards and light fixture.

Obviously I'm going to have to find some place else to keep these hanging until they dry, but for now I'm finding the kitchen potpourri to be quite fragrant and lovely!  I suddenly have this urge for Italian food...

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