If there’s anything that smells more headily enticing than sweet marjoram, I haven’t smelled it. Nothing beats sticking your nose in among the fuzzy little leaves and inhaling deeply. I’ve written previously about another favourite of mine, closely-related oregano (Origanum vulgare), but I reckon sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana) just pips it at the post for most quaffable scent. (Yep, I know you can’t quaff a scent. But with marjoram, you almost can!)
Making More Marjoram
Marjoram is a great pollinator plant too, once those tiny white or pink flowers get going. There’s only one thing I don’t like about marjoram, and that’s its cold tolerance. While oregano will merrily sit out some pretty chilly winters, marjoram isn’t quite as tough. But provide a cosy home for winter – inside a greenhouse, for instance, or under a cold frame – and it might just see the following spring.
But ‘might’ isn’t the same as ‘will’, so the canny gardener should take softwood cuttings for growing on and then overwintering indoors to turn that possibility into an actuality, while at the same time increasing your stock of this versatile herb.
Larger marjoram plants can easily be propagated simply by pulling away a rooted section from the side of the plant, but taking cuttings enables you to make a larger number of new plants, even from a fairly young mother plant.
Taking Softwood Cuttings from Sweet Marjoram
Softwood cuttings can be taken from early summer through to midsummer. Cuttings will dry out and become unviable in the blink of an eye, so taking softwood cuttings successfully is all about speed.
Prepare your materials before taking the cuttings so there’s no delay. You’ll need a pair of sharp secateurs, a plastic bag to place your cuttings in to keep them fresh, and 10cm (4in) pots filled with either seed starting mix or an equal mix of multipurpose compost and horticultural sand, and a dibber (a pencil, stick, or your little finger will do the same job!). Some gardeners also like to use hormone rooting powder or liquid, but it’s not essential. Finally, cut some plastic bottles in half or get some freezer bags. If you have a heated propagator the bottom heat will speed up rooting, but again, it’s not strictly necessary. Water the plants well the evening before taking your cuttings.
On the big day get up bright and early, or at least while it’s still cool, and go out to the garden. Don’t feel like you have to get out of your pyjamas if you don’t want to – your plants won’t judge you! Your marjoram should still be looking fresh and turgid from last night’s watering. Cut shoots up to about 10cm (4in) long and take more than you need, because some might not survive. Place the cuttings straight into your clean plastic bag, then whisk them off to your propagation area.
Take only one cutting out of your plastic bag at a time to prevent them from drying out. Trim it below a leaf joint (known as a ‘node’) so that the cutting is no less than 5cm (2in) long. Remove the lower leaves and pinch out the soft tip. Dip the cut area into hormone rooting powder or liquid, if you want. Make a hole for your cutting with your finger or dibber, slip the cutting in and firm the compost around it. The first set of leaves should be just above the compost surface. Repeat with the rest of your cuttings, inserting three or four into each pot.
Label the pots, then water them to settle the compost. Cover them with your plastic half-bottles or plastic bags and put them somewhere warm but out of bright sunlight. Remove the covers for a short while a couple of times a week to ventilate. Use this time to remove any cuttings that are showing signs of rotting or disease.
Keep the compost moist. After three or four weeks, the cuttings should have taken root. At this point harden them off and pot them on into individual 10cm (4in) pots.
Growing and Harvesting Sweet Marjoram
Once they’ve grown on and their roots have filled the pot, they can be moved either into a sunny spot in the garden, or into containers. Marjoram’s native soil is dry and rocky, so the plants are drought tolerant once established – perfect if, like me, you tend to neglect container plants! They don’t really need feeding, but a liquid seaweed feed when transplanting and after harvesting gives them a boost.
You can nip off what you need at any time for using fresh, but for drying the best flavour is said to be obtained just as the flowers come into bud, as this is when the plants are highest in essential oils. A second harvest can often be taken in autumn too. Cut plants back by up to a half and either tie bunches together and hang them up, or spread them out on a wire mesh screen somewhere warm, dry and well-ventilated. In a matter of days the leaves will be dry and crispy. Rub off the leaves and store them somewhere dark and dry.
Potted plants can easily be brought indoors onto a sunny windowsill before the first frosts. You can take a few leaves from them if your dried supply runs out, but they will appreciate a rest. Then next year, after the last frosts, move the pots outside or plant your herbs in the garden, and start all over again for a never-ending supply of marjoram.