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Sweet marjoram: an herb garden favorite

Sweet marjoram has been called ''a happy and rejoiceful herb'' by English herbalist Dorothy Hall. And indeed, working with the warm aroma and delectable flavor of this popular plant is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Easily cultivated both in the house and outside in the garden, sweet marjoram will delight you with its myriad uses in the kitchen and in herbal crafts, such as making potpourri, sachets, and the like.

Among the marjorams, sweet marjoram (Majorana hortensis) undoubtedly has the most appealing scent. It is a tender perennial best grown as an annual in the North. Out-of-doors it grows slowly and compactly to a height of 12 inches or less and has small, soft, gray-green leaves and tiny, white blossoms that form in knots along the stems.

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A hardier relative, pot marjoram (Majorana onites), tastes a bit like thyme.

Much more pungent-tasting is wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare), most popular for use in Italian pizza and spaghetti. This hardy perennial, which may reach up to two feet, has a sprawling growth habit and fragrant pink flowers. Although long considered a close relative, oregano may not be a marjoram at all.

To propagate these herbs, it's probably best to sow their slow-growing seeds indoors in March. Use clay pots or seed flats from the greenhouse, and scatter seed sparingly over a mixture of one-third each commercial potting soil, peat moss, and sand. Cover with a piece of glass or plastic wrap and place in indirect sunlight.

Maintain even temperatures (about 70 degrees F.) and humidity, and keep seedbed evenly moist by misting regularly. Remove the covering as soon as the seeds sprout, usually within a week, and set the seedlings on a sunny windowsill until May.

When all danger of frost is past, young herbs can be transplanted to the outdoor garden, first ''hardening out'' in a sheltered spot for a week. Protect transplants from weather changes with upended clay pots or other sturdy covers.

Sweet marjoram seedlings are particularly susceptible to ''damping off,'' a fungal infection caused by excess moisture. To prevent it, be sure to:

* Provide adequate air circulation.

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* Thin seedlings to prevent overcrowding.

* Cover seed with clean sand or sphagnum moss so water drains away from the surface quickly.

* Use sterilized ingredients for the seedbed.

* Water only when the soil feels dry to the touch and only in the morning.

Water with chamomile tea, a powerful organic disinfectant, should seedlings start to succumb.

Another way to propagate marjoram is by stem cuttings taken in the spring before the flowering stems form, or in the early fall. Be sure to take a bit of woody stem and insert cuttings in wet sand or your potting mix of sand, soil, and peat.

Keep evenly moist for the week or two it takes to develop the roots, spraying the foliage as well as the soil surface. When fresh growth appears on top, new plants can be potted or set out in the ground.

Early spring is the time to separate clumps, if available, before active growth is under way. Be sure to take a healthy piece of root with green foliage beginning to develop. Allow two feet for each of these sprawling plants when setting them out in a sunny spot, and keep them moist until the new plant takes hold.

If you sowed sweet marjoram seed indoors in March, you should be able to pinch off sprigs for the kitchen in June. Thereafter, plants can be cut every four to six weeks throughout the summer. For the best flavor, harvest the herb for drying as flower buds begin to open, cutting no more than two-thirds to the ground.

With this low-growing herb, washing and shaking dry first is a good idea. Spread the sprigs to dry on screens or layers of newspaper. Or you can tie them in small bunches and hang in the shade out-of-doors or in an attic or large, airy closet. After a couple of weeks, strip the crisp little leaves from the stems and store in tightly capped jars.

The flavor and aroma of sweet marjoram increase when it is dried. Use only half as much of the dried herb as fresh when seasoning.

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