Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Herbal Garden: Mint Galore

Next in my series...another easy-to-cultivate herb family: the Mints.

They smell great, come in a TON of varieties and are hard to kill...which makes them a perfect specimen for both the beginning gardener AND the experienced folks who enjoy growing unusual goodies. I gave them a try in my very first herb garden and was enthralled daily by the wonderful mingling of scents as I passed by, cut stalk after stalk to use in arrangements, made mint butter, added them to icing on cakes, put them IN get the picture. My friends started to wonder if I was going to start rubbing it on THEM soon, and I have to say I DID think about it. I guess I'm just mad about mint!

There are more than 500 species of mint, and it was first given its scientific name, Mentha palustris (peppermint) in 1704. Different varieties all begin with the Mentha part to indicate the species, but the rest of the name indicates sub-species and variant. Even Greek mythology pays tribute to this wonderful herb family: when Pluto's wife, Persephone, found out about his mistress Minthe she turned her into a plant that grew close to the ground so everyone would walk on her. Pluto couldn't rescue her, but he WAS able to add a lovely sweet scent that would be released when she was stepped on. It is native to the Mediterranean and Asia, and brought to the states by early settlers and quickly took over many a garden...this herb interbreeds so easily that even the best experts are stumped as to identifying a particular variety.

Caring for you mint is's a perennial that is very hardy so it can survive nearly anywhere, so no need to worry about frost for most types. Here are the basics when adding it to your garden:
  • Pick a spot in your yard where you won't mind having a field of the spreads like you wouldn't believe and will destroy your other plantings if combined. If you want to be SURE it doesn't spread, you'll need to keep it in a container. With a bottom. I've had it pop up a full 20 feet away. Seriously.
  • It flourishes in partial shade with moist, rich soil with a bit of acid but will grow just fine anywhere else, too.
  • Plant about a foot apart, and if you're using several species and want to attempt to keep them separate, try cutting the bottom out of a nursery container (1 gallon or so) and sinking it...then add your mint friend.
  • When summer is over, cut them back as close to the ground as possible.
  • If growing in a pot/indoors, water when the soil begins to look dry. Or, if you're like me, when the leaves start to wither a smidge.
You can harvest all season long, and even over the winter if you feel like digging through the snow. Mint of all flavors is great on ice cream, in beverages, and--my personal favorite--steeped in hot water for a few minutes to make a lovely herb tea. If you're the sort who cooks, you'll love using it fresh out of the garden for your favorite recipes. As I mentioned previously, I also enjoy using mints when creating flower arrangements. The striated varieties add lots of color and depth, and any type makes for many an 'oh, wow, what's that smell is that MINT?!?'.

Some of the most interesting varieties that are available:

  • Banana Mint: Mentha arvensis, and really does smell like bananas. Chartreuse in color with lavender flowers, perennial in zones 5-11.
  • Peppermint: Mentha piperita. An old-fashioned standard. Lovely lilac flowers, perennial in zones 5-11.
  • Kentucky Colonel Mint: Mentha spicata cv. My personal favorite...this is a spearmint with nice, big, juicy leaves (the more the merrier!) that are the oomph behind the ever popular Mint Julep. Lilac flowers, perennial in zones 5-11. Yum.
  • Pineapple Mint: Mentha suaveolens variegata, a gorgeous variegated yellow and green species that has a wonderful fruity fragrance. White flowers, Hardy to zone 6.
  • Chocolate Mint: Mentha piperita cv. Remember those multi-colored 'gourmet mints' that restaurants had out on the counter when you went up to pay your bill? That's exactly what Chocolate Mint tastes like. And no one else's hands have been all over it. One hopes. Lilac flowers, perennial zones 4-11.
I've had the most luck ordering my plants from online retailers since my very favorite herb farm here in the area went out of business (they retired and are now enjoying their gardens full time) but you never know what you'll find even at the smallest shops as lots of times buyers will purchase what THEY like no matter how unusual.

Gosh, writing just two of these articles is making me very, very sad that summer has come to a close again. I shall live vicariously through those of you in the warmer climes and dream of spring as I write on...happy gardening!

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