When people think of growing herbs they think of quiet, well-behaved plants. But like any family, there’s always one that doesn’t quite fit the mold and that’s mint. Hands down, it’s the most vigorous herb in my garden. Mint is legendary for its ability to spread – under, over, and through just about any barrier it encounters.
So why do I grow it? Because mints smell and taste wonderful. And there’s more to this family than popular peppermint and spearmint. The mint family (Mentha spp.) is a large group of pungent herbs. Its leaves vary from deep green to creamy variegated. Let’s dig in and learn about these pungent plants.
Mints For Your Garden
Apple Mint (M. suaveolens) – This apple-scented version has light green hairy leaves. Its stems grow 18 to 24 inches high. A nice mint to add to fruit punch.
Pineapple Mint (M. suaveolens ‘Variegata’) – Pineapple mint is a variegated offshoot of apple mint. It has lovely dark green hairy leaves edged with white. It’s more prostrate than most other varieties.
Peppermint (M. x piperita) – Anyone can recognize the scent and flavor of peppermint. You’ll find it in a wide array of products, from toothpaste to candies to pharmaceuticals. Peppermint has dark green smooth leaves and small lavender flowers in late summer. It is a sterile hybrid growing to 2 feet high in good conditions.
Spearmint (M. spicata) – When friends see spearmint in my garden they often smile and tell a story about a grandmother or aunt who always had this growing by the kitchen door. Spearmint is hardy and aggressive with generally hairy medium green leaves.
Growing Mint In Your Backyard
Mint likes damp soil and can handle soggy spots in your garden. Many of the species mints are native to moist or boggy areas and prefer slightly acid soil. The herb will grow in spots with sun to shade. If you want more, all you have to do is wait. Mint doesn’t stand still, but constantly sends out a host of runners (a.k.a. stolons). This herb can form roots at every leaf node on every stem.
Mint is notorious for taking over a garden bed unless the gardener uses stern measures. It is possible to grow the plants in the ground but here in the Southwest I would recommend growing it in containers. Not only will this ensure it gets regular watering but the runners that emerge can be easily seen and clipped back.
Snails and slugs love the cool interior of a mint bed. If you see sections of leaves missing, they’ve been at work. You can bait for snails or try luring them to their death with a liquid trap. At night place a shallow tray in the infested area and pour in a sweet drink. Some swear by beer. Others use flat soft drinks. The trick is to attract the snails and slugs into the liquid where they drown.
Mints benefit from a severe cutback in the late fall. And when I say severe, I mean down to ground level. If your area gets hard frosts any above-ground leaves or stems will die. A to-the-ground trim also prevents the formation of insect winter homes among the leaves and removes anything that could harbor the spores of Verticillium wilt, mint rust, or mint anthracnose.
Harvesting and Storing Mint
During the growing season, harvesting mint is as simple as a trip to the garden with your kitchen shears. Fresh mint is a welcome addition to many foods.
For long-term storage, drying is the best method. Clip large sections of the mint stems – down to the ground if you want. Bring them inside and wash thoroughly. I like to immerse them completely in water to dislodge any insect hitchhikers. Remove the mint stems from their bath and shake off excess moisture. Spread on a large screen or absorbent towel to dry. Rotate the stems daily to ensure even drying. When the leaves are crackly, remove them by running your fingers along the stem.
Store mint in an airtight container. Canning jars work great for this and other herbs. Check the container the next day to see if there is any moisture on the inside of the glass. If so, remove the leaves and spread them out a few days more to complete the drying.
Although mint requires regular attention to maintain control, it’s well worth the trouble. The fresh leaves are delicious added to fruit salad or a punch bowl. Dried mint is excellent in hot tea when winter winds howl. But by far the best use of mint I’ve found is a sprig added to a glass of iced tea for that well-deserved rest after my garden labors.