It can sweeten your breath, soothe your stomach, add a refreshing zing to your tea, or kick up your cocktail (Juleps or Mojitos, anyone?). It can give foods a Mediterranean flair and keep pests at bay. It's mint - and besides its hundreds of uses, its abundant, bright green leaves are an attractive addition to any garden. Plus, it's ridiculously easy to cultivate; so easy, in fact, that your primary maintenance issue will be keeping its hardy, plentiful growth contained.
TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Susan Patterson adds, "Plant mint along walkways or around patio or place in pots at front door for a fresh aroma."
There are many types of mint, from the rich and dessert-like chocolate mint to the tangy, citrus-tinged pineapple and orange mints. Even basil and catnip are members of the mint family. For the purpose of simplicity, though, we'll focus on the two most popular types: peppermint (Mentha piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata). These two are the most basic, all-purpose, and widely available varieties. When you come across a plant at a nursery or grocery store labeled "mint," it's most likely one of these. They're what's in your toothpaste and mouthwash, breath mints and candies. Peppermint has a higher concentration of menthol and is stronger, while spearmint has a sweeter, milder mint flavor. If you want to grow mint for medicinal purposes, grow peppermint, but if you're looking for a culinary herb, less overpowering spearmint is the way to go.
Mint can be grown either from seeds or from cuttings of an established plant. However, experienced herb gardeners suggest avoiding mint seeds, claiming that the resulting plants are less-than-desirable specimens. Luckily, mint plants are not hard to come by; they can be found at most any garden center. Look for a plant with a nice, bright green color and plenty of leaves that are free of brown spots and blemishes.
TIP: Susan suggests, "If planting mint in the garden, place plants 12 inches apart."
Mint tends to run wild when it's given the opportunity. If you have a large area in need of a ground cover, there's no need to try to curb its growth; you'll be pleasantly surprised at its quick and plentiful propagation (and as an added bonus, it smells great when you mow over it). If you're planting it in a garden, though, it's important to keep it in check. Otherwise, it can overpower the surrounding plants--and a hostile takeover of your entire garden probably isn't what you had in mind.
TIP: Susan recommends, "Pinch back top shoot for fuller plants."
Mint spreads via underground runners, so to help slow the spread, use a bottomless container. Simply remove the bottom of a five-gallon bucket and put it in the ground so that the top rim is even with the top layer of soil, and then plant the mint inside. It won't easily escape the bucket, making your job of confining it much easier. Of course, if you don’t want the mint in your garden at all, it will also do well on your patio or in your house, planted in a large pot. If you decide to use a container, you'll need to divide the plants a couple of times a year so that they'll continue to grow properly.
Mint's favorite growing conditions are medium-rich, moist soil and partial shade. A North-facing wall is ideal. But remember when I said that it was easy to grow? I wasn't kidding. It tolerates heat well, can withstand drought, doesn't require fertilization, and thrives in all but the poorest of soils (and even then, it will grow--just maybe not as much). If you really want to show your mint how much you care, mulch it to keep its roots moist and protect against frost, and feed it bone meal (available in the fertilizer section of the garden center) twice a year. As far as diseases, mint is only susceptible to one: rust. Check for rust by periodically looking at the underside of the leaves; if you see any orange spots, remove the leaves at once.
Mint can be harvested several times a year--basically whenever you need some. Don't remove all the leaves at once though, and wait until the plant is 6 to 8 inches tall. Harvest in the morning, when the concentration of oils in the leaves is highest--you'll get a better mint flavor that way. The leaves can be dried, frozen, or used fresh. If you're using fresh whole mint leaves, such as floating a few in your tea or lemonade or freezing them into ice cubes, lightly crush them first to release the essential oils.
TIP: Susan adds, "Mint flowers are a lovely addition to salads."
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