‘Plant a little mint, Madame, then step out of the way so you don’t get hurt!’

anonymous British gardener

Spring is the time when we look forward to putting aside our heavy winter clothing for spring jackets and hearty soups and stews for lighter fare. The first foods that are produced in our gardens in the spring are usually greens such as lettuces and spinach, asparagus, green onions, and peas. And there is no better complement to peas and green onions than mint.

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Mint (Mentha) is a fast-growing, aromatic, perennial herb with opposite, toothed leaves, and stems that are square in cross-section. Most varieties reach 1-3’ in height. It prefers a moist but well-drained soil in a neutral pH. Mint can be started indoors from seed or sown outdoors once the ground has warmed and like all seeds, they must be kept moist until they germinate. Choosing to buy seedlings or larger plants will bring a quicker harvest, and I find that I like being able to break off and crush a leaf to see what the mint variety will smell and taste like.

Mint can run rampant over your garden, spreading through underground runners called stolons, and should be either placed where this habit will not be a problem or contained by annual division in the spring.  When I was a novice gardener (and a very green one at that) some 35 years ago, I made the mistake of planting mint in our garden. It took several years to eradicate the mint that threatened to overtake the bed. If you do want to plant mint in the ground, one option is to plant it in a bottomless five-gallon bucket sunk into the ground with only the top couple of inches peeking out.

Growing mint in containers or hanging baskets solves the problem of mint taking over. Container herbs will require more moisture than garden-grown herbs and may benefit from late afternoon shade. And containers can be brought in for the winter. I have had mine in a sunny window since last October and it is still doing well. Below is an image of mint planted amid eggplant in a container.

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Chocolate mint in flowerFresh leaves should be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Only remove about one-third of the foliage at each harvest. Early morning is best to ensure that the oils are not dried out from the sun. To dry herbs for winter use, the leaves should be harvested prior to flower buds opening. Pinching off leaves will help the plants to fill out. Any mint that is allowed to go to flower will attract a wide variety of pollinators with its white, pale pink, or pale purple blossoms. The image on the right is chocolate mint in flower (image from the NCCD Plant Sale site)

 

True mint varieties are known to cross pollinate with other types of mint when planted within close proximity. This can result in characteristics from different mint types to appear in one plant, leading to unfavorable scents or flavors. There are between 20-25 species of mint in the Mentha genus depending on the source: the following are some of my personal favorites.

Chocolate mint

 

Chocolate mint, Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate’, is my top choice, with its brownish-red stems and brown tinged serrated leaves. It is a cultivar of peppermint (which itself is a hybrid of watermint and spearmint) and prefers full sun. I’ve heard the smell and taste compared to an Andes Chocolate Mint, an apt description.

 

 

 

Mint' Spearmint' 2

 

Spearmint, Mentha spicata, also known as common or garden mint, prefers partial shade and a neutral pH. Like all commercial mints, it is sterile and can only be propagated through cuttings.

 

 

 

Mint 'Peppermint'

 

 

Peppermint, Mentha piperita, does not tolerate dry conditions as it is native to stream beds. Black peppermint has deep purple-green leaves and stems and a higher oil content while the white is actually light green and has a milder flavor. It is often used as a digestion aid.

 

 

 

Pineapple mintPineapple mint, Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’, has a lovely, light pineapple scent. As its Latin name suggests the pineapple mint has white-margined, bumpy, hairy, variegated leaves making it a visually interesting addition to any container. It is the variegated cultivar of apple mint, Mentha suaveolens. Sprigs of the unvariegated apple mint may occasionally appear among pineapple mint and should be pinched out. This is called reversion and happens when the less vigorous variegated specimens return to the original sturdier form, due to less chlorophyll being produced by the light sections of their leaves. Grow in full sun for upright plants or partial shade for a sprawling cover. Image by the U of Florida.

 

mint 'Apple'

 

Apple mint, Mentha suaveolens, has woolly, square stems and leaves that are a bit hairy on top and woolly below. It has a very faint, apple-like taste if the leaves are crushed so it is a subtle addition to fruit salads or in drinks.

 

 

 

 

Mint 'Orange' 2

 

 

Orange mint, Mentha x piperita citrata, can reach up to 2 feet in height. It will bloom in the late-spring into summer with lovely small violet flowers.

 

 

 

Some other varieties of mint that I saw recently included a strawberry mint (below, left) that has a fresh strawberry flavor and mint ‘Mojito’ (below, right), with a touch of citrus.

Mint leaves make a delicious addition to beverages such as lemonade, seltzer, or even iced water. Mint ‘tea’ is not a true tea, which must be made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis, but in fact a tisane, an infusion made by steeping leaves in hot water. Whether the leaves are fresh or dried, a mint tisane makes a refreshing hot or iced beverage.

When used in culinary dishes, mint can liven up any recipe. As it is native to the Mediterranean it is a common ingredient in many cultures. Greek cuisine uses mint in many dishes. Tzatziki is a sauce made from Greek yogurt, cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, chopped mint and salt.

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Its Indian cousin, raita, uses the same ingredients except for the garlic to create a cool sauce to offset the heat of Indian curries. Another Greek dish, tabbouleh, is a great summertime favorite with our family. Usually made with bulgur wheat, I use quinoa as the base grain, and then toss this cold salad with chopped plum tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, and fresh mint. Olive oil, lemon juice, and salt finish off this refreshing cold salad.

 

peas_4_3021757467I have also used fresh mint leaves in homemade strawberry jam, adding the clean, chopped leaves just before ladling the mixture into sterilized jars and putting them into a hot water bath for 10 minutes. A very British spring dish is fresh peas with mint where a sliced scallion is sautéed in butter, then fresh, shelled peas are added along with a pinch of salt, and just enough water to barely cover them. After 2 minutes on a high heat add a small handful of torn mint leaves and cook until the peas are tender. Fresh sugar snap peas can be used in place of the shelled peas.

Some benefits to growing mint are that deer rarely eat it and as an essential oil it can be used to control mites and mosquito larvae or as a repellent to rabbits, dogs, and cats. Even more beneficial is how well it pairs with chocolate! Its no surprise that mint is a symbol of warm feelings, virtue, and eternal refreshment.

Susan Pelton

All images by S. Pelton unless otherwise noted.

One of the joys of the return to warm weather is seeing the plethora of flowering plants that suddenly spring up. From early flowering shrubs such as forsythia and azalea to the daffodils, tulips, hyacinth, and crocus it seems that we are suddenly inundated with color. I love to fill my window boxes and planters with the happy pansies and petunias that are able to withstand some of the cool temperatures that we can expect at this time of year.

 

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Pansies

 

These first selections of annuals are just the beginning of the possibilities that lay before us when it comes to choosing varieties for window boxes, planters and hanging baskets. Container plantings allow us select plants that may not be native to our location due to the severity of our winters, to try out new varieties and combinations, and to easily relocate colorful blooms from one spot to another in our yard.

It is not unusual for the window box planting to be delayed as we are compelled to allow nature to take its course. Female doves often set up their nests in our window boxes or empty hanging planters and what can you do other than wait it out?

 

Mourning dove

If you have containers that are family-free you can certainly get them ready for the season. Any planters that did not over-winter well, such as cracked or split pots, should be disposed of and replaced. Empty out any plant debris or soil that is left from last year and sanitize the containers with a 10% bleach solution. Rinse them thoroughly and allow to dry in the sun. I find that coco fiber coir liners do not last more than a season or two so this is a good time to assess and replace those also. Although this spring I have spotted sparrows and mourning doves pulling out the fibers for use in their nests so I may leave one or two liners where they can get to them.

 

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Vinca, evolvulus, lobularia

When selecting new containers keep their location in mind. Larger containers that contain a fig tree, a wisteria and a bi-color buddleia are placed on our ground level patio where it is easier to bring them into the garage for the winter. These plants don’t require much attention through the winter although I will water them every few weeks. Ok, I say that I water them but what I mean is I will dump the ice cubes from a depleted iced coffee into them as I walk by! They have started to show emerging greenery so I have pulled them into a shady area outside and will slowly bring them back into the full sun where they will spend the rest of the season.

 

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Bee visiting a bicolor buddleia

 

Hanging planters and railing planters can bring color and interest while not taking up valuable floor space on decks. Dining outside in the early evening is great when the hummingbirds and pollinators are so close by that we hold our breath lest we disturb them as they visit the flowers!

 

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Hummingbird moth on a petunia

Selecting the plants that will go into your containers is limited only by your personal preferences and by the sun requirements for the given plant. Containers give us an opportunity to bring some non-native plants into our yard, especially those that are not suited to our winters. I find mandevilla to be a lovely container plant. As a tropical species it loves the full sun location of our front porch, produces striking blossoms all summer long, and will overwinter in the house.

 

These plants are about as large as I will choose but there are so many options for really large planters. I love seeing what the landscapers on the UConn campus come up with each season. Coleus, Vinca, sweet potato vine, geranium and petunias will profusely fill out many containers.

Of course, most of us don’t have a team of landscapers at our beck and call so once you have made your container and plant selections the next step is maintenance. The sun and wind will dry out most container plantings more quickly than if the same plants were in the ground, especially when in porous containers such as clay pots. Plastic vessels will retain water a bit better but its best to check all pots on a daily basis.

It’s no longer recommended that rocks or stones be placed in the bottom of containers for drainage. This procedure actually prevents excess water from draining from the soil layer and may keep the roots too wet. A piece of screen or a coffee filter placed in the bottom of the planter is sufficient to prevent soil from washing out.

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Removing spent blooms and pinching back leggy plants will encourage plants to produce more flowers. Also, their fertilizer needs are different from the same plant in the landscape. Using a teaspoon of fertilizer to a gallon of water will help prevent the buildup of excess salt that can afflict container plantings (you know when you see that white crust forming on the surface of the soil or on the rims of clay pots). If it does appear just flush water through the soil until it drains out the bottom.

Container grown plants don’t have to be limited to flowering annuals. Using them for vegetables and herbs is a great option. A planter of herbs near the kitchen door provides really fresh additions to our meals and beverages in the form of rosemary, thyme and mint. It’s also a great way to contain mint which can easily take over a garden bed.

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Another edible planting from last year included mint in a container which had eggplant and the non-edible tourenia. The purple flowers and the deep aubergine of the mature eggplant complimented the stems and leaves of the mint and the purple of the tourenia.

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I have also grown the typical patio tomato plants and the not-so-typical potato plants in containers. It’s a great way to easily harvest the potatoes as you just dump the whole container out onto a tarp and ‘pick’ the potatoes. Controlling the insects and diseases that plague these plants is aided by the fact that you start out with a sanitized container and fresh soil each year. So, as you can see, there is no reason to contain yourself when it comes to container gardening.

Susan Pelton