‘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.

mint

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.

mint 3

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.

taztziki-1.jpg

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.

“He who bears chives on his breathe, Is safe from being kissed to death.” Marcus Valerius Martialis in his “Epigrams”, 80 A.D.

Rather than bring tears to my eyes, all the alliums (members of the onion family, Alliaceae) in my herb and vegetable gardens bring a smile to my face. Garlic and curly chives are in full bloom, Egyptian walking onions are attempting to escape from the herb garden, second year leeks are going to seed and my ‘White Sweet Spanish’ onions are huge, sweet and juicy.

A pungent favorite of mine is garlic chives (Allium tuberosum). I grow it not only for its charming white flowers that are always useful in arrangements for our garden club’s Olde Home Day Flower Show Labor Day weekend but also for its very garlicky-flavored foliage. The bluish-green, flattish leaves are a tasty addition to stir fries, soups and other culinary dishes where a touch of garlic is nice. A former co-worker from China used to make most delicious Chinese dumplings using garlic chives as part of the stuffing.

garlic chives flowers

White flowering garlic chives by dm

Garlic chives, like most alliums, is a pollinator magnet with hordes of bumblebees and others busily collecting pollen from the round, white umbels of flowers. The flowers reach about 18 inches high. The flowers are also edible but a bit tough. Use them for that finishing touch to dress up salad plates. The one bad habit that garlic chives have is to self-seed everywhere so unless you want tons of plants, deadhead plants as blossoms start to fade.

Curly chives (A. senescens var. ‘Glaucum’) is also in full bloom right now. This plant also has bluish-green foliage but it is only 6 to 8 inches high and there is a nice wave to it. The flowers are small, one-inch umbels of a pinkish mauve color. Curly chives has a strong onion flavor to the leaves and I have never found any seedlings around it. Plants grow slowly, hold their foliage well, and would be useful in perennial beds and even as a border plant.

curly chives

Curly chives by dmp.

About 20 years ago, I planted seeds of ‘Evergreen Long White’ bunching onion (A. fistulosum) and I am still harvesting from the same patch. Also called scallions or green onions (although there are red bulb varieties), one could harvest the whole plant but I just cut the green stems and the plants continue to grow and multiply. If they get a bit too crowded, I will harvest whole plants. They are easily started from seed in the spring and like the garlic chives, their large flower umbels attract lots of pollinators but they self-seed very readily so as soon as the bees stop buzzing around the fairly nondescript flowers, I cut them all down. The green stems can be harvested from early spring until late fall once established.

green onions 3

Green onions towards end of season by dmp.

Egyptian walking onions (A. cepa var. proliferum) are rather curious plants. Strong, large diameter green shoots emerge each spring and stand tall most of the summer. Unlike most allium species that form bulbs at their base, walking onions form a cluster of small bulbs at the top of their shoots. As these topsets reach maturity by the end of summer, they become heavier and heavier and finally the stalk can no longer bear their weight and down they go. This is why they are called walking onions.

Egyptian walking onions 1

Egyptian walking onions leaving the herb garden – time to thin? photo by dmp

You can harvest the little onions at the end of the season and use them like I do in chicken pot pies – so much better than those squishy, frozen pearl onions – or in other dishes. Or, you can let them take root in place. Note they need to touch the bare mineral soil so remove any mulch from underneath them and tuck them into the soil slightly. If there are too many bulbs in the clusters, you may choose to harvest some and only leave a few to root. Or, you can separate the bulbs and plant them 2 inches deep for bigger topsets next harvest. Typically, it will take 2 years after planting for a topset to form.

Egyptian walking onions 2

Egyptian walking onion topset. Photo by dmp.

A few years ago, I did not harvest all my leeks and a couple of them overwintered and bloomed the following year. I left them as pollinator plants and when the seed heads ripened, one keeled over and I left the seed head on the ground over the winter not having enough time to finish cleaning the garden before winter. Lo and behold, leek seedlings next spring! Since then I always leave a few leeks to overwinter and a few usually do so I get no work leek seedlings that I just have to transplant with good spacing between the plants every year since. The original leek that I planted was ‘King Richard’.

leek seed heads

Leek seed heads. Photo by dmp.

Finally, my late onions ‘White Sweet Spanish’ are remarkably large this year. This is a mild and sweet variety that stores only moderately well so I just leave them in the garden and pull as needed. They are needed quite often for everything from kebobs on the grill to warm tuna salad to lemony shrimp orzo to pepper and onion pizza so they should all be used up by the end of the month. Onions are ready to harvest when the tops fall over although you can harvest them any time you want. When I started gardening at first I purchased onion sets. These were available locally but the varieties were often limited. Then I started growing my own onions from seeds but like leeks they needed to be started in February. Now I just purchase onion plants. There is a decent selection of varieties to choose from that are suited to the northeast and it frees up the limited space under my plant lights.

onion white sweet Spanish

Onions ‘White Sweet Spanish’. photo by dmp.

Alliums are remarkably easy and fun to grow. They are great for both culinary and ornamental purposes. Try some, you’ll like them!

Dawn P.

October is in its  second week, bringing the first hard frost to the middle of Connecticut. This seasonal mile stone is my cue to plant garlic. I know, planting anything in mid October seems like the wrong thing to do and a bit backward, but now is the correct time to plant the strong scented bulbs. There are about six weeks left before the ground freezes, giving the garlic ample time to develop a good root system without producing any top growth that will be killed with the freezing weather.

Pick the right spot.

Garlic needs a full sun spot with well drained soil rich in organic matter. Full sun is 6 to 8 hours of sun a day. Add a one inch layer of well rotted manure or compost and mix in with existing soil. Loosen soil to about a foot deep. Have a soil test done to determine pH and nutrient level after compost or manure has been added. Garlic grows best in a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.0. Add lime and any amendments as soil test results recommend.

Break the head of garlic into individual cloves. Leave the papery skins on the cloves. Plant with the root end down and the pointed tip up, three inches into the soil, with each clove spaced six inches apart. A fluffy mulch of straw covering the bed for the winter will provide protection from heaving during the freezing weather. The goal is the encourage root growth this fall, not top green growth until spring.  Once warm spring weather initiates green growth next spring, side dress with a little 5-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of 1/2 pound for 50 garlic plants.

Pick the right garlic.

There are three different types of garlic:   softneck,   hardneck   and elephant. Choosing the correct type to grow for your area will bring the most success.

Soft neck garlic is not well suited to grow through our cold New England winters. It has a soft neck, papery neck of a stem good for braiding. Soft neck garlic is most often the type seen for sale in the grocery stores, shipped in from California where it is grown. Do not plant this in Connecticut.

Hardneck garlic is best suited for New England gardens. It has a hard, almost woody center stem with six to 12 cloves surrounding the central stalk. This type will produce an edible scape that if left on the plant, will produce a flower. The flower will sap strength from the bulb making the cloves smaller. Cut off the scapes before they bloom in May or June. Common hard neck varieties include ‘German White’,  ‘Music’, and ‘Spanish Roja’. Hard neck garlic can be purchased through seed catalogs and most commonly available at farmers’ market during September and October. They are sold to eat, and these can be used as seed stock for planting.

Elephant garlic are very large heads the size of tennis balls with a mild taste.  It is not actually a garlic but closer to the leek family. I have not had much luck getting elephant garlic to live though the winter successfully. Stick with the hard neck varieties!

Harvest and Storage.

During the month of May, the each plant will put up a tall scape with a bud at the tip containing a future flower. As stated earlier, don’t let it flower. Cut the scapes off of the plant about two feet above the ground. The scapes are the first harvest provided from the plants. Garlic scapes are sharp in taste, considered a spring delicacy in stir fries or made into a pesto.

The real harvest of the bulbs comes when the greenery begins to turn yellow and papery. Each above ground leaf is a layer of papery sheath for the cloves below. Handle the plant carefully without damaging the protective paper covering of the head of cloves. When about half of the leaves have turned yellow to brown, harvest the bulbs. Gently dig the heads and lay them in the shade  to dry for two or three days. Protect from night dew to promote the drying. Good airflow is essential. Leave the roots, stalk and leaves on the plant for a month. Set out of the sun, in a covered airy location to cure the garlic. The curing develops the taste and keeping quality.   Do not wash with water. After curing and drying, cut the roots to half inch and bush off any dirt.Garlic can be stored in mesh bags or braided by the stems.

-Carol

photo by Carol Quish

photo by Carol Quish