‘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.