So far, we have led the Herb Gardening 101 series with the most easy-to-grow herbs. Chives and oregano are two of the easiest and most prolific. Mint also falls into this category, but it has a dark side, as well: — it is one of the most difficult herbs to contain. The question here is not only how to grow it but also how to keep it where it belongs.
Why Should I Grow Mint?
When we think of mint, our minds immediately picture a vibrant, green sprig atop a scoop of raspberry sorbet,; the bright component in a classic, creamy yogurt sauce; or, of course, mint jelly paired with braised lamb. The herb we know as "mint" is actually a genus of the broader mint family, Lamiaceae, which also includes many of our favorite culinary herbs, like oregano, thyme, lavender, and sage.
Mint, or mentha, is grown practically everywhere in the world; therefore, it makes appearances in almost every cuisine. This versatile culinary herb is delicious both dried and fresh. So, why all the hate? Bring up the topic of mint with many a gardener, and you'll be greeted with a resounding, "Don't plant mint! It will take over your yard!" With thoughtful preparation and placement, however, mint can be a wonderful and containable addition to your culinary garden.
The most commonly planted varieties of mint are spearmint, which is sharper and more intense in flavor, and peppermint, which has a more delicate and sweet flavor. I'm also a fan of apple mint for my iced tea and chocolate mint to accompany my desserts.
Perennial or Annual?
Mint is a hardy perennial that is one of the first to arrive each spring. It also grows year-round in warmer climates; no dormancy period is needed. Mint thrives in both cool and warm climates, and it also retains its potency of flavor over the years.
How to Plant Mint
- Where: Mint performs its best in full sun, as long as the soil is kept moist, but it also thrives in partial shade. Mint is considered an invasive plant, since it sends out "runners" and spreads vigorously. Don't let that fact deter you from enjoying fresh mint in your garden. Opt to grow mint in containers or, if you want to plant mint in the ground, submerge it in a large container and leave about two inches of the rim exposed above the soil to prevent spreading.
- When: Plant mint cuttings preferably in the spring. Mint is sturdy and resilient, however, and I have had success planting it in the warmer summer months, as long as I have provided ample water. Don't waste your time starting mint from seed. Ask a friend, who grows mint, for a root cutting and plant it directly into the soil. Another option is to simply root a sprig of mint. If you score delicious mint at the farmers' market, just place a sprig in a glass of water, set it in a sunny window, and wait for roots to emerge within a few days.
How to Cultivate Mint
- Soil: Mint thrives in moist, rich soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. To keep the soil moist, cover the soil with a little mulch.
- Sun: Optimally, plant mint in a sunny location. I have mint planted in a portion of the garden that receives about fives hours of sun per day, and it does just fine. If you are planting mint indoors, where it also performs well, make sure you place your container near a sunny window.
- Water: Regular watering is really the only maintenance mint needs. Keep the soil moist at all times.
- Spacing: You only need one or two mint plants, since it is so prone to spreading. If you choose to plant a couple, space them about two feet apart.
- Companion planting: Plant mint alongside tomatoes, cabbages, kale, carrots, onions, and radishes to deter pests. One of the reasons I enjoy planting mint in containers is that I can position my mint wherever I decide to plant my tomatoes each season. Read more on companion planting in this post.
How to Harvest Mint
Mint is another herb that is easy to harvest. In fact, regular harvesting is encouraged, in order to prevent legginess. You may opt to harvest most of the plant at once, clipping away up to 2/3 of the length of the stems, or you may clip away only what you need. For the best potency of flavor, harvest just before the mint flowers. Its aroma will be at its peak.
So, as a gardener, are you a mint advocate or a die-hard opponent? Be sure to check back tomorrow, when we discuss what exactly to do with all of that mint.