For a refreshing break, try growing mint

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
- posted Tue., Sep. 13, 2011
Contributed
- Contributed Photo

One of the most refreshing ways to take a break on a hot, muggy summer day is to retreat to a shady seat with a cool glass of iced mint tea.

Mints are relatively carefree plants. They are virtually free from insect and disease problems, and will grow almost anywhere except hot, dry sites. Many gardeners tend to shy away from growing mints because of their aggressiveness, but a well-maintained plot can be kept under control.

Mints are ancient plants richly steeped in lore and legend. Peppermint wreaths crowned the heads of Romans, and mints were used by the Greeks for various temple rites and medicinal treatments. Even now, a cup of peppermint tea is thought to relieve indigestion.

Members of the mint family perform best in a moist soil fortified with organic matter. They can take either full sun or partial shade. Soil pH should be around 6.5, so add limestone if recommended by a soil test. A light application of fertilizer once a year in spring will generally meet their nutritional needs.

Mints spread by means of underground runners. Three ways to deal with these rapidly-spreading plants are to either give them enough room so they will not be crowding out other plants, yearly division, or confinement. Presently, I divide the several varieties of mints I have each spring, removing about one-half to two-thirds of the plant. I have also planted mints in very large, bottomless pots sunk in about an inch above ground level. Their leaves will soon cover the edges of any container. Any unwanted roots trying to break free can simply be cut off. Whenever the pot becomes overcrowded, lift the clump, cut in half and replant. Of course, mints can be grown in regular containers and treated like annuals.

Trimming the tops of the plants every few weeks will keep your plants neat and attractive. These are the leaves that can be used for mint jellies, herbal teas and other culinary uses. The lower leaves can be used for potpourri but should not be used for cooking, as they are generally too pungent. The stems are also wonderful in cut flower arrangements.

If you want to grow several varieties of the same species – say, peppermint and black peppermint – keep in mind that cross-pollination can and frequently does occur. Any new hybrid seedlings resulting from these crosses are often weaker in fragrance and flavor. Plan on dead-heading the plants, or removing any seedlings that germinate.

Because of this cross-pollination tendency, it is best to purchase labeled plants from a reputable nursery. Some mints do come true from seed. One that does not is true peppermint because it is a sterile hybrid, the result of a cross between Mentha aquatica and M. spicata.

Many varieties of mint are available at local garden centers. It is usually harder to decide which one to add to your garden than to grow it. Peppermint is perhaps the most popular variety, growing to 2 feet. Black peppermint is slightly shorter than true peppermint, with darker green leaves and reportedly a superior fragrance and flavor.

Spearmint has a milder flavor than peppermint and is often used to make mint jelly and is also quite good with fresh peas. Applemint has soft, woolly, grey-green leaves and a subtle spearmint-apple flavor. It is good in tea and as an addition to applesauce. My favorite is pineapple mint. Each summer I make pineapple mint cookies which aren’t much to look at but melt in your mouth. Orange mint emits a sweet orangey-lemon fragrance and is great in teas, punch or potpourri.

Ready to make your tea? I put about a handful of fresh mint leaves for every cup of water, and either pour boiling water over them and let them steep to desired strength, or be lazy like me and set a sun tea container in a bright spot on the deck and let Mother Nature do the work. If you have questions about growing mints or any other home or garden topic, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center (toll-free) at (877) 486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.    


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