It’s a great childhood memory for me. We lived out away from the city in the Arizona desert, and the end of a dirt road. The mail was delivered a quarter-mile away, where a row of mailboxes was perched on a couple of posts and connecting board. We kids had the task of walking up or riding our bicycles to retrieve it. After a rain, or extended use, the dirt road had to be graded. I always ran out to see the grader come down the road. It was almost magical to me to see that blade precisely shave off the surface of the road, and deposit the dirt off to the side in berms.
We had a modest landscape in the arid setting. Even so, we usually had a vegetable garden, and there was lantana, passion vine, bamboo and pyracantha growing in our landscape beds. Heck, there were even some palms, greasewood bushes, acacia, mesquite and cultivated fruit trees scattered around the place. We even grew the bane of turf lovers everywhere: Bermuda grass! There was one section of flowerbed along the east side of the house that is especially vivid in my memory — not only because was it green and robust, but it smelled good every time you brushed against it and came roaring back each time with a robust crop of new leaves after being pruned back from spilling over the sidewalk. Most of all, it was fantastic in the sun tea that was one of our regular beverages (it still is today!).
As an adult, I’ve grown to appreciate spearmint and peppermint even more. I have a couple of patches growing currently in our yardscape. I plan to add more varieties. About now, some of you are having serious doubt about my gardening I.Q. because mint “enjoys” the reputation of being extremely aggressive in the garden plot. It’s a rap that mint has come by honestly.
Mint is not to be planted “willy-nilly” or you will regret it when it engulfs about everything in its path. It’s very hardy and will continue to expand year after year — so it’s important for you to devise a strategy to enjoy its best attributes and diminish its overly ambitious growth habits. Fortunately, this is pretty easy to do.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, it’s the leaves that are attractive — not the bloom. The flower can best be described as a nondescript compound bloom made up of many small whitish florets. Yawn. Second, if the plant is allowed to mature to the point that it is blooming, the leaves will not be very tender, and can have a strong flavor that tastes a little like turpentine. I’ll pass! For the most prolific and tasty leaf production, it’s best to keep it pruned back. Younger leaves are tender, taste milder, and exhibit an attractive brighter green hue.
So, to make it easy to get the most from your mint, do a couple of things. Plant them where they are easily accessible. I recommend near the front of a bed, and along a route you frequent in your yard. The plant can grow pretty rapidly and if it’s readily noticed, it’s a quick and easy task to cut it back with a shear or hedge pruner. If a runner or two does put out a new plant, it’s easy to pull it out. Although mints do fine with lots of sun, they do need at least moderate amounts of water to flourish. My childhood mint patch proved that. Although those plants would normally bake in the hot Arizona sun, ours was under a much-used faucet that assured the mint got drenched regularly.
To ensure that you are not sorry you planted mint, you must contain it. I don’t like to do multi-season plantings in above-ground pots if I can help it. Pots tend to be harder on plants because soil temps can change very quickly, and they don’t winter as well. This is because a potted root ball can readily freeze completely, because it’s not buried and connected with a soil mass all around it. A good compromise is to plant it in a deep container with the bottom cut out. Or, you can plant mint in a smaller container inside another buried container to keep the mint roots that are in the midst of making their run for open ground! Wide shallow pots work best in this setting.
Remember, new plants can grow both from roots and stems. While this makes the plant very easy to propagate, over-production and spread can turn this attractive and tasty plant into a weed over a few growing seasons. A container thwarts the plant’s attempts to send out lateral roots and colonize a new area. My friend Justin Wiker (yep, the same one that heads up the Master Gardener’s Plant Diagnostic Clinic) would prefer to err on the side of caution. If he were to plant mint in a container in the main garden, he’d put it in a buried trash can! I haven’t had to go that far, but it may be that I’m just lucky, or the variety of mint I’m growing doesn’t root-runner very deeply. I’ve been able to control my mint planting’s roots just fine in a half-buried turned-inside-out tire. This has stopped the roots in their tracks, but I still watch to assure that the stems don’t get too long and lay on the surface of the soil. So far, so good — even after multiple seasons.
While there are several types of edible mints that you can grow, the most commonly known are spearmint and peppermint. Did you know that there are more than 600 varieties in the Mentha genus? Relatives to our familiar culinary mints include lemon balm, basil, lavender and, yep, catnip.
Many people lump spearmint and peppermint together and simply call them mint. But, there are differences. Spearmint is milder and sweeter. Peppermint has a much stronger scent and taste due to its higher menthol content. Spearmint has about one-half of a percent by volume content of menthol. Peppermint has many times that.
Because of this, spearmint tends to be used more in culinary settings, and peppermint is used more for medicinal purposes. Both have essential oils that can be extracted, but menthol has a wide range of applications both in commercial products and for home treatments. Menthol gives a cooling sensation when applied to the skin. It’s interesting that no actual drop in temperature occurs, but it feels that way. Menthol can be found in cough drops, toothpaste, muscle rubs and other hygiene and medical products. At home, tea brewed from either fresh or dried peppermint leaves can help with an upset stomach.
As our culinary tastes have expanded, and we’ve been treated to more and more varieties of cuisines, our appreciation of mint has greatly increased. Mint is used quite extensively in Mediterranean dishes such as kebabs, tzatziki and tabouli. Asian spring rolls are especially delicious with mint as one of the ingredients. In fact, we eat fresh spring rolls ongoing during the active growing season. Delicious!
Mint is also one of the tastes of the holiday season. Mint hot chocolate anyone? This signature taste can also be found in the classic mint julep — at home in the American south and associated with the Kentucky Derby. The mojito, which originated in Cuba, has only five ingredients — white rum, sugar, lime juice, soda water and mint. For those that love lemonade, chopped spearmint is a complementary taste that is both attractive to look at in the pitcher, and goes down nicely. To give this a try, stop by Café Rio, one of Tooele’s restaurants along Main Street. It’s served at their beverage bar.
The list of mint uses could go on and on. This highly adaptable plant has found its way into the cuisines of the world, and has been used medicinally for many generations. If you haven’t done so already, why not get a few cuttings next season, or buy a couple of potted plants and get them going in your kitchen garden? Plant them where you’ll harvest them ongoing. The plants won’t mind and you’ll add a new twist to your culinary repertoire.
And, the scent of fresh mint, to be generously had by simply brushing your hand across the tops of the plants, is a real treat, yet another reward of having these ornamental edibles!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.