Invite the mints into your herb garden

Story by Kristi Cook

Of all the herbs one can grow, the mints (Mentha spp.) are perhaps the easiest and most prolific. Enticing names like chocolate mint, pineapple mint, ginger mint, and peppermint, make many of us unwitting “collectors,” filling our already overflowing gardens with each new flavor we encounter. Yet despite mint’s popularity, too often it’s relegated to “ornamental” status rather than in its rightful place as a culinary herb. With a little cultivation know-how and a handful of recipes, you may find yourself reaching for the mint rather than rosemary the next time you visit your garden. 

First things first. If you’ve never had the good fortune of growing mint, let me forewarn you. Most Mentha species are quite rebellious, insisting on invading every nook and cranny they can get their runners into. One year I planted a single pint-sized spearmint into a 100-square-foot bed only to have it spread across the entire space within two or three seasons. Being a fairly slow learner, I’ve also had the misfortune of planting yet another mint within a foot or so of a 12-inch-deep raised strawberry bed. By the next season I had more mint than strawberries in that bed as that single plant sent every runner it had – or so it seemed – not only across the short distance to the strawberries, but then UP 12 inches to reach the surface. So before you plant that innocent little plant, plan carefully.

Plan carefully when selecting a location – mint loves to travel far and wide. Photo by Kristi Cook.

Make a Playpen
If you are like most gardeners, your space is too limited to allow mints to roam freely. When selecting a location, determine how much mint you’d like to have, and then create a ring around that area. There are many materials that will work, such as old flowerpots with the bottoms cut out. Even rings of metal (with a rolled top edge for safety) or heavy-duty landscape fabric will also do the job. Dig a trench several inches deep around the perimeter – I recommend a minimum of 12 inches based on my own experiences, but many suggest 6 inches. Place your chosen material into the trench, leaving 2-3 inches aboveground to prevent runners from “jumping the fence.” Plant your little cutie in the middle and watch it grow. If this doesn’t appeal to you, mints find containers quite cozy and will happily fill any size you select. Just be sure to keep it watered regularly to encourage healthy growth. 

While incorporating mints into your garden and kitchen requires a little planning, you won’t be disappointed as you discover its myriad uses.

If you don’t mind the waywardness of mint, allow it to roam freely and simply pull the plants you don’t want as you go about your weeding. I like to keep these culls and add them to my dehydrator, tea, or recipes whenever I get the chance. I also find that I enjoy the unexpected crispness that fills the air as I’m weeding or walking down my mint-filled paths at the height of summer. And they are particularly refreshing during the cold winter months when I stumble across an extra hardy plant that’s braving the weather.

Mint makes a wonderful addition to teas and other foods. However, placing a few bruised leaves in a warmer freshens stale air and is sure to lift your spirits. Photo by Kristi Cook.

Let’s Get Cooking
As with most herbs, mint has many uses in the kitchen. My favorite is steeping fresh or dried leaves to make an old-fashioned tea that’s refreshing, as well as soothing to a nauseated stomach. Different flavored mints also add a nice touch to summer salads and fruit smoothies. On the sweeter side, mint jelly and chocolate mint ice cream are always a summertime favorite, while minty hot cocoa is a must in the winter. 

To incorporate mint flavor into foods, you have a few options. The simplest way is to take the liquid portion of a recipe and place over gentle heat (or boil, if it won’t alter the recipe). Once the liquid is warm, add crushed or chopped leaves and steep. Cool the liquid, if needed, before proceeding with the recipe. This method is good for flavoring cream for ice cream, sugar water for flavored drinks, fruit juices, and hot cocoa.

Alternatively, combine mints with a solid or frozen ingredient and pulverize in a processor or blender to reduce the leaves to tiny, flavorful bits. This method works wonderfully for flavoring sugar, ice chips, smoothies, and pesto. 

While incorporating mints into your garden and kitchen requires a little planning, you won’t be disappointed as you discover its myriad uses. From a single plant, you’ll not only enjoy an eye-catching ornamental, but you’ll discover a surprising variety of new food flavors just waiting to be enjoyed.

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