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By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Ah, mint. Brush by one in the garden on a hot, sunny afternoon, and inhale deeply. That invigorating herbal scent is the essence of summer. Every garden needs a mint.

And every garden can have one, because mint is so easy to grow. And grow. It will take over if you let it. Some people call it invasive, but I like to call it enthusiastic.

Mint (Mentha spp.) is a perennial herb that can grow anywhere from 18 inches to two feet tall and wide. It spreads by rhizomes – underground runners – which is why you may find it popping up in places you didn’t plant it. Depending on the species, mint is hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3-11.

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When mint is happy, it spreads. The general advice is if you want it in a garden bed to plant it in a container and sink that in the ground. However, the mint will likely grow through the drainage holes and pop up in the garden, and then it’s off to the races. 

To really control mint, it’s best to grow it as a container plant that stays aboveground. If you really want it in a bed, either isolate it from other desirable plants, or be prepared to stay on top of weeding volunteers out from where you don’t want them.

There are many species of mint, including apple, orange, ginger, pineapple, chocolate, and spearmint (M. spicata). There are also wooly mint and horsemint. I’m a purist; I prefer pure peppermint (M. piperita), having had less than tasty experiences with other varieties.

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How To Grow

If you’re planting multiple plants, space them 18 to 24 inches apart. Plant once all danger of frost has passed. Mint can also be grown from seed, started indoors or out.

Soil: Should be rich; amend with compost if needed. Mint prefers soil that’s moist and well drained, but not boggy. It can handle wetter soils than most herbs, but too wet and it can get fungal diseases on the leaves.

Light: Mint prefers sun, but can tolerate partial shade. Too much shade and it gets floppy.

Water: Mint likes moist soil, so water when the top inch of soil is dry. Unlike many herbs, it likes humidity.

Care: When grown in the garden, apply a balanced granular fertilizer once in early spring. In containers, feed every few weeks with a diluted liquid fertilizer. Too much fertilizer or water reduces the production of oils in the plant and diminishes the flavor.

In the winter, cut mint back to the ground to discourage overwintering pests and diseases.

You can overwinter potted mint indoors under bright lights. Don’t overwater and watch for bugs.

Harvesting and Storing

Harvest leaves any time after the plant is three to four inches tall. Leaves have the best flavor before the plant blooms. The younger the leaf, the more intense the flavor. You can cut up to one-third of the plant at a time (it will grow back), or snip individual leaves or stems throughout the season as you need them.

Store fresh leaves in a glass of water in the fridge. For dried leaves, hang small bunches upside down in a hot, dry, shady place until the leaves are crumbly. Store in an airtight container and use within two years.

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How To Use

Mint adds zing to lots of drinks: tea, lemonade, ice water, mint juleps, mojitos, and Moscow mules. Put it in smoothies and yogurt. Make a simple syrup.

One traditional way to use it is in mint sauce or jelly, as an accompaniment to lamb. You can also add it to baked goods, fruit salads, cold soups, and as a garnish. Try some in your pesto.

Some non-edible ways to enjoy it is in the bath, along with Epsom salts, or as a face mask.

Or just chew a leaf. It freshens the breath and helps soothe an upset stomach.

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