This refreshing herb thrives in the summertime.
As the sun scorches all of the energy out of your body and soul, remember that nothing – absolutely nothing – refreshes like a glass of iced tea garnished with a fresh sprig of mint. And nothing epitomizes Southern summer indulgence sweeter than a classic mint julep. The simple truth is I love mint! In fact, I believe the consumption of mint is an essential element to surviving our sultry New Orleans summers.
But did you know that this simple herb, used for centuries as a symbol of gracious hospitality, is actually one of the most contentious herbs around? Many avid and experienced gardeners consider it a pernicious pest and would passionately discourage anyone from ever putting it in the ground. Mints are perennial plants, and the cautionary saying goes, “Plant a little mint, madam, and then step out of the way so you don’t get hurt!”
“Mints grow well in sunny, wet locations where most other herbs will not,” Russell Harris, a horticulture agent with the LSU AgCenter, says. “It spreads quickly above ground and underground by producing modified stems called ‘stolons.’ It is best to grow mints in areas where they can be easily contained because once they are established, they can become invasive, weedy and easily outcompete other desirable plants.”
If you are worried about mint taking over your garden, try planting it in a container that has a small amount of gravel in the bottom and then planting the container directly into the soil. Or you could use plastic or metal edging around the plants – just be sure to place the edging at least a foot deep into the ground around your plants, completely encircling the roots.
However, many mintophobes will aggressively assert that none of the above actually works. They believe mint could survive a direct nuclear hit and even napalm won’t get rid of it. But please don’t let that deter you.
Don’t want to risk it in your garden or yard, even with the above precautions? Then just plant it in a large pot on your patio or try putting it in a hanging basket – problem-solving at its loveliest.
However, if you plant it in an above-ground container, please remember to water. The only thing that will certainly kill mint is forgetting to water it. Unlike so many other herbs, mint likes it moist, so water it often and well, and try not to let the soil get dry.
The most common mints are spearmint and peppermint, but according to Harris, the herb comes in countless flavors, including chocolate and pineapple. You should be able to find most varieties at your local nursery, but you can also order seeds online if you want more exotic varieties. Just know that mint seeds are a bit tricky to cultivate. But as you might suspect, mint is easy to propagate – simply divide or use cuttings. If you want to use several varieties, plant them separately; planted together, their flavors tend to meld.
You can harvest leaves at any time, but for best results, you should pick them in the morning when the oils are strongest. In New Orleans, we can pretty much grow mint year-round, but if you want to preserve it, you can hang it upside down in small bunches in paper bags in a dark, airy place. Freezing is another option. I place mint leaves in ice trays, cover with water and freeze. The minty ice cubes are a perfect addition to lemonade.
Some believe mint’s strong smell deters insects from the garden. One Web site even suggests planting mint around the foundation of your home to keep mice at bay. The earlier Romans believed the consumption of mint increased intelligence. So go ahead and plant it, and then use your extra smarts to figure out how to cope with it – because mint is just too tasty and versatile to be banished from anyone’s garden.