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Garden Chat: Make the most of mint

A minty fragrance is associated with cleanliness and good health.
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There are many varieties of mint plants which grow best in rich soil.

Mint is a plant that should have a space in every garden, so there is always the opportunity to take a leaf and roll it around to release the lovely smell. The plants that we typically think of as mints belong to the genus Mentha, and are included in the large family Lamiaceae. There are many other herbs in this family, including sage, bergamot, pennyroyal and catnip. The genus Mentha has about 25 species of fragrant mint herbs that are found in many countries including Eurasia, North America, southern Africa, and Australia. They have become naturalized in many countries.

The plants are easy to recognize as they have square stems and opposite, aromatic leaves. The small flowers are usually pale purple, pink, or white in colour and are arranged in clusters, either forming whorls or crowded together in a terminal spike. These flowers are very popular with bees, another good reason to grow mint in your garden.

Plants grow best in rich soil, so work some compost or manure into your soil, water well, and make your mint bed in a sunny to part-shade location. Mint plants will spread vegetatively by “runners”, which can be either underground stems (rhizomes) or above-ground stems (stolons). The runners begin to grow in the early summer and are most noticeable when new leafy shoots develop on them, from buds on the stems. These new plants can easily take over areas of the garden, but can also be used to produce new plants to give away, or to grow in containers. Because of this “invasive” tendency, many gardeners choose to grow mints in containers, or in areas of the garden where they can be contained, such as by a pathway, along a wall, or beside a rocky area. My mother always grew her mint in an old stone sink, outside the back door.  In our Canadian climate, it is necessary to sink containers in the soil for the winter or to bring them indoors.

I find that the ordinary garden mint is hardy and readily overwinters here, but that the more special mints, such as chocolate, apple, etc. may winterkill, and do not always survive. It would probably be wise to keep a pot of these “fancier” mints indoors until you are sure that they can survive our winters. They make great houseplants and can be planted outside again in the spring.  

Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is probably the most well-known member of the mint family. It is often used in toothpaste, teas, candy, and peppermint oil. It is easy to grow and usually reaches 30-60 cm. Another well-known mint is spearmint (Mentha spicata), which has spiky, almost “spear-shaped” leaves. There are also hybrids between the different species, so there is quite a selection to choose from.

The most flavourful mint I have ever encountered was given to me by a friend who had collected wild mint (Mentha arvensis) from the banks of the Beaver River, in Northern Saskatchewan.  Wild mint grows best in wet, rich soil, and is often found near rivers. I have noticed it on the river bank at Cranberry Flats.  It produces tiny bell-shaped flowers in pink, white, and purple, and although the leaves can safely be used in cooking, the flowers are known to be toxic.

The minty fragrance is associated with cleanliness and good health, which is why mint is often used in toothpaste, and also in herbal teas. There are many claims for the benefits of eating mint leaves or using mint extracts, including aiding in digestion, removing bad aromas from your breath, helping relieve stress and improving immunity.

I like to use mint leaves to make a mint sauce to eat with lamb chops or roast lamb, and I always add a sprig of mint when cooking new potatoes. Leaves of fresh mint can be included in apple jelly to enhance the flavour of the jelly.  We also dry mint leaves to store and use through the winter, and leaves can be frozen in ice cubes, to put in drinks. 

If you don’t already have mint in your garden then this summer might be a good time to introduce a plant, enjoy the fragrance and maybe make a pot of mint tea!

Jill Thomson is a retired Plant Pathologist who lives in Saskatoon, where she enjoys gardening with her family, including the dogs.

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; [email protected] ). Check our website (www.saskperennial.ca) or Facebook page (www.facebook.com/saskperennial) for a list of upcoming gardening events