Mint has gained a poor reputation amongst many gardeners. The mere mention of it will bring forth warnings about how invasive and weed-like it can be, choking out all other plants and herbs in the vicinity. Yet I find it hard to hate this delicious herb and, by following a few sensible precautions, it can easily be grown well with a range of uses in the kitchen.
Mint has long been known to have many health benefits as well as adding flavour to cooking. Mint tea is great for settling the stomach and is also said to increase stamina and resistance to colds and coughs. Its anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties are perhaps one of the reasons it is so effective in toothpastes and mouth washes.
Mint comes in many different varieties including apple mint, spearmint, pineapple mint, orange mint and even ginger mint, not to mention the variegated varieties used for their ornamental value. Sourcing these different types can be hard as few seeds suppliers stock more than a single variety. However, mint is so easy to grow from cuttings that I would never consider growing it from seed unless I wanted a particularly unique tasting type (just what do you do with the rest of the 1000 mint seeds typically in a packet?) Far better, in my opinion, is to sample mint that other gardeners are growing and choose the one that suits your palate before taking a cutting.
The first consideration when growing mint is finding a place where it can’t spread. For me this means a large terracotta pot in easy reach of the kitchen. If you want to add it to an existing herb bed then the best way is to sink a deep bucket or tub without holes into the soil and plant into that as otherwise mint will quickly choke out the other plants. Apart from that, mint is not a fussy plant and will even grow under trees or in shade. It likes to be kept moist, so will need watering in hot weather, and any flower heads should be quickly removed to keep leaf growth good. The only disease it occasionally suffers from is mint rust which is a fungus causing orange or black spots on the leaves and requires the removal of affected plants and root system as soon as it is spotted.
The best way to propagate mint is from cuttings or root sections from healthy plants. Cuttings can be taken in early spring and, after removing the bottom leaves, are simply pushed into moist-but-not-damp soil. Within a few weeks the cuttings will have rooted and can be left to grow, quickly filling the container by summer time. Mint spreads through underground root systems and sections of these roots can be planted in autumn as an alternative to taking cuttings – useful for overwintering because mint dies back at the first frost. When cold weather approaches, plants can be lifted and brought indoors in their own pots to give fresh leaves through the first part of winter.
So, mint is simple to grow and can be controlled without too much effort. Yet there is so much more to this plant than growing it. Mint is one of the first plants I show children in my garden – it looks ordinary but rub a leaf between your fingers and the smell is wonderful. I regularly add it, finely chopped, to cooking that needs some bright tastes. For example, slowly cooking courgettes and then adding mint and lemon juice gives the perfect combination of sharpness and soft vegetable. Mixing mint in with white wine vinegar and oil makes a great dressing for salads, or try combining it with cooked beans and sweet corn kernels as a side dish. Mint also works well with a number of sweet dishes, especially fruit salads and chocolate desserts. Then, as an after-dinner treat try infusing fresh mint leaves in hot water for 5 minutes. Delicious!