I've met so many gardeners who won't grow mint because they grew it once and it took over their garden. Meanwhile, I grow hundreds of mint plants and start more every year. Personally, I can't get enough mint.
I really couldn't understand why other gardeners had such a different relationship with mints than I did. So, I started asking them. From what I can tell, the main reason seems to be that these gardeners grew mint as garnish. They didn't have planned uses for the prolific amounts of mint leaves those wonderful plants happily produce.
Ever since I discovered the source of that misplaced mint-apprehension, I have been on a mission to raise mint awareness. If you are one of those gardeners who hasn't yet refined your appreciation for mint, please set aside any misgivings you have for a few minutes and give me a chance to convince you to make more room for mint in your garden.
One Great Big Minty Fresh Family
Let's start with a little mint family history. Lamiaceae is the Latin family name for all the mints in the world. There are estimated to be over 7000 different members of the mint family. Most are grown for their foliage, but there are even a few mints that produce edible tubers.
Mints are most often recognized by their square stems and alternate leaves. They are generally easy to grow. Some cultivated varieties have been selected because they grow well without expanding as quickly as their more prolific family members.
Stem cuttings can propagate most mints. Vigorous growing mints like spearmint and peppermint will root in nothing more than a little water. Others may root better in soil. Some varieties, like decorative salvia plants, root best with the use of rooting hormone.
Often when people say mint, they mean peppermint. However, many of the most common and beloved culinary herbs are mints too. Oregano, Italian basil, rosemary, sage, lavender, and marjoram are all members of the mint family.
Now that you know a little more about the mint family and their common qualities let's get on to some practical uses and varieties to choose.
Mint Makes Great Ground Cover
One of the main reasons I use mint is as a ground cover. Our hilly property was clear cut before we bought it. The soil was severely eroded, and almost nothing would grow here. Thank goodness for oregano and lemon balm!
These two aggressive growing mints held our hillsides in places until we could get other things growing. Now, to keep them in check, we just cut them often and sell them in bunches at the farmers market.
Minty Mulch Madness
When you use mint as ground cover, you do run the risk of it taking over unless you cut it often. Since we mulch around all of our plants to protect the soil, I find mint extremely useful. I use mint the way other people use grass clippings.
During their peak growing periods I hit them with a weed whacker about once a week to keep them in check. The cut leaves fall to the ground and act as a chop and drop mulch or green manure to feed nutrients back to nearby plants. Make sure to do this when you have a few back-to-back dry, sunny days, so you don't accidentally re-root your mulched mints.
Add Masses of Mint to Your Compost Pile
I love soft-stemmed mints like peppermint and spearmint for this. I also really love to use some mints that are weeds like dead, stinging, and wood nettle for this purpose. (Use care when cutting stinging nettle). I have encouraged large plots of those easy-to-grow wild mints around my property and cut them often for compost.
Livestock Love Mint
Livestock, particularly those who live in confinement, really benefit from the addition of mint to their diet. I offer a variety of cut mint free choice to my goats, ducks, chickens, and pigs. I just cut all my mints by the bunches, throw them out on a pallet, and let the animals take what they want.
Sometimes my animals devour them other times they only nibble a bit. In part, I think this relates to their biological needs. Goats with an internal parasite imbalance seem to love oregano and hyssop mint. Chickens like to scratch up the dead nettle and less fragrant apple, tangerine, and pineapple mints. Barn cats love catnip (also a mint) and peppermint.
I like to add a handful or two of semi-dried mints like sage, lavender, and culinary mint to my chicken nest boxes. The oils can irritate a laying hen. Partial drying releases some of the oils while still retaining the fragrance.
Mints are Beautiful in Edible Landscapes
Mints come in a variety of colors and textures. I will often use them to create contrast in my landscape.
Apple mint has large, fuzzy leaves that are reminiscent of lamb's ears. I like to use them as a backdrop for brightly colored euphorbia.
I grow water mint around my frog pond because it loves the moist environment. It also out-compete weeds that like to crop up near my pond. It's shape and paler color make for a nice complement to my other dark, grassy marsh plants too.
Culinary sage, when pruned early each spring to promote bushiness, makes an incredible edible shrub. With long-standing flowers and multiple flowering periods, it packs a pretty punch!
Mints Make Great Pest Repellent
Catmint isn't my favorite mint to eat. The sickly sweet, cloying smell sometimes gives me a headache if I inhale too deeply. However, it is an incredible deer-deterrent. I plant it around the perimeter of my fruit trees and deer steer clear.
I grow lemon balm around our outdoor dining area. Guests break off leaves and rub it on their skin as a mosquito deterrent in summer months. You have to reapply about every 30 minutes. But, the stuff works and costs a lot less than other solutions.
Cut mint placed around the base of plants can confuse insects that are host specific. I used to have a heck of a time growing cabbage because of the cabbage moth larva. However, once I started mulching underneath my cabbage with layers of semi-dried mints, I stopped having pest issues.
Mints as Medicine
Now, I am not an herbalist. However, I do try to stay healthy on the homestead. I drink a lot of hot mint tea in winter and cold mint tea in summer. Although the benefits of mints vary by species, many mints have rosmarinic acid or menthol, two substances which have been shown to have medicinal benefits.
Mints can potentially help with allergies, skin conditions, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, colds, ulcers, pain relief, and more. They tend to generate cooling sensations that can help relieve muscle pain. Mint is also good for treating bad breath which is why it is so popular as a toothpaste flavor.
Mints are Delicious
Most people appreciate the edible benefits of mint. I mean, who doesn't love mint chocolate ice cream? But some mints are even savory. Perilla is a mint variety that tastes great as a substitute for cabbage in kimchi recipes. Sage is the crucial ingredient in breakfast sausage.
Licorice or hyssop mint, tulsi or holy basil, and oregano all make full-bodied teas that even black tea drinkers can appreciate. Have you tried a mint mojito? How about the derby day specialty drink – the mint julep?
Mint cucumber dressing, mint sauce, sweet pea and mint soup are all summer favorites at our homestead. Mint makes it onto our menu almost daily.
Please Protect our Pollinators!
Most people are pretty aware of the plight of our poor pollinators. Loss of habitat and forage, pesticides, and other problems are causing issues with the honey bees and a host of other pollinators. According to the USDA, since about 35% of the food we eat worldwide is benefited by pollinators, this is kind of alarming.
No, we won't starve without pollinators. So don't panic. But we may die of boredom when many of the most flavorful foods like apples, peaches, almonds, avocados, vanilla, chocolate, coffee, black pepper, dill, coconut, cucumbers, and more suffer setbacks from limited pollination.
We need more pollinator-friendly plants everywhere. Mints are one of the easiest and fastest growing pollinator friendly food you can grow in almost any climate. Even if you don't want to use it for any of the amazing reasons listed above, making a mint garden is a wonderful way to attract pollinators to your landscape and offer them a regular food supply.
The great thing about a mint-based pollinator plot is that mints will compete and keep each other in check. You only need to make sure they don't start to grow beyond their designated area. Using a weed whacker around the edge of your mint pollinator plots is a quick way to keep those plants from drifting to other areas of your yard.
Mission Mint Appreciation
If you are one of those mint-wary gardeners, I hope I've offered you a few ideas to ingratiate mint back into your landscape. If you are a mint lover like me, please spread mint-appreciation by sharing your plants and their many surprising uses with others! In my opinion, mint is a must for every homestead or home garden.