Mint juleps on warm Derby Day. Hot tea when you have a miserable cold. Chocolate dessert with a minty surprise inside. Mint can do it all. The easy-to-grow herb is an indispensable plant that can be used for flavoring, as natural health care and as a cool refreshment on a sunny day.
I’m sure you've heard that mint is an invasive weed. That's true, and it's not. The key is to plant with care so that it stays where you want it and doesn't go where you don't. On the plus side, being such a hardy plant means that growing mint doesn't take much effort.
Mint is an enormous family that includes bee balm, basil, catnip, and oregano. In this guide, we're going to concentrate on the true mints such as peppermint, spearmint and apple mint. Whether you use it in edible landscaping as a groundcover, or as an addition to your herb garden, there is a range of varieties, colors, and scents to choose from.
- Peppermint (Mentha piperita) – The traditional flavoring mint. This is the most adaptable variety and will grow in sun, shade or a mix of both. Has a strong, rich flavor and is used widely in cooking. Variegated peppermint has cream and white colored splotches on the leaves making it attractive in landscaping or flower beds. The variegated variety is a bit more sun sensitive.
- Spearmint (Mentha spicata) – Spearmint differs from peppermint in a few key ways. The leaves are bright green, and it produces lavender flowers on six-inch stalks. The “spear” actually refers to the pointed, serrated leaves. Morning sun locations are best because this variety is sensitive to too much direct light.
- Apple Mint (Mentha suaveoloens) – Apple mint is my favorite mint. It's light and refreshing, and I think it makes the perfect iced tea. Sometimes I mix it with lemon balm for flavor. Apple mint is more of a warm weather mint and does best in zone 5 and above. It's tolerant of sunny locations as long as it's well watered and has good soil.
- Lavender Mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Lavender') – This plant has a red stem like the peppermint but has a distinct lavender scent. Perfect for desserts, teas, and potpourris. Hardy in zones 3-9, it gets about 3 feet tall and has lovely lilac flowers in the summer.
- Basil Mint (Mentha x piperita f.citrata ‘Basil') – As you'd expect, this mint has a slight basil scent to it. Grows well in part shade or full sun. Ideal for pesto or in a melon salad.
- Chocolate Mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate') – There's some debate about whether chocolate mint has any chocolate flavor, or if it is all in your head. What's undeniable is that the plant has a slightly earthy/chocolate scent when the leaves are bruised. This plant has slightly darker stems than peppermint with dark-green leaves. Grows in zones 5-9. Prefers partial shade.
How to Plant Mint
In the wild, mint grows in cool, moist, semi-shady areas along creeks and in wetlands. Once it finds a place it likes, it tends to latch on and never let go. In the garden, this can be a negative or a positive, so be sure to consider your needs and location before planting.
Soil and Sun Requirements
Growing mint likes well-drained, nutrient-rich, moist soil with a pH between 5.6 and 7.5. That said, mint isn't picky.
Mints will grow readily in sun, or part shade and some types even survive in shade, though they may become leggy. Plants thrive in zones 3-11 depending on the variety.
Where to Plant Mint
Mint spreads through underground rhizomes or roots. I suggest planting mint in a container so that it doesn't invade other areas of your garden.
If you want to plant in the ground, you can sink a 10-gallon container into the earth, leaving 2-inches of the container sticking out. I have tried using cement blocks dug down two deep to control mint, and after 2 years it escaped, so you need something that can contain the roots.
Space mint plants 12-24 inches apart in the garden or use a container that is at least 12-inches wide.
Starting Mint From Seeds
You can grow mint from seeds, cuttings or purchased plants. Mint doesn't grow true-to-type from seed, and seed packets are often labeled common mint. Start mint seeds indoors in pots a few weeks before transplanting.
Germination takes up to 2 weeks at temperatures between 65-75°F. Seeds require light for germination. Sow seeds by gently pressing them into a moistened potting mix.
Transplant into the garden when seedlings are 3-4 inches tall with good leaf growth.
You can also direct-sow seeds in the garden at a depth of a fourth-inch once the danger of frost has passed.
Start From Cuttings
Do your friends have mint plants? Sharing is a great way to have a taste test before planting. Mint is easy to grow through cuttings. Take a 6-inch cutting from a friend’s mint plant. If you can dig down and get some roots, it will make your job easier.
When you get it home, lay the cutting horizontally and lightly cover with soil. Keep the soil moist. You can also root cuttings in water and then plant outdoors when the roots are 3-4 inches long.
Another way to get started with growing mints is to purchase them from your local nursery. Many garden shops have a variety of mint species to choose from.
The benefit of buying a plant is you can sample the scent before you decide which variety to choose. Different mints have unique scents.
Mint grows well indoors as a house herb. Plant in light potting soil with vermiculite. Place it in a window with indirect sunlight and make sure the soil stays moist. Indoor plants benefit from a monthly application of organic fertilizer such as fish emulsion.
How to Care for Your Mint Plants
Mint needs moist ground and will need supplemental water during dry spells. Use mulch to help conserve water and keep the leaves clean.
Mint appreciates an annual application of compost. Give plants a slow-release fertilizer in the spring.
Mint takes 70 days to reach maturity, but you can start harvesting leaves once the plant is established. Your mint plant will get bushy and 3-feet or so tall at maturity.
Cut off the flowers buds because they take energy from the leaves. You can use the cut flowers in tea or potpourri. Leave the flowers intact if you have bees or want to attract pollinators.
In fall, before hard frost, trim your mint plants down to 6 inches. This will help them conserve energy during the winter and grow bushier the following year.
Mint Problems and Solutions
Mints are hardy, but that doesn't mean they never have problems. There are a few pests and diseases that plague mint.
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that spreads quickly and can slow down or stop plant growth. White splotches and discoloration on the leaves make it easy to spot. It can be spread by aphids and other sap-sucking insects.
The key to avoiding mildews is to have good air circulation. You can do this by keeping weeds away and spacing plants adequately. Make sure you water plants from the bottom. Drip irrigation is a good choice if you have powdery mildew in your garden.
As the name implies, this rust is mint-specific. Avoid it in the same way you do powdery mildew.
Mint can also be sensitive to whitefly, especially if you are growing in a greenhouse or hoop house. Whiteflies are small insects that will hide under the leaves of your plants. They like a warm, humid environment so they can be particularly problematic in humid areas.
These tiny arachnids cause leaves to wilt and stunt growth. Prune out infected plants, spray aphids off plants with water and use canola oil or neem oil spray if your infestation gets bad.
Thrips can cause growing mint leaves to become distorted, but the real danger is that this insect spreads disease. Avoid planting next to onions and garlic, and use mulch to deter them.
Cutworms sever plants at the soil and eat holes in the leaves of your growing mint plants. Till your soil in the fall before planting and spread diatomaceous earth around plants to prevent.
This fungal disease causes lesions on the leaves and stems of growing mint. It can spread rapidly in rainy areas. Toss any infected plants and spray them with a copper spray if it gets out of control, though be careful not to use copper too often because it can harm beneficial microbes.
Companion Plants for Mint
Mint repels the white cabbage moth, so plant it near cabbage and tomatoes if you struggle with this pest.
- Brussel sprouts
- Bell peppers
Harvesting, Storing and Using Mint
Mint is best harvested early in the morning when the leaves have the highest amount of oils in them and will be most flavorful. Younger leaves are more tender and have better flavor.
Use sharp scissors to cut off leaves or stems off growing mint. Do not harvest more than one-third of the plant and only take deep cuttings once per month during the growing season.
You can store it in the refrigerator with the cut ends in water or wrap the leaves in a damp paper towel. Freeze the leaves by placing them in water in ice cube trays.
Mint should be a staple in any kitchen. Throw a few sprigs in your salad for a sweet zest. Mint goes especially well with roasted fish and lamb dishes.
We often think of tea when we think of using mint in drinks, but it also pairs nicely with many other types of liquids. Lemonade and fruit punch get an extra sparkle with a few mint leaves. And if you are a Kentucky girl like me, spring means mint juleps.
If you can't use up all your mint, try making mint jelly. It's a forgotten favorite that adds a special flavor to winter dishes. If you haven't tried candied mint leaves on your desserts, make it a priority.
Mint as Medicine
Mint has several well-known medicinal properties. It inhibits the growth of bacteria and viruses in the body. It also relieves gas and indigestion. One of the quickest and easiest ways to benefit from mint's healing properties is to have it as a glass of tea.
Use 2 teaspoons of fresh leaves or 1 teaspoon of dried leaves in a tea strainer. Seep for about 10 minutes to get the full benefits. Perfect on those days your digestive system is rumbling and turned around. Mint is also a great natural relief for morning sickness.
I think mint tea does wonders for a stuffy nose. On those days I wake up congested I reach for the tea leaves. It always helps clear my head and gets me going.
Mint has the reputation of repelling many pests including mice, cockroaches, deer, and ants. It contains pulegone, an ingredient in many natural insect repellents.
I can't imagine my garden without mint in it. I have several growing mint varieties throughout my yard, one of them in a shady area by my house. In the hot days of summer, I sometimes curl up in a chair nearby with a good book. The smell from the mint is refreshing. Where do you plan on putting yours?