If you are looking to jazz up your herb garden this year, you may want to consider adding a plant that is a little retro, a bit nouveau chic and a tad misunderstood all at the same time.

My first encounter with mint was at an outdoor plant seminar where I was bedazzled by a hippy-looking plant maven who knew all there was to know about this fragrant plant. While standing there, suddenly, as if receiving a message from the cosmos, she pointed directly at me and asked, “What is the key to growing this most versatile and remarkable of plants?”

I quickly admitted all I really knew of mint was that it was invasive, and if you weren’t careful it would swallow your yard and everything in it, kind of like bamboo. I could sense my answer wasn’t good enough. “Control is the key,” she enlightened me. And she was right.

When contained, mint is a really cool plant. It’s a low-maintenance perennial, which means it comes back on its own each year. There are many varieties of mint and each has its own character and place in beverages, food, fine soaps and so much more. I brew a few leaves when making tea, be it hot or cold, and it imparts a delicious, fresh flavor to the drink. In addition, mint leaves are remarkably fragrant. Mint is easy to grow and is classified as a functional food because it delivers positive health benefits.

Growing Mint

Mint loves sunshine and fairly moist soil. Outdoors, I have found that partial shade works best and overwatering causes plants to suffer rather quickly. Your best soil bet is about a 2-in. layer of good mulch to feed the plant and keep weeds down, which can look untidy and affect the mint’s flavor. As the herbs begin to flower, pinch them back at the stem as this will keep your plants shorter and make them bushier. Mint generally grows to a height of 1-2 ft.

Containing Mint

Indoors, I grow mint in a half-barrel, but any large container will do, just be sure it drains well and the plant has access to light, either artificial or from the sun. Outdoors, use containers that can be left outdoors year-round. Avoid using ceramic pots, as they tend to crack and break after repeated freezing then thawing.

Troubleshooting

As with many plants, mint can fall victim to a number of maladies, such as mint anthracnose, verticillium wilt and mint rust. Insect invaders include cut worms, spider mites, root borers and others. Aphids can also be a problem, so be sure to gently spray the undersides of leaves when watering. A good rinse effectively removes them.

Harvesting and Drying Mint

Use fresh mint immediately. Flowers and leaves can be hung in bunches upside down to dry, or laid out on a flat surface. Once dried, store them as you would any herb. You can also freeze them before drying for later use. Immediate freezing retains mint’s dark green color and preserves flavor. Divide mint plants every few years and cut them close to the ground in the fall. They’ll be back next spring.

A Versatile Herb

Mint is an extremely versatile plant with multiple applications. Its leaves and oil extracts have more uses than Velcro. Here are some more ways to get the most out of your mint:

  • Mice don’t like the smell of peppermint, so place cut leaves in areas where they may be hiding.
  • For tension headaches, make a compress of mint leaves and apply to the forehead.
  • Add to salads, iced tea, hot tea, mint juleps, cake frostings and tons of recipes.
  • Chew the fresh leaves for a natural breath freshener.
  • Use mint to relieve indigestion or heartburn.

Types of Mint

Each type of mint has its own flavor. The most common types are spearmint and peppermint, but there is also chocolate mint, lemon mint and even apple mint. If you grow a variety, keep the plants separate to avoid cross-pollination.

That’s it then. Discover for yourself the many wondrous ways this plant can be used. Once the mint is planted, you’ll have a garden companion for life and realize, just as I did, that your relationship with this incredible, edible herb was...mint to be.

Now that you've got mint sorted out, why not try your hand at growing basil?