There are three main reasons for growing mint: for eating, drinking, and for the benefit of bees and other pollinators. Rather than rely on one type of mint for these varied purposes, my permanent mint collection includes peppermint (Mentha x piperita) for use in salads and mint pesto, apple mint (M. suaveolens) for brewing into refreshing teas, and spearmint (M. spicata) for its summer-long production of nectar-rich blossoms, which attract a huge array of beneficial or benign flying insects, along with an occasional hummingbird.
These and other types of mint are vigorous spreaders that expand their territory by developing wandering underground stems (stolons) which give rise to new plants. Yet each strain has its own way of moving about. As a gardener who likes mint and wants to grow a lot of it, I handle these types of mint differently to reduce aggravation and increase returns.
Growing Peppermint for the Table
After years of growing peppermint, I have stopped being afraid of it, and now let it hold a spot at the end of one of my permanent garden beds. Peppermint stolons are short and shallow, and by harvesting from the outside of the bed, the planting pretty much stays put. And, because peppermint is an ancient species cross between spearmint and a water mint, it rarely (if ever) produces viable seeds, so I never find peppermint popping up as far-flung weeds.
There are many special strains of peppermint, and some like chocolate mint are low, mounding plants that send out many surface runners. As a group, I think the peppermints are the best culinary mints, ideal for chopping into salads, sprinkling over fruits or combining with basil or cilantro to make mint pesto. If I had to grow only one mint it would be a peppermint, which is also the best type of mint to grow in containers.
Growing Apple Mint for Tea
Sometimes called wooly mint because of its softly felted leaves, apple mint brews into a refreshing tea with more mint punch and less green aftertaste than you get with other mints. Vigorous apple mint will grow anywhere, but the plants are happiest colonizing a hillside or patch of moist soil. Although the roots of apple mint stay shallow, over time they become woody and difficult to dig out. Of more concern is the way apple mint stolons stretch out several feet before developing surface buds. This is a bad behavior in a garden, but a good one if you have an erosion-prone slope that's hard to mow, or a moist area where apple mint's spread will be checked by shade or mowing.
The Secret Side of Spearmint
I think spearmint is responsible for mint's terrible reputation as a bully, because it spreads super fast and develops big, gnarly roots that are difficult to dig out. But it can be done, and I can think of many garden tasks that lack the pleasures of dealing with aromatic spearmint. Still, the choice of a manageable site is essential. My spearmint grows next to a storage building, with the outer edge of the colony mowed back from time to time.
Spearmint starts flowering in early summer, and if the old blossoms are trimmed off, the plants will rebloom again and again for the rest of the season. This is great for various pollinators including honeybees, which may derive health benefits from foraging in the mint patch. A 2006 study found that a spearmint spray killed 97 percent of varroa mites collected from an infected honeybee colony. Mint flowers are so popular among foraging honeybees that peppermint oil is often used in bee learning experiments. Maybe they know what's good for them, and derive a measure of parasite protection from mingling in the mint.
More Uses for Mint
Sometimes in summer, we know it will rain because ants start coming into the kitchen. A few stems of mint, gently crushed and placed near suspected entry points really does deter ants, though you need to replace the mint with fresh material every few days. Some gardeners clip bits of mint over mulch beneath veggies of interest to insects, which may confuse pests in search of host plants.
In aromatherapy mint is used to relieve stress and increase alertness. Not long ago I booked a flight on a small airline I knew I liked, but I could not remember why. Then, just as landing preparations began, the cabin was enveloped with the refreshing scent of mint. Like my fellow passengers, I suddenly felt recharged. Mint has similar effects in the garden, where a crushed sprig becomes aromatherapy in your hand.
By Barbara Pleasant