• Design Plans: Grow These Mints In Your Balcony Garden
One good herb leads to another. Many herb gardeners are plant collectors, and it’s hard to imagine any group of herbs that lends itself better to this collective spirit than the mints. The range of familiar fragrances from unexpected sources is eye-popping and smile-inducing. Chocolate! Lemon! Pineapple! More!
Perfect for Containers
The Mentha genus is especially good for collecting in containers on a balcony or porch, even for those with acres of gardens, because many if not most varieties in the mint family are too aggressive in the ground, even invasive, sending out runners in all directions. And it makes sense to keep them close by in pots because the mints are so handy in the kitchen and easy to use for instant garnishes and to add a zing of flavor to fruit salads and other everyday food.
And fortunately for us herb collectors, there are lots of mints to choose from—25 species in the Mentha genus, as well as hybrids and varieties aplenty. You might start off with basics, including a useful spearmint such as ‘Kentucky Colonel’ for mojitos, juleps and minted peas; a peppermint or two for stomach-soothing teas; and those fruity mints with the astonishing scents. There are many beyond the 10 discussed here, including lime mint, ginger mint and banana mint. Before you know it, you’ll be looking for the more difficult-to-find species and the newest cultivars.
You can always recognize a member of the mint family, Labiatae (which includes many other common classic culinary herbs such as basil, sage and oregano) from its square stems. Most mints thrive in light shade in cool, moist conditions with good drainage. They are very easy to grow, even in less-than-ideal conditions, and most are hardy perennials. Growing them in pots that are conveniently close by lets the gardener assert more control, and the constant harvesting keeps them shapely and growing.
Cutting them back regularly also has the advantage of preventing or delaying flowering; they are grown for their leaves, which are generally more fragrant before flowering. When they flower and set seeds, they might not produce plants with the same intense flavor you get from the originals, and some mints set sterile seed that won’t germinate. For that reason, the mints are best started vegetatively—from cuttings, division or transplants—rather than from seed.
Fortunately, they root easily. Take a cutting about 4 inches long from the tip of a growing stem, remove the lower leaves, dip the stem into a rooting hormone and give it a shake, then pop it into a small pot (with a drainage hole) filled with decent potting mix. Before you know it, you’ve got another one that’s a clone of the original.
If you’re shopping for mints in a garden center, don’t be afraid to rub a small leaf and then sniff it. Fragrance and flavor are so closely linked that one is a good indicator of the other.
Keep a cutting or new transplant uniformly moist until it settles in and starts growing. If it’s putting out new leaves, you know it’s also growing new roots. Then you can back off a bit on the watering, but in a pot it’s going to want daily monitoring, particularly in warm, dry summers. Gradually pot it into bigger and bigger containers (for the mints, I generally go for wider, shallower pots rather than tall ones) until it reaches the biggest-sized container you’re willing to give it. After that, you can repot it occasionally to do some root pruning and give it fresh potting soil to maintain it at that size. It should need little fertilizer and have few pests.
When you think of all the ways that mints have worked their way into history, you get an idea of the range of its usefulness. Ethnic cuisines all over the world, from Middle Eastern to Mexican, incorporate mints into traditional recipes. The list of beverages in which mints play a central role is long, from simple teas to that instantly recognizable, bright green crème de menthe of grasshopper fame. We expect menthol flavor and fragrance in gum, toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo and cosmetics. We get the sharp mint flavor in jellies, candies and desserts.
While you’re probably not interested in flavoring your own toothpaste, you’ll find plenty of other ways to use your mints, which can even liven up a jug of water in the fridge. Mint is used in aromatherapy, and dried mint leaves can be added to potpourris. They have also been used traditionally to repel insect pests in the home and garden.
Mint is often dried for teas, sometimes frozen for use in recipes, but most agree that the flavor and fragrance are best used fresh.
For more about mints, see Mints: A Family of Herbs and Ornamentals (Timber Press, 2002) by Barbara Lawton.
Kathleen Halloran is a contributing editor living in beautiful Austin, Texas.