Growing Sweet, Seductive Mint

Growing Sweet, Seductive Mint

Reading Time: 9 minutes


Consider growing mint in your garden this year. Just make sure to keep it controlled, or you may find it seducing its way across your garden.

By Andrew Weidman  Refreshing mint has so many uses and qualities, and it deserves a place in every garden. Mint is medicinal, culinary, and aesthetic. Even better, it’s a pollinator favorite in the garden. The problem is mint usually forgets its place. Literally.  

Greek Myth tells the tale of the nymph known as Minthe, daughter of a river god of Hell — and proud mistress to Hades, Lord of the Dead. Hades’ wife, Persephone, hearing of Minthe’s boastings of his favors, cursed her, transforming her into a lowly herb growing in spring-fed meadows beside the Gates of the Underworld. To this day, mint still grows in the open streamside, sweet, seductive, and forever reaching beyond its station.  

On a more practical vein, mint has the distinction of being one of Humanity’s earliest and most prized herbs. Its name appears in the most ancient medicinal writings, both Egyptian and Asian. In the Holy Lands, taxes and tithes could be paid in mint (it’s tempting to imagine a connection to the minting of money, but no, they don’t quite share a link.) Ancient burial preparations called for fragrant bunches of mint, in part for mint’s air-freshening properties and perhaps in honor of poor, scorned Minthe. Later, churches and temples took to strewing fresh mint stems over their floors, where footsteps of the faithful would release aromatic oils, helping to mask the odors of unwashed bodies.  

Apple Mint

Medicinally, mint has been used as a digestive aid (after-dinner mint, anyone?) to soothe stomachaches and abdominal cramps, both intestinal and feminine. Medieval herbalists recommended mint for stimulating appetites and calming lusts, as a treatment for the bites of mad dogs, and as a vermifuge for expelling mice. They may have been on to something with that last application; you can buy potently mint-scented garbage bags to keep your trash cans vermin-free. Anyone suffering from colds and stuffed sinuses is familiar with the ventilating power of menthol, the ‘pepper’ in peppermint. Mints also soothe muscle aches and strains, showing up in sports creams and rubs.  


Mint also belongs in the kitchen, making tasty tea, hot or cold, and freshening up many adult beverages. More than just a drink or a garnish, mint also finds its way into salads and sauces, jellies, flavoring for candies, chewing gum, peppermint sticks, and, well, mints. Many Mediterranean dishes make use of mint’s cooling flavor to take the edge off otherwise hotter, spicier dishes. And let’s not forget the happy marriage of mint and chocolate.  


What is the flavor of “fresh?” Mint, of course! From toothpaste and mouthwash to flavored floss and dental polish, the flavor of mint reigns supreme in the battle against halitosis and bad breath in general. This is in addition to breath fresheners and certain “curiously strong” breath mints. If you prefer, you can even chew a sprig of mint for the same effect. In the same vein, bundles of fresh mint make wonderful air fresheners when hung in a doorway where a fresh breeze can waft past them.  

Ginger Mint

Botanically, the mint family is massive, even global in scale. Family members include rosemary, lavender, horehound, thyme, basil, lemon balm, bee balm, catnip, and many more. You may have noticed a trend: they’re all strongly aromatic, in some cases pungent herbs.    

The true mints, including spearmint, peppermint, apple mint, and many more species, along with their hybrid “flavored” mints, all belong to the genus Menthe. They all bring varying degrees of “mint” flavor, some stronger, others milder. The family resemblance is reinforced by the common physical characteristic of square stems and opposite leaves. Opposite, in this case, means there are always two leaves grouped together on opposite sides of the stem. Each pair of leaves alternates with the pair above it and below it, a bit like the cardinal points on a compass. The leaves vary in shape from round or oval to lance or spearhead shapes. Their texture varies from flat to crinkled, smooth to furry or velvety, depending on the variety. Keep these characteristics in mind if you find yourself in a sunny meadow by a stream bank; you may just find a mint treasure growing wild there.  

Chocolate Mint

Herbaceous perennials, mints range in height from low-growing ground covers to upright stems reaching as high as four feet, depending on species and variety. Most grow upright and largely unbranching, although pruning and harvesting will promote a bushier growth habit. Their small flowers form in clusters, either whorled around leaf nodes or in a terminal spike. They’re usually white, pink, or pale purple.  

Meadow Mint

Most mints also form horizontal stems, called stolons, either above ground or just under the surface of the soil. These stolons are the source of a gardener’s greatest headache with mint: The plant NEVER stays where you want it. Each joint or “node” on a stolon will readily take root and start a new plant in neighboring garden beds, regardless of what might already be growing there. On the upside, this characteristic also makes mint incredibly easy to share and start in your own garden.   

Unidentified wild mint

But which mint do you want? That depends entirely upon your tastes. Peppermint is the strongest, menthol giving it an extra kick. Spearmint is more of an “Everyman’s Mint,” with a gentler, smoother mint flavor. Apple mint, with its large, round, fuzzy leaves, is said to make the best Mojitos, and a sprig of it makes a fine garnish in any summer drink.    

The best selection method is to trust your nose and tastebuds. Even among named varieties and labeled species, there’s a lot of variation. It’s almost impossible to tell the differences between a mild peppermint and strong spearmint, or which is “Mojito” or just basic apple mint. It’s no wonder gardeners often give up and just call their patch “mint” or “meadow tea.” Find a friend with a patch of mint you enjoy, or go to your local nursery to see what varieties they have. Brush the leaves of each variety to get a sense of its fragrance. If you like what you smell, pinch a leaf and give it a nibble. You may find that many of the flavored mints, such as chocolate mint or pineapple mint, really aren’t flavored so much as scented. They still taste like mint.  

Pot mint to keep it controlled.

You can find mint seed, but there’s no guarantee about what you’ll get. Mint seed may seem like an economical way to start a patch, but unless you’re willing to start the entire packet and sample each seeding, you’re better off buying or trading a plant or two. If another gardener is sharing with you, all you really need is a few rooted stolons, and your mint patch is off and running.    

Start your mint patch in late spring, after the threat of frost has passed. Mint grows best in organically rich, moist, well-drained soil in sun to part-shade. Variegated varieties like pineapple mint will appreciate some afternoon shade, especially in Northern states. Mint likes regular moisture, but it doesn’t appreciate wet feet; that’s when diseases like Black Stem Rot and Leaf Spot show up. You can grow mint in hot, dry rain-shadow areas like the south side of a house foundation, but it won’t be happy there; the patch will slowly dwindle and eventually fade away.  

Dried mint makes a nice air freshener.

Planted in better conditions, your patch will thrive — and invade nearby beds. Why else did you think your friend was so happy to share their mint with you? There are a few ways to contain your mint patch, some more effective than others. First: never plant mint among your other herbs in the herb garden; mint will get its own bed, — whether you give it one or it takes over the one it’s “sharing.” Select a spot with built-in barriers, such as the strip of ground between the sidewalk and the curb. Another option is to plant it in a spot where the lawnmower will keep it in its place. As an added benefit, nothing smells quite so sweet as fresh-mown mint.  

Mint can also be planted in large pots, either free-standing or buried in the ground. Just be sure to keep the soil level in the pot a few inches below the rim to help contain wandering stolons, and be prepared to trim off those that try escaping anyway. If you bury the pot in the ground, cut out the bottom to allow good drainage. Buried 5-gallon buckets with their bottoms cut out also make good mint containment, as long as you watch for escaping stolons. In late fall, after the plants have gone dormant, cover the bed with an inch or two of finished compost for winter protection and fertilizing. Even in above-ground pots, mint is reliably winter-hardy to at least USDA Zone 6, and at least Zone 5 growing in-ground.  

Mint can quickly outgrow its place.

You can harvest fresh mint any time throughout the season, and nipping off tender tips, such as the top 6 inches, will encourage bushier growth. Harvest mint for drying just as the plants begin to form flower blossoms. Don’t wait too long, as oil levels drop as the plants bloom. Do leave a small patch to bloom; the bees will thank you for it.  

Cut the plants a few inches above the ground in the morning while the day is still cool. Use about a dozen stalks for each bundle. Secure the bundles with rubber bands; as the stems dry down, they will shrink, loosening and dropping out of the bundle if tied with twine. Avoid washing the cut mint; washing strips away the volatile oils, drastically reducing the dried mint’s potency. Hang the bundles in a warm, dry, shady place to dry. The optimum temperature range is from 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Your garden shed will serve well as long as you open the windows for airflow. When the bundles are brittle-dry, crumble the leaves off the stems, bagging them for storage in the freezer or in a cool dark place.  

Mint is a pollinator favorite.

Pour boiling water over a tablespoon or so of dried leaves for a steaming cup of refreshing mint tea, using more or less to suit your tastes. Fortify it with a shot of whiskey, bourbon, or brandy and some honey and lemon to help stave off the effects of the inevitable winter colds. Try adding your mint to homemade vinaigrettes and salad dressings or sprinkled over steamed vegetables for a little something different. And maybe save a bundle of mint just to hang in the kitchen as an air freshener and country-rustic ornamentation.  

Consider making a spot for mint in your garden this year. Give it a rich, well-watered spot in the sun, and it will repay you sweetly. Just make sure to keep it controlled, or you may find it seducing its way across your garden.  

Making the Perfect Pitcher of Mint Tea  

For me, one of the most refreshing drinks of summer is mint, or “meadow” tea. You can use any variety of mint, or even better, a blend of mints.  

  1. Gather a handful (a dozen stalks or so) of fresh mint.
  2. Place the mint in a heat-resistant pitcher or mixing bowl. Some people prefer to strip the leaves from the stems. I leave them on the stems.
  3. Pour a gallon of hot water, brought just to a boil, over the mint. Do not boil the mint; this gives the tea a bitter taste.
  4. Allow tea to steep for 15 to 30 minutes; remove mint and discard. The tea will be a pale golden green color.
  5. If desired sweeten with sugar or honey while still hot.
  6. Chill, pour over ice, and enjoy! (A mint sprig garnish doesn’t hurt, either.)

ANDY WEIDMAN is a self-styled naturalist, curious about all things wild, living in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. His day job is in maintenance support for an international aluminum manufacturer. His hobbies include wildlife photography, birding, tropical fish, backyard fruit culture, and generally spending time outdoors with his wife (they’re empty nesters). He’s also part of a local grass-roots organization dedicated to sharing information on home fruit growing, the Backyard Fruit Growers based in Lancaster PA. He is a former Penn State Master Gardener, having served from 2008 to 2011.

Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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