Spearmint is used most commonly in the kitchen for mint juleps, sauces, jellies, teas, or to highlight flavors in a fruit salad. It's very fragrant and grows 2 to 3 feet tall with pale violet blooms in mid- to late summer. Peppermint is another popular mint with a strong aroma; it grows to 3 feet tall with smooth leaves 1 to 3 inches long. Another dozen or so mint varieties, including some interesting fruit-scented types such as orange mint, are also available.
Choosing a site to grow mints
Choose a site in full sun to part shade and moist soil. Or, since plants can be invasive, grow your mint in containers filled with potting mix enriched with compost.
Here are some of the best varieties to try in your garden. All grow 1- to 3-feet tall and spread unless otherwise noted.
'Apple mint' – This mint has a strong green-apple fragrance and makes a great tea and addition to fruit salad.
'Banana mint' – A low growing (6 inches tall) mint with round, furry leaves, it's not as aggressive as other varieties. Its banana-like flavor is good in tea, ice cream, and cookies.
'Chocolate mint' – A type of peppermint, the dark green leaves have a definite chocolate fragrance combined with the refreshing qualities of peppermint.
'Corsican mint' – This mint only grows 3/4-inch tall with small rounded leaves and a peppermint scent. It needs a cool, moist, shady area to grow, but makes a perfect plant to grow between stepping stones in a walkway.
'Ginger mint' – A colorful green-and-yellow foliaged mint with red stems. It has a spearmint-like fragrance and is good used in fruit salads with melons. It likes a cool, shady place to grow.
'Lavender mint' – This mint features grey-green leaves with purple undersides and a lavender scent. It's good for potpourris.
'Peppermint' – Traditionally used for tea, it has pink flowers and a strong fragrance. It also can be used medicinally. Japanese mint is a version of peppermint with high oil content and the ability to grow in a wide variety of climates.
'Pineapple mint' – A white-and-green variegated leaf mint that is less aggressive than others and beautiful in the landscape. A good variety for potpourris.
'Spearmint' – This traditional variety has been used for centuries in cooking meats, and more recently, to make mint juleps.
If you want an entire bed of mint, start with one or two purchased plants and set them about 2 feet apart in a sunny location. They'll quickly fill in the open area between plants.
Amend the soil well before planting with compost to help keep the soil moist. Remove all weeds, especially perennial ones, from the area, since it's painstaking to weed mint plants once planted. Set mint plants in the garden spaced 1- to 2-feet apart after all danger of frost has passed in your area. Mulch plants with bark or straw mulch to keep the soil moist and weed free. If you want to grow mint from seed, sow indoors 8 weeks before you'll be transplanting outdoors.
If you want to avoid having your mint take over, plant varieties in bottomless pots sunk into the ground. The underground rhizomes won't be able to spread as aggressively.
Mint also grows well as an indoor herb plant. Move potted mint plants indoors before a killing frost. Give them plenty of light, cut back on watering in winter, and you'll get plants from which you can harvest some leaves in winter and plant back into the garden in spring.
Mint requires little care to keep it growing. If planting a patch of different types of mint, keep the more aggressive ones from taking over by containing them, or by digging and dividing them annually in spring. Mint varieties will cross pollinate but it will only affect the seedlings that grow from the seeds that develop as a result of the pollination. Pull out seedlings or you'll get hybrids that won't taste like the mother plant. Also, if allowed to grow together, it may be hard to distinguish one mint variety from another when picking.
To share your mints, in spring dig and divide mother plants. Mint also readily roots from cuttings. Snip a 4- to 6-inch cutting from the mother plant, dip the cut end in rooting hormone powder, remove all but the top set of leaves, stick the cuttings in a pot filled with moistened potting soil, and place in a bright room, out of direct sun. Cuttings should root in about 2 weeks.
In fall, cut back plants, especially aggressive ones, to limit their growth and remove any diseased leaves. Mints generally don't have problems with insects and diseases, but sometimes rust disease will attack and can be controlled by removing and destroying the leaves in fall.
How to harvest mints
Harvest mint leaves as needed once the plant is established. For fresh use, pick the youngest leaves before the plant flowers, just after the dew dries in the morning for best flavor. If harvesting for drying, cut 6-inch long mint stems, bunch them together, and hang them in a well ventilated, 70 degree F, airy room out of direct sunlight. Place a brown paper bag around the bunch to retain the leaves color and oil content. They should be dry in about 1 to 2 weeks.
You can also dry mint leaves in an oven set at 185 degrees F, a microwave, or food dehydrator. Watch leaves carefully so they don't burn.