Mint: An Aggressive Grower That Serves Up a Punch of Flavor
With its sweet fragrance, sparkling flavor, and pretty flowers, mint makes a delightful addition to any garden.
It’s a welcome ingredient in cold beverages and teas, as well as in sweet and savory dishes. And its renowned taste and aroma are found in a myriad of products around the home from air fresheners to mouthwash.
Bees and other pollinators flock to the enchanting spires and tufts of flowers that bloom in pastel shades of blue, mauve, pink, or white. And this frost-hardy perennial even grows year-round in regions with warm winters.
Now, you may have heard of mint’s legendary spreading properties.
And that you should avoid planting it in the garden to prevent it from “taking over.”
But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy growing this lovely herb. This just means it’s vigorous and easy to grow.
This lush, rewarding herb can be successfully cultivated in containers and garden beds to stop it spreading – and you’ll love the fresh-flavored results!
Here’s everything you need to know about how to grow mint.
What You’ll Learn
What Is Mint?
Mint is a highly aromatic, perennial herb in the genus Mentha of the Lamiaceae family.
The genus contains approximately 20 species and numerous natural hybrids that occur in the overlap areas of different growing ranges.
Peppermint, M. x piperita is one such hybrid, formed by the cross-pollination of M. aquatica and M. spicata.
In their natural environment, plants thrive along marsh edges, in meadows, along stream banks, and woodland fringes – growing 12 to 36 inches tall at maturity.
Most species are native to temperate regions of Africa, Asia, or Europe, with a few indigenous to Australia (M. australis), and North America (M. arvensis and M. canadensis).
The presence of pungent essential oils gives Mentha its attractive fragrance that fills the surrounding area with a sweet perfume.
Plants are easily identified by their bright scent and refreshing taste, and by the square stems typical of Lamiaceae family members.
Tiny blooms in terminal racemes form flowering spires on tall spikes, and smaller flower tufts often form in the leaf axis. Blooms appear from mid to late summer, and are highly attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
Leaves have a serrated edge and can have either a smooth or fuzzy texture. They come in all shades of green – with some variegated types as well.
Fast growing, plants send out runners (stolons) above and below ground to quickly establish large, lush colonies.
For this reason, they need to be contained when planting, if you don’t want them to take over – or only planted in areas where you don’t mind them spreading freely.
Fragrant and deliciously cooling, mint is a popular beverage and kitchen herb. It’s also widely used in candies, teas, and toiletries – as well as aromatherapy and herbal remedies.
According to an article by Monica H. Carlsen et al, published in the BMC Nutrition Journal, Mentha has a very high antioxidant capacity, and has long been recognized for its aromatic, medicinal, and therapeutic properties.
Cultivation and History
The name originates from a Greek myth about a river nymph and means “having a sweet smell.”
A versatile herb, it has been cultivated for cooking and medicinal properties throughout history.
The ancient Egyptians used the oil to treat a variety of ailments. The first recorded documentation of medicinal oil use was published in the library at Alexandria in 410 AD.
The Roman historian Pliny the Elder reported many uses including scenting bathwater and perfumes as well as flavoring beverages, sauces, and wine.
By medieval times, Mentha was commonly grown in gardens for kitchen and apothecary use.
And in the mid-1700s, commercial cultivation for the essential oil was established in England, with the Netherlands, France, and Germany following soon after.
For centuries, all plant parts – flowers, leaves, roots, and stems – have been used in folk medicine to treat a number of health issues, including gastrointestinal distress and respiratory illnesses.
A tea made of dried leaves is sometimes consumed to relieve a sore throat.
Although mint grows wild in North America, root stock was introduced by English settlers, and by the 1790s crops for distillation of the essential oil were commercially grown in Massachusetts.
Today, Mentha is an important commercial crop in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho with the oils used primarily to flavor candy, chewing gum, cough drops, mouthwash, and toothpaste.
Mentha seed is tiny – approximately 14,000 seeds per gram – and difficult to germinate.
And, being an avid cross breeder, seeds produce variable results – often with different taste and appearance than that of the parent plants.
I have an unintentional patch of minty oregano from this cross-pollination trait – it’s very tasty in icy drinks!
Commercial growers propagate vegetatively, and root division or stem cuttings give the best results for home gardeners.
By Root Division
Autumn is the ideal time to take root cuttings, but early spring works as well.
Choose a rootbound container plant and gently remove the rootball from the pot. Using a hand saw or garden shears, cut the rootball into quarters.
Fill small 2- to 4-inch pots or trays with a soil mix of 1/3 well aged compost, 1/3 vermiculite or peat moss, and 1/3 landscape sand. Water well until the soil is evenly moist.
Repot 2 or 3 of the quarters in fresh soil and divide the remaining quarter to create several smaller root cuttings, each with at least one stem.
Trim off the top growth and prune the hairy roots to fit in your containers.
Set the cuttings in place then top up with soil and firm gently.
Water lightly then set out in a cold frame or a protected site with bright, indirect light and steady moisture.
By Stem Cutting
Choose strong stems with fresh, healthy green leaves.
Cut off 4- to 6-inch pieces, removing the lower 3 or 4 sets of leaves. Cut the stem just below a set of leaf nodes to prevent the stem from curling in water.
Longer stems are preferable because roots sprout from the leaf nodes – more leaf nodes from long stems means more roots and a strong plant.
Place stems in a small glass of water, and set in a light, airy windowsill until healthy roots have formed.
The roots start to form in 10 to 14 days and can be planted out in 3 to 4 weeks.
Once a strong root system has formed, pot up the stems into containers 6 to 8 inches deep and wide, filled with sterile, well-draining potting soil.
Firm the soil around the stems and water gently.
Keep the pots in a sheltered spot for 4 to 6 weeks, ensuring the soil stays moist but not waterlogged. After plants are established, transplant into the garden to their permanent locations.
How to Grow
Mint is a vigorous grower that likes organically-rich, well-draining soil with a neutral pH of 6.0 to 7.0. Plants are hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8.
Plants prefer full to partial sun exposure and variegated types may need shade protection from the hot afternoon sun.
Plant out in spring after the last frost, or in late summer once the evenings start to cool.
Keep soil consistently moist and water when the top 1-inch of soil becomes dry.
Once new growth emerges in spring, feed with an all-purpose, water soluble plant food, such as 10-10-10 (NPK). Fertilize once more mid-way through the growing season if needed.
After plants are established, harvest leaves regularly by pinching out the tops. New leaves are more flavorful and tender than the older ones, and pinching promotes bushy growth.
In the garden, space plants 12 to 24 inches apart in containers to keep growth in check. Use large containers measuring 8 to 24 inches in diameter and with a similar depth.
Sink the containers into garden beds leaving the top two inches of the rim above ground. This helps to prevent runners from escaping into fertile soil and establishing new plants.
Improve the soil with 1/3 aged compost or other rich organic matter and 1/3 landscape sand to improve drainage.
Ensure pots have plenty of material covering the drainage holes such as coir, pebbles, or broken pottery to prevent the roots from sitting in water.
Turn pots in the ground every 14 to 28 days to stop the roots from spreading through the drainage holes.
Alternatively, plant directly into the ground in an area where you don’t mind it spreading.
Consider burying some metal flashing or landscape edging 8 inches deep around the plant to prevent it from taking over. Mint can make a useful ground cover and some varieties will tolerate a little foot traffic.
Mulch pots and in-ground plants with a 2-inch layer of straw to retain moisture and keep weeds in check.
Mentha plants tolerate a light frost, but the top growth will eventually die back in winter. In autumn, cut back stems to the ground and cover with a 2-inch layer of mulch if your winters are harsh.
While humans are quite enamored of this herb, many animals and insects are not. It is known to repel ants, cockroaches, deer, mice, spiders, and squirrels which makes it a useful companion plant for other crops.
Grow mint in containers of rich, well-draining soil amended with 1/3 organic matter such as aged compost. You can add 1/3 landscape sand to improve drainage if needed.
Ensure pots have plenty of drainage material – such as broken pottery, gravel, or pebbles – at the bottom and keep soil moist but not wet.
Fertilize with an all-purpose liquid plant food such as 10-10-10 (NPK) in spring and once more mid-way through the growing season.
For a steady harvest, give your containers some afternoon shade to prevent heat stress.
Container plants should be divided every 3 to 4 years to rejuvenate plants.
Keep the following in mind for an easy growth and an abundant crop.
- Don’t allow the soil to dry out, these plants are moisture lovers
- Provide light shade in areas with hot afternoon sun
- Restrict plants from spreading by cultivating in containers or with landscape barriers
- Allow some plants to flower throughout the garden to attract pollinators
- Protect plants with a 2-inch layer of mulch to help retain moisture
Cultivars to Select
Botanists disagree as to exactly how many species of this herb exist, with most landing in a range of 13 to 20 different types. Close to 2000 different cultivars are available.
The most popular varieties for home cultivation include spearmint (M. spicata), peppermint (M. x piperita), wild mint (M. arvensis), and Scotchmint (M. x gracilis).
M. x piperita is one of the more well-known species and is a favorite for use in beverages, desserts, and sweets because of its strong menthol flavor.
This plant will grow 12 to 36 inches tall at maturity and, like most plants of this family, prefers a part sun location.
Seeds in biodegradable peat pods are available from Click and Grow via Amazon.
You can also pick up a 3-pack of plants at Burpee.
M. x piperita ‘Variegata’ offers a different look, with pretty two-tone leaves of deep green and buttery-cream – but the same zesty scent and taste of peppermint.
3-packs of variegated plants are available at Burpee.
M. x piperita ‘Peppermint Chocolate’ is another popular type often seen in local nurseries – probably because of its name!
This variety has brown stems and the leaves have a chocolate-mint aroma and flavor, making it perfect for use in cold drinks and tea.
3-packs of plants are available at Burpee.
M. spicata has long been popular with herbalists and in kitchen gardens, and has less menthol giving it a sweet, fresh taste.
It’s best suited for flavoring savory dishes, veggies, and teas.
4-inch plants are available from Bonnie Plants at Home Depot.
Or you can pick up seeds by the packet or in bulk from Eden Brothers.
M. x piperita f. citrata ‘Orange’ has a strong citrus scent and flavor that makes it popular in cold beverages, salads, teas, and with fruit or ice cream.
Find plants in 3-packs at Burpee.
M. suaveolens ‘Pineapple’ is an attractive, variegated cultivar, typically with white margins on its leaves and a light, citrusy fragrance.
Pick up 3-packs of variegated pineapple mint plants at Burpee.
Mint Julep Collection
The Mint Julep Collection is just right for the bartender!
The 3-pack of plants contains ‘Kentucky Colonel’ and ‘Orange’ Mentha as well as Honey Dip stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) – perfect for sipping cool ones on a warm summer’s eve!
The 3-piece collection is available at Burpee.
Managing Pests and Disease
All species are considered deer, rabbit, and rodent resistant.
Menthas are typically low maintenance, but there are a few problems to watch for.
There are a couple of different insect pests that might like to munch on your mint.
Aphids are small, soft-bodied insects that can cause damage by sucking sap and spreading fungal disease.
A strong jet of water from the garden hose quickly reduces aphid populations.
You can learn more about controlling aphids in your garden here.
Spider mites can cause stunted and deformed growth and can also be handled with a strong blast of water.
If insects become problematic, apply an insecticidal soap such as this one from Safer Brand, available through Home Depot.
If you do notice problems with your mint, it could be one of the following:
Anthracnose is a fungal disease that can spread quickly in warm, wet weather, causing small spots that gradually get larger until the leaves drop off.
Remove diseased plants promptly to prevent its spread.
Keep plants off the ground and ensure good air circulation. The spores overwinter in plant debris, so clean beds well in fall and remember to rotate crops. Avoid splashing water onto lower leaves.
Mint rust is another fungus that causes small brown, orange, or yellow pustules on undersides of leaves.
Infected plants should be removed to prevent this disease from spreading.
Heat treating the roots may help to control rust. To do this, immerse roots in hot water, 111°F, for 10 minutes then cool under running water and plant as usual.
Powdery mildew is another fungus that can also show up in moist, damp conditions, coating leaves and stems in a fuzzy dusting that weakens and damages plants.
Remove any infected plants and allow the soil to dry out. Thin plants if needed to improve air circulation and don’t water until the top 1-inch of soil is dry.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that these moisture-loving plants can be plagued with fungal diseases.
If fungi are persistent, treat with a fungicide compatible for organic gardening like Bonide, available at Amazon.
How and When to Harvest
The quality of the volatile oils that give mint its characteristic flavor is best during the long days of summer when plants receive 14 hours of daylight or more.
And for the best aroma and flavor, plants should be harvested before flowering.
Harvest on a sunny day by shearing the tops of the plants after the morning dew has dried. Cut stems to just above the first or second set of leaves.
Plants can be harvested 3 or 4 times a year and frequent harvesting helps to keep them bushy.
Like most herbs, mint is best enjoyed fresh. But it can be successfully dried and frozen as well.
Sprigs will keep fresh in the fridge for up to 7 days.
Rinse cuttings and lightly shake off excess water.
Gently wrap leaves in a damp paper towel and place the paper towel inside a loosely sealed plastic bag or storage container. Refrigerate the container.
Or, trim the stem ends and place them in a small glass of water. Place the glass in the fridge and cover loosely with a bag, replacing the water every 3 to 4 days.
Rinse your harvest under cold, running water and dry in a salad spinner or pat dry with a clean dish towel.
Tie several stems together into small bunches of 10 to 25 stems and hang upside down in paper bags. Choose a cool, dry location with ample air circulation.
When leaves are dry and crumbly, in 1 to 2 weeks, strip them from the stem and store in airtight containers in a cool, dark cupboard.
Or, use your dehydrator at the lowest setting to dry cuttings.
To freeze into cubes for iced tea or mojitos, rinse and pat dry cuttings.
Remove the leaves and discard the stems.
Chop leaves coarsely, adding about 2 teaspoons into each compartment of an ice cube tray.
Top with water and freeze.
Freshly squeezed lemon juice can be used to replace the water. A small wedge of lemon or lime or pinch of zest can also add citrus flavor.
You can also pop in a few berries for a fruity twist or add some fresh tarragon for a hint of licorice.
Once frozen, remove the cubes and store in an airtight container for up to three months.
Whole leaves can also be frozen for use in sauces, smoothies, soups, stews, and teas.
To do this, rinse and dry stems then strip off the leaves.
Place leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze for 2 to 3 hours.
After the leaves are frozen, remove them from the baking sheet and place in airtight containers in the freezer where they will last up to 3 months.
Recipes and Cooking Ideas
Fresh mint makes a lovely complement to fish, lamb, and poultry and can spruce up lightly steamed veggies like baby carrots, peas, and new potatoes.
Leaves pair well with fruit and tossed salads, and it’s popular in Levantine dishes like tabbouleh.
It’s flavor can enhance beverages such as lemonade, punch, and herbal teas. And a julep or mojito would be nowhere without the cooling zest of mint!
For cooking, bear in mind that peppermint’s flavor is mentholated. That means it’s cool and strong, making it well-suited for alcohol-based drinks, desserts, and sweets.
Spearmint has a lightly sweet flavor and is more commonly used in savory dishes.
To enjoy your crop, why not start off with a Tomatillo-Jito from our sister site Foodal? This refreshing beverage is a tart twist on a classic cocktail.
Also from Foodal, you might enjoy Spicy Pork Tacos with Peach and Corn Salsa, where the herb adds a special pop to the flavorful salsa.
Other Garden Uses
Mints have lovely, soft flowers that are highly attractive to pollinators.
Allow a few pots to bloom and place throughout the garden – they’ll repel unfriendly pests and attract beneficial insects.
In the right place, mint makes a pretty and fragrant seasonal ground cover. But remember, it’s a spreader and should only be planted where it won’t become invasive.
It loves moist areas and is a natural along stream banks, lightly shaded meadows, and the fringe areas around marshes and ponds.
The sweet, fresh fragrance can also be enjoyed between pathway pavers, where walking on it releases the scent.
This one from AmazonBasics gives malleable control and is available via Amazon.
Quick Reference Growing Guide
Planting zesty cool mint not only means adding an attractive plant to your landscape, but also a fantastic flavoring agent for drinks, savory dishes, and desserts.
Remember to provide plenty of supplemental water and prune or pinch regularly, and that’s about it. Oh, and don’t plant it in the ground unless you have a few acres you want quickly covered in this herb!
Have you ever grown mint? Did it take over your whole yard, or did you put it in a container? Tell us your minty tales in the comments below.
And if you’d like to learn about other easy-to-grow herbs, check out these guides next:
- How to Grow and Use Lemon Balm
- Grow Faassen’s Catmint for Durable Summer Color
- How to Grow Bee Balm: Bring Out the Hummingbirds!
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Photos by Lorna Kring and Kendall Vanderslice © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on May 8, 2018. Last updated April 14, 2020. Product photos via Bonnie Plants, Bonide, Burpee, Click and Grow, Eden Brothers, and Safer Brand. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. With additional writing by Lorna Kring.
The staff at Gardener’s Path are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Gardener’s Path and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet or using plant-based remedies or supplements for health and wellness.
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