All the hype around the Kentucky Derby this past week got me thinking about mint.
Why mint? Well, the mint julep, a sweet combination of mint and bourbon, is the official drink of the derby.
While the drink may be traditional at the Kentucky Derby, it got its start as a medical concoction in the Virginias. Its first recorded debut as a drink at a bar was at our own Greenbrier resort.
William A. MacCorkle, the ninth governor of West Virginia, waxed poetic about the drink in a book he wrote in 1916. In it he reported on “the famous old barroom, which was approached by a spiral staircase. Here in this dark, cool room, scented with great masses of fragrant mint that lay upon mountains of crushed ice, in the olden days were created the White Sulphur mint julep and the Virginia toddy, for which this place was famous the world over.”
While mint has many fine properties, there’s one that makes it a plant that is hard to love: It spreads so easily that it can quickly become invasive. In fact, many gardeners and homeowners deal with mint whether they planted it or not.
Aside from the mints we plant for our own uses, many common invasive lawn and garden weeds are mints. Ever deal with the ever-spreading ground ivy (also known as creeping Charlie or gill-over-the-ground)? Ever found yourself fighting with purple deadnettle or henbit? Then you’ve had a fight with a member of the Lamiaceae (mint) family.
Garden mints are varied and have many uses — culinary, medicinal and ornamental. You can grow peppermint, spearmint and even chocolate mint.
Lemon balm and bee balm are also mints. In fact, a great proportion of the other herbs that we use are mints — oregano, basil, catnip, thyme, rosemary, lavender and sage are all mint family members. While several of them (basil, rosemary, lavender, sage and thyme) don’t try to take over your whole garden or lawn, many of them do.
I made the mistake of thinking that I could control lemon balm. Boy, was I ever wrong. It pops up everywhere in my landscape now.
There are a few ornamental plants that you’ll find as groundcovers at the garden center that are mint family members and have the potential to spread and take over an area. Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) and self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) come to mind. You can use these to fill in a space, but be warned that they are the naughty children of the garden — they will not stay where you put them.
How can you tell if a plant is a member of the mint family that warrants more study before you introduce it to your garden? One of the most common characteristics is a square stem, so check out the stem before you buy.
Most mints are also aromatic — many have a nice smell, but that isn’t always the case. They also have flowers that can range from pale to dark blue and purple.
My suggestion is to keep any of the true mints and any of the family members that spread, such as lemon balm, catnip and oregano, in containers. You’ll also want to make sure you don’t allow them to go to seed and spread that way either.
But just because you have them in containers doesn’t mean that you can’t have them in the ground. You can actually sink the container in the ground to still have the effect of the mint “planted” in the garden. Just be sure that the rim of the pot sticks far enough above the soil surface to keep roots from escaping. Unless the pot is deep, I would suggest using a porous clay pot without drainage holes or cover the drainage holes with something that lets water out but keeps roots in, such as landscape fabric or a piece of synthetic cloth.
For those members of the mint family such as ground ivy and henbit that find their way into your yard and garden, patience is the best advice I can give you for dealing with them. Some people don’t mind them (if it is green, it is yard), and some people do. My entire back yard is currently a mix of minty weeds (not of my own choosing) that really isn’t my favorite.
Do I give in to the ground ivy and try to kill off the remaining sprigs of grass, or do I try to get rid of the mint and restore order? I haven’t yet decided.
I will tell you that bees absolutely love the blue and purple flowers of any of the mint family members, so it is good pollinator food.
These plants are hard to control manually because every time you rip one up, you leave several root fragments that become more plants. Think of it like a Greek hero battling the hydra that sprouts two new heads for every one chopped off with a sword.
Luckily, ground ivy doesn’t have poisonous breath. You can control them chemically with a broadleaf herbicide (it may take a few tries). Be warned that these herbicides kill any broadleaf plant they come into contact with, including your landscape plants, trees and shrubs.
With a little bit of planning, you can turn a love-hate relationship with mints into a mostly loving relationship. If all else fails, you’ll have plenty of mint for a julep.