Mint has multiple uses. Its fresh green leaves add a tangy punch to fruit salads, ice cream, sherbet, and brewed hot tea. It is a low-calorie, flavorful addition to a simple glass of still or sparkling water. And who ever heard of a mint julep without the mint?
Once you plant it, mint (Mentha species), a perennial, becomes a constant garden companion, although some kinds are tougher than others. If you're feeling kind, you can call mint plants aggressive. If you don't like thugs taking over your garden, you will consider mint invasive.
Because it grows by underground root runners, mint spreads easily and quickly. To contain it, grow mint in a 12- to 16-inch-wide pot so it can't ramble through your landscape. If you like, tuck the container into the ground so the pot doesn't show but still keeps the herb in check.
You also can plant mint in a large half-barrel or plastic pot and leave it outdoors year-round. Don't keep ceramic pots outdoors during winter; they often crack during the freeze-thaw cycles that follow freezing temperatures.
Plant mint in full sun or part shade. It thrives in rich, moist, well-drained soil. Mint adapts to many soil types, but develops the best foliage in soil that has been enriched with a 2-inch-thick layer of compost.
Frequent cutting keeps mint looking attractive. As with basil and other flowering herbs grown for their leaves, remove flowers as they appear, and pinch back the stems to encourage shorter, bushier growth. Keep the area around mint free of weeds and grass. Otherwise it looks untidy, and the weeds may reduce yields and affect flavor.
Divide mint every few years. In fall, cut the plants to the ground.
Mint can also be grown indoors. Plant the herb as you would outdoors, in a pot, and place in a room that gets a generous amount of sunlight. Just be sure to keep the plant away from elements that would dry it out, such as a heater or radiator.
Mint plants can fall prey to a number of pest problems, including diseases such as verticillium wilt, mint rust, mint anthracnose, and insects such as spider mites, flea beetles, root borers, cutworms, and root weevils. Aphids are occasionally troublesome. Provide good air circulation and well-drained soil to prevent foliar diseases; knock off insects using a spray from a garden hose, being sure to spray the undersides of leaves where pests can hide.
Cut the leaves and flower tops when the mint plants start to bloom. Use fresh leaves immediately, or freeze them to retain their bright color.
To air-dry mint, hang the stems upside down in small bundles or spread them loosely in a small tray. When the stems and leaves are brittle, remove the leaves and flowers and store them in airtight containers.
Catmint (Nepeta) is a different plant, though related. It grows in much the same way as the herbal mints described here, but its flavor is much more attractive to your cat than it will be for you. Catmint can be dried or used fresh. Many types of catmint species are grown in the garden for their attractive blue-purple, white, or pink flowers.
Not all mints taste the same. If you're planting all of these, space them as far apart as possible to avoid cross-pollination.
Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) combines a fresh apple flavor with mint, as you would expect from its name. Zones 5-10
Chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita 'Chocolate') has a subtle chocolaty taste and scent. Zones 5-9
Lemon mint (Mentha x piperita f. citrata) offers citrusy undertones. Zones 5-9
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) comes in many cultivars. Zones 3-8
Spearmint (Mentha spicata) comes in many cultivars, including 'Kentucky Colonel', which has large, flavorful leaves. Zones 5-10