Monday, April 25, 2011

Mint, Tamed


Last year I decided to put in a spearmint plant.  Of course I'd heard all the tales about how invasive mints are and what drastic measures are needed to contain them.  Serious gardening friend said he planted his mint in the middle of his lawn so that he could use the lawn mower to tame any offshoots or new growths.  But still, I was determined.  Perennial herbs are so tempting, and there was no way I was going to resist adding a nice mint to the collection.

So I did a little strategizing.  The first thought was physical containment.  I decided to sink a 5-gallon bucket into the ground, and plant inside that.  So I cut off the bottom of the bucket, while my husband dug a fairly deep hole where I indicated.  I had him put the dirt into a wheelbarrow, and to this I added a good amount of compost.  The bucket was placed in the hole with a couple inches remaining above grade.  Then I put in the soil and compost mixture until it completely filled the bucket, and backfilled the rest of the hole around the bucket.  I knew the soil inside the bucket would settle down gradually over the season.  I put my spearmint seedling in the bucket and watered.

My second thought was also physical containment.  I'd been looking at this fragment of large plastic pipe that we'd fished out of a dumpster on a construction site for quite some time.  Its diameter was several inches larger than that of the bucket, and laid on the ground it's about 10 inches high.  Now mint is known to spread just by expanding its root system, which the sunk bucket should take care of.  But it has a second, stealthy means of propagating itself.  The plant can just grow a long stem which then casually, oh-so-innocently and when you're not looking because you're distracted by everything else going on in the garden, falls over under its own weight until it touches the ground.  That's when this double agent piece of plant tissue grows roots and establishes a beach head.  The plastic pipe was installed as a collar around the bucket to prevent exactly that habit.  If the mint wanted to try spreading by such methods, the stem would have to grow very tall indeed, lean itself against the collar, and then droop a considerable way before reaching the earth.  It never happened in all of last summer.

Interesting thing too about the bucket and collar system.  I think it creates a microclimate that is beneficial in both summer and winter.  Last summer was a scorcher - very hot and unusually dry for our area.  I watered the mint seedling from planting through late spring, but it was mostly ignored after that.  It held up fine through that sort of neglect, and I think the shade provided by the collar reduced the soil temperature at the surface inside the bucket, and therefore checked evaporation.  The bushy habit of the mint also helped to cool its feet, I'm sure.  In winter, the tall collar kept some wind off the plant, and the black color helped snow melt a bit faster and provided a little extra warmth in early spring.

This spring the level of soil in the bucket is at least a couple inches below the mulch I put between the outside of the bucket and the collar to keep weeds down.  I see no signs of any offshoots from the spearmint.  This is good, since I plan to add peppermint and catnip (another member of the mint family) this year too, though I fear we can count on the cats to help control the latter.  I expect that the bucket and collar method will keep the spearmint from taking over the world in this second year which should bring even more exuberant growth.  I'll be keeping my eye out for anything that can serve as collars for my additional mints when we go dumpster diving this year.  If nothing turns up, we could cut out the sidewalls of some old tires and use just the tire rims.

How about you?  Do you have any tricks for keeping the mint family within reasonable bounds?  Or have they gotten the better of your garden?

24 comments:

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

You need to patent that -- the Maximum Security Mint Containment Systems (MSMCS).

We admitted defeat before we even planted our mint, and just put it far away from everything. Even if I didn't like the flavor, I'd have mint because it can grow in anything, comes up first every year, and thrives even in the face of incompetence and neglect. Let's hear it for mint.

Family Balance Sheet said...

Naively, I planted mint years ago when I first started gardening. My grandmother used to make mint tea from wild mint that grew on her property and I fondly remembered it. I wanted to have my own mint to that tea. So I stuck it in a corner of my raised veg box. I had absolutely no idea that it would take over. Now I just yank runners out all summer long and I still more than enough to make a lot of mint tea and we love it.

saving for travel said...

We had Mint at our previous property and it just took over.

Still I have fond memories of my Grandad growing all types and of course the smell of Mint takes me right back to that time.

Mr Sft agrees that growing it in a pot is the only way :)

Sft x

Wendy said...

I love your containment system! I don't have any system, but I also haven't, yet, had a problem with the mint getting out of control. In fact, I have the opposite problem. I can't seem to get enough of it to grow (I have pepppermint, though, not spearmint, and maybe it's not as invasive (??) - although the one spearmint seedling I did plant many years ago didn't come back).

Bee balm, now, that's a different story. It's crazy and grows everywhere and totally out of control, even spreading underground and coming up in a neighboring raised bed. I wish it were mint ;).

Mrs. J said...

I just planted some mint seedlings out that I started from seed. I've read about mint taking over a garden, but I've never seen it first hand. I decided to let my seedlings just go and see how they do. If they look like they are getting big, I'll dig the whole plant up and use a method like yours. I really like your extra cautious approach! =)

Allison at Novice Life said...

I also opted for the 'plant in the yard and care for with the mower' plan ;)

Sandy said...

I have several different types of mint planted in my little home garden. Since I have such a small lawn, and the majority of my seasonal plants are grown in containers (here at home, not in my "community garden" plot), I'm actually happy to have the mint grow fairly freely. I do mow occasionally, and that tidies things up. I have another problem right now: the feverfew I planted last year is going crazy. It actually overtook my rhubarb, which I had to replant. Would you like some feverfew?

Sasha said...

Do you have a suggestion for one or two favorite varietals for cooking and drink making?

Marie @ Awakeatheart said...

I just let my mint grow. I started out with a sunk pot, it grew over the side, touched down and kept running. It's in the shady part of my yard where not much else grows, and I'm happy to let it take over and choke out the weeds. If it grows somewhere I don't want it, I weed whack it or yank out the roots. The weed hacker just spreads the nice smell of chocolate mint everywhere, which makes it fun to weed. :)

Dea-chan said...

I planted it in a big wooden tub that was in the backyard. Best part about that? As I was pulling out all of the leaves, dead things, and random bits of growth out to put in my seeds, I found mint! Clearly, that tub was there for a REASON.

Paula said...

I have first hand knowledge of mint taking over from my childhood. Whenever I needed punishment (which was pretty often) I got sent to my grandmother's house to weed her tiny backyard. The two things I was to pull out were canna rhizomes and mint.

Armed with the memory, I grew Moroccan mint in a makeshift planter of five screen blocks stacked up on their sides on my deck. The holes were filled with soil, and the mint was popped into that. Last winter I protected it with a small pile fo straw, and it's come back charging. I moved all the alpine strawberries I had in the other screen blocks with the view to take them all down, but since it seems to be happy where it is and is really well contained, I may just leave it there. Maybe plant some flowers in the rest of the holes. Or basil and cilantro. Can't have too much of that.

Dmarie said...

what a fabulous idea. I'm beginning to regret having planted mint in one bed. wish I'd come across this first!

Monica@thedancingfarmer.com said...

We had spearmint at various houses and it was always wild as a march hare. So this time I actually planted peppermint. Good for tea and tummy aches and supposedly low spreading and sterile. Wow! Sterile I thought, and less aggressive too. What a bonus.
Of course as with all things like this someone forgot to tell the plant. Now? It's all over the place and like your friend I use the lawnmower to keep it semi in bounds. Darn plant!
I should have known better after gardening for all these years ---however I was a sucker for a minty sweet story :-D

Hazel said...

My spearmint grows under a fake castor oil plant. It pops up around it, and hasn't spread too much in 5 years. I pull any long runners up that head along the bed. It's not ideal (it actually keeps the mint too much in check- I could do with more!), but until I come up with a better plan, it's staying there.

I also grow a variegated mint in a pot, which looks a bit happier this year after I replaced as much compost as possible and generally gave it a bit of attention.

I planted Eau-de-Cologne mint, which I love (not to eat, but to scent bath water etc) underneath an Autumn Bliss raspberry. They are both in a little patch I created by lifting a slab on the patio we inherited with the house. My dog dug it up several times last year before it established, but I am hoping a little cosseting will encourage it to return.
The only thing is that they are both by the boundary fence of my disapproving neighbours, so I think I ought to sink something in the ground beneath the fence so they don't end up with raspberries and mint appearing in their shrub border...

Kate said...

Tamar, it might have been Arthur C. Clark who said that a patent is just a license to be sued. I think if we had more room here we might have taken your approach and let our mint free range. Indeed, mint is a rugged individualist of an herb. It doesn't mind neglect one whit.

FBS, sounds like a nice memory. I remember mint growing from a rock border at a playmate's house when I was a young child. We'd pick it and eat it. Not so remarkable except that I was the world's pickiest child and hardly anything green ever passed my lips.

SFT, yes, potted mint is an excellent idea. I try to keep as little as possible in pots only because I'm rather negligent about watering them. I prefer my plants source their own water needs from the ground.

Wendy, thanks. Maybe your harsher climate keeps mint in check? Are you referring to lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)? That is in fact a mint (you can tell by the square [in section] stems), and it definitely shares the family trait of rampant expansion. I also have bee balm (Monardia), which is not a mint. Mine were only put in last year, and didn't grow all that much, but maybe they'll expand more this year?

Mrs. J, thanks. Hope your mints do well for you. But, you know, not *too* well.

Allison, it seems like a good approach. I just don't have the yard space for it. We're down to fairly narrow corridors that we use to rotate our hens around.

Sandy, we've got feverfew coming up like crazy as well. It seems to be an accomplished self seeder. I suspect I'll be digging some of it up for the compost pile.

Sasha, sorry, I don't really. Spearmint is the first mint I've put in, and I chose it because it's milder than the assertively named peppermint. There are a bewildering variety of mints. Spearmint and peppermint are the best known, and the most commonly used in the kitchen. You couldn't go far wrong with either of those. Beyond those, you can just experiment if you have the room, and see which pleases you.

Marie, that's exactly what I was afraid of. I don't like maintenance work, not even in the garden. If it were placed to keep weeds down, I suppose I'd feel differently about it. Maybe you could describe the qualities of your chocolate mint for Sasha's benefit.

Dea-chan, so you intended to to plant mint there and found it was already in there?

Paula, ah, I love those tales of productive childhood slave labor. Maybe you could chime in on the qualities of your Moroccan mint for Sasha's sake. I agree with you on the basil and cilantro. My only gripe is that cilantro has to be repeatedly planted as it bolts so fast in our climate.

Dmarie, watch and wait with your mint. If it gives you any hassle get this setup ready and transplant it. Then eradicate any that crops up again in its original location.

Monica, wild as a March hare is a great description. We all have our weak spots for certain plants. You're not alone.

Hazel, is your variegated mint ornamental, or do you eat it? There are so many mints to choose among! I've never even heard of Eau-de-Cologne mint, but it sounds lovely. Is mint a good companion for raspberry? I'm going to put some rue with our black raspberries, since it's supposed to be good with them. But there's room for more than one companion to the raspberries.

Wendy said...

No, I was referring to bee balm, which I've had in my garden for many years, and which comes back like gangbusters every year ;).

I also have lemon balm, which I'm told expands like mint, but like mint, I don't have the experience of it spreading rampantly. I've had to replant it a few times, and I'm still trying to find that place in my landscape where it can be happy. Perhaps it's just that I haven't found the right place for mint, yet, either ;).

Melynda said...

Maybe I have been lucky, my mint has not traveled outside of the brick border. It does need lots of water however and maybe because I forget this part, is the reason it has not crept out.

Hazel said...

Kate; the variegated mint is edible, but I still tend to go for the good old spearmint when cooking.

Re: mint properties/varieties, I'm never sure what I'd use all the different varieties for. The chocolate mint is chocolate-y and it occurs to me that it would be nice dipped in or brushed with, melted chocolate, which I saw a suggestion for over the winter as petit fours. (The recipe used spearmint leaves, but double chocolate sounds good!)
However, I don't find, say pineapple mint, very pineapple-y (unlike pineapple sage- do try that if you ever see it. It's only downside is it's very tender.), but I guess everyone has different opinions.

I'm sure I read somewhere that Moroccan mint is supposed to make excellent tea, but I'm not sure how different it is to 'Garden' mint/Spearmint. Not enough to justify 2 thugs, I suspect, unless you drink a lot of mint tea.

I have Lemon Balm too, but I find that seeds itself everywhere rather than reproducing by runners, so it's just a matter of pulling up seedlings (or pressing them on the man who was reading the electricity meter! He was bemused but quite pleased!) At least the weeding smells nice...

Sorry, another epistle!

Kate said...

Wendy, I won't be surprised then if I see a lot of expansion from my bee balm this year. Good for the bees anyway. I put some in along with yarrow last year, which is proving to have successfully and extravagantly reseeded itself last year. Our lemon balm is certainly ambitious, but I don't find it too difficult to control. It's a spreader rather than a reseeder, as far as I can tell.

Melynda, good for you. Don't water anything more than it truly needs.

Hazel, I'm surprised to hear that your lemon balm re-seeds itself. Mine doesn't seem to at all. Maybe just the modest differences in our climates could account for that.

Hazel said...

Kate,Melissa Officinalis?

http://shootingstarnursery.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=850

Everywhere! In the gutter, in between the paving stones on the driveway, between the kerb stones on the pavement...

I wouldn't have thought there would be that much difference between our climates, but given that you have to give your rosemary special attention to get it to over-winter too, it sounds positively balmy here!

Kate said...

Hazel, yes, M. officinalis. I should say that my lemon balm does spread by tip rooting or suckering, just not rampantly. It's not so happy that I have real difficulty controlling it, and it's not a common weed in my area. As you say, our winters must curb its worst tendencies. I'm pretty happy with this climate - a happy medium between brutal winters with too-short growing seasons, and generously warm places without enough punishment in winter to knock out the worst insect pests. Must have been a rude shock to those early pilgrims who came here from balmy England. They landed farther north than Pennsylvania, and their first experience of a New England winter generated an enduring legend of near starvation and desperate gratitude for the first successful growing season; thus our Thanksgiving holiday.

Hazel said...

The Pilgrims must have been taken by surprise- travelling south and finding harsher weather than they left! They must have thought spring was never going to arrive.
I read earlier of someone (?Kathy) looking forward to Nettle Soup; our nettles have been up for about 2 months. Even in our colder north (though that's relative, I guess) they'll have been up for a while.

If anything ever happens to the Gulf Stream we'll get a shock. It's the only reason our climate is as mild as it is as we're the same latitude as Canada...

Project Girl said...

I planted 3 types of mint (pennyroyal, peppermint and spearmint) down the middle of my driveway. I have the old style of driveway with the two paved runners for your car tires. When my car rides over it, I get the aroma of mint through my car vents! It's divine! And perfectly contained. (Dallas, TX)

Kate said...

Project girl, wow! I don't suppose you do anything culinary or medicinal with those herbs you drive over, but it must be an olfactory blast driving over them. Fun!