For many years, I have been tending a large patch of apple mint that is lush and leafy throughout summer. In winter its tall, 90 cm stems become dry and brittle, and I always try cut them down to ground level before the end of January so that the flowers of snowdrops that are planted in the same bed have a chance to make a show before the vigorous growth of mint resumes. Although this is a sizable patch of apple mint, robust boundaries keep it under control. Its boisterous roots are unable to travel beyond a deeply-set barrier of stone that surrounds it.
Apple mint spreads, and without any restrictions on its roots it will soon take over beds and borders. In large, rambling gardens it can be used as ground cover, but in small gardens it must be restricted to containers. The late Graham Stuart Thomas, garden writer and renown expert on perennial plants, had little time for mint in gardens. He wrote: “Most of them are just weedy, culinary herbs…invasive plants, preferring moist rather than dry soil, but easily pleased in sun or shade.”
When planted with strict root defences in place, however, whether confined to a container or a bed, apple mint can be an asset to a garden. Its downy, young foliage is just perfect for picking at the beginning of June at the same time as new potatoes are being lifted from the soil. There really is nothing more delicious than a dish of steaming, boiled new potatoes embellished with butter and fresh apple mint. Just as most people adore the flavours and scent of mint’s foliage, bees and butterflies adore the nectar that its plumes of lilac blossom produce in copious supply. In August, my patch of apple mint is alive with the buzz of honey bees, bumblebees, and the flighty movement of butterflies.
While a bed of apple mint needs little attention apart from a quick tidy-up in winter, container-grown mint needs much more maintenance if it is going to supply healthy young foliage and a fresh crop of flowers every summer. Mints should be watered often in dry weather if they are confined to containers, and for best results they should be divided and re-potted annually. This is a very simple process which is easily carried out in winter with the help of an old bread knife – no finesse required. Remove the plant from its pot, then cut the plant and its rootball into half or quarters. Each section can be potted in fresh compost, ready for the rush of spring growth.
There are numerous available varieties of mint. As well as apple mint, I like to grow black peppermint. Its stems are tinged with dark purple and its small, dark green leaves have a herbal flavour, more like basil than mint. Other mints have variegated white and green foliage, some are golden in appearance, and water mint is useful for growing around the edges of ponds.
The botanical name of mint, Mentha, is thought to have its origins in Greek mythology. The god of the underworld, Hades, was very much in love with the nymph, Minthe. His queen became jealous and angry, and to resolve the problem, she turned the nymph into the plant we now know as mint…perhaps something to ponder upon when next enjoying a summer gin and tonic with ice and a leaf or two of mint.