Marvelous Mints for the Family Garden

Scenes of summer: A glass of ice-cold peppermint tea on a hot day. The cheerful, earthy fragrance of lemon balm when you pinch a leaf as you walk by. Or a playful young cat rolling with ecstasy in the catnip in the nearby herb garden.

Minty Fresh: Corinna Wood in her copious lemon balm patch outside of Red Moon Herb Farms. Photo by Lee Warren

Cooling in nature and filled with aromatic oils, plants in the mint family delight us in countless ways. In particular, peppermint, lemon balm and catnip are some of our favorite, easy-to-grow herbs.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)

When transplanting peppermint, make sure to put it in a place in preparation for it to expand — it spreads aggressively by its roots. Our peppermint patch sends out runners several feet beyond its bed, even in the midst of a gravel path (you can always pull it out of the places you don't want it to grow). Planting in an outdoor planter is an option for containing it.

Fresh peppermint leaves can be picked and chewed for an instant flavor hit, or used in recipes that call for mint — think tabouleh (a middle eastern salad) or lamb dishes. Traditionally, peppermint has been used to ease nausea and digestive distress of all kinds, as well as teh symptoms of cold, fever and allergy.

Peppermint is great for children; it smells and tastes good, and it's very safe. Since Corinna's son Dylan was a wee toddler, he's harvested fresh peppermint for the family at teatime. At grandma's house, he would routinely pick a handful of stalks from the edge of the driveway to play with, sniff, eat and to stave off carsickness on the curvy roads back to their mountain home.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Easy to grow, lemon balm thrives in the cool season (spring and fall), withstands the heat like a champ, and even tolerates some shade. Red Moon Herbs recently expanded from a few lemon balm plants to a lush, bountiful circular bed, more than 20 times the size of the original planting. We replicated the plants from cuttings by taking the top couple of inches off of an existing lemon balm plant, stripping the bottom leaves, and keeping these watered in some sandy potting soil. The cuttings soon grew roots and were ready to be planted. In less than a year, we had as much as we could harvest!

Just crushing the leaves of this plant and inhaling deeply will immediately instill a sense of its traditional use as a gentle mood elevator. Like many plants with a high amount of volatile oils, lemon balm has also been used for headaches, circulation, stomach distress and fevers.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

As the name implies, cats love this plant, as it contains a constituent that causes them temporary euphoria. Not euphoria-producing in humans, it is nonetheless a lovely plant to include in the home garden for beauty and function. Because it's as easy to grow as the others, we usually start them from transplants. Catnip is a pleasant and relaxing tea for stomach upsets, or just winding down before bedtime. As you plant your garden, note that catnip crosses with lemon balm, so it's best to keep them separate.

Production, please make boxes:

Simple fresh mint tea

Take a handful of peppermint, lemon balm or catnip and place in a pint jar or a mug.

Pour boiling water over the fresh herbs and cover with a small plate.

Let it steep for 5 minutes.

Drink warm or refrigerate for a cool and refreshing herbal tea.

Tips on garden design with mint

Peppermint is a low-growing, almost ground cover-like plant, reaching 6" to 1' with dark green (with hints of darker shades like brown), shiny leaves, and produces purplish/blue flowers.

Lemon Balm is in the medium range and will reach between 1 and 2 feet, has wide, shapely, and serrated leaves, in the lighter green range with yellow/white/greenish flowers.

Catnip is the tallest of the bunch, teaching 3-4 feet, with a more compact, furry leaf, and purplish/blue flowers.

The director of Red Moon Herbs at Earthaven Ecovillage in Black Mountain, Corinna Wood is also the founder/director of the Southeast Women's Herbal Conference. Herbalist/homesteader/writer Lee Warren helps coordinate the conference, and has been a member of Earthaven Ecovillage since 2001.

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