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Growing mint for tall, cool drinks. Or for soups, salads, and more.

Growing mint for tall, cool drinks. Or for soups, salads, and more Crush a leaf and savor the aroma: the cool, sweet, and zesty scent is a summer refresher--mint. Rich with menthol oils, the fragrant leaves give punch to favorite hot-weather foods and beverages--fruit salads, cold soups, tabbouleh salad, lemonade, and iced tea. In most parts of the West, there's still time to plant for all harvest. We show and describe seven mints and two mint relatives, all easy to grow and use.

Take your pick Although dozens of mint varieties are known, you'll probably find about a half-dozen kinds in the herb section of most nurseries. Plants vary in foliage, growth habit, and fragrance. Most have subtle but distinct differences in flavor. To let your nose decide which one you want, pinch a leaf and sniff the aroma. Pronounced menthol taste makes common spearmint (Mentha spicata) and peppermint (M. piperita) dependable choices. For top flavor and form, 'Mint the Best', a relatively new spearmint selection, and black-stemmed peppermint (M.p. nigra) are worth looking for. Another spearmint, curly mint (M.s. crispata), has puckered, or crisped, leaves. Plants grow less vigorously than common spearmint, and the stalky, tightly leafed stems make attractive garnishes in cold drinks. English mint has dark green foliage and a clean, grassy flavor. Red-stemmed, big-leafed orange bergamot mint (m.p. citrata) combines peppermint zest with a mild orange fragrance. Apple mint (M. suaveolens) has softly felted, light green leaves with a fruity aroma. Pineapple mint (M.s. 'Variegata') is a colorful, low-growing version; new leaves have strongest flavor. For slightly different taste, try two mint-related herbs. Licorice mint (Agastache foeniculum, also called anise hyssop) has a distinct anise taste; you can toss the flavorful flowers (the purple ones shown at left) into fruit salads. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) brings a clean, citrus flavor to soups, sauces, meats, and hot teas. Both plants grow into handsome 2-to 3-foot-high perennials. Unlike true mints, they don't spread by aggressive runners; lemon balm self-sows readily.

Mints are obliging Few plants are as easy to grow. With minimal care, mints fill out and spread rapidly--often too rapidly. Keep plants in the ground within bounds by cutting off surface-rooting runners with a sharp spade every few weeks. Or put mint where roots can't wander: in a raised bed, in a tall container, or near a concrete walk. Replace plants in pots every two years, ones in the ground every three years. Or lift and divide old plants and replant only the new outer shoots. To grow new plants from old, simply dig up rooted runners, or take cuttings (they root readily in water). Mint grows in almost any situation, but you'll get the best crop if you give it rich, well-improved soil and plenty of moisture (even soggy soil suits it). Along the coast, plant in full sun or part shade; provide part to full shade in hot inland areas. Frequent pruning promotes healthy growth. When you cut sprigs for the kitchen, clip stems liberally to shape plants and keep fresh new leaves (the most flavorful for cooking) coming on. Cut off flowers as they form (except from licorice mint). Shear plants to the ground twice a year, once between October and late November when plants begin to die down for the winter, and again in spring after the first flush of new growth matures. After shearing, mulch roots with a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost. Mint attracts few insects that can't be dislodged with a blast of the hose (although whiteflies can be persistent pests). If you see signs of rust, a fungus disease that speckles leaves with orange spots, cut off all foliage (not just infected parts) to the ground. If that doesn't work, replant in another location. Don't use manure around mint--it can cause rust.

Mail-order sources If you can't find what you want at the nursery, you can order all the kinds of mint shown here from Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 97321(catalog free), and Taylor's Herb Gardens, 1535 Lone Oak Rd., Vista, Calif. 92083 (catalog $1). These three mail-order nurseries offer other unusual varieties such as ginger, grapefruit, and eau de cologne mint: Casa Yerba, Star Route 2, Box 21, Days Creek, Ore. 97429 (catalog $1); Hilltop Herb Farm, Box 1734, Cleveland, Tex. 77327 (free brochure); and Lost Prairie Herb Farm, Star Route, Marion, Mont. 59925 (catalog $1).
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Aug 1, 1985
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