- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Think of mint as a bully that will consume the garden. There, you’ve been warned. The sweet fragrance and classic taste, though, are worth the work of having to pull invasive mint vines out of your flower beds.

Unlike most plants, the trick to growing mint is to keep it in check. Some gardeners try to outsmart mint by planting it in pots and then sinking those pots into the ground. But even with that technique, gardeners must be vigilant, since the vines root wherever they touch soil.

Take it from me, once mint is in the garden, it’s there to stay, and it will pop up in strange places.

It is fun, though, to plant something that cannot be killed. Mint is a plant that perseveres through weeks of spring rains and is unfazed by months of summer drought. It’s a hardy perennial and will come back year after year.

I inherited a garden designed in the shape of the Union Jack. I’m sure the gardener who built it had the best of intentions in planting several types of mint. After two years of neglect, the mint had run wild, filling every bed with a tangled mess of vines.

I leveled that garden in favor of a pool, but I’m reminded each spring of the previous planting, as I pull up mint that has crept into the adjoining bed of peonies, foxglove and camassia. Gravel paths that still exist are lined with mint. Yet I welcome the sweet scent and the way the vines ramble underfoot.

A true sun lover, mint thrives in warm weather. In fact, the plant can get a little ragged in shade. Yet some variegated species are better for the protection of a bit of afternoon shade.

Mint is beautiful in its variegated form. Some variegated mints have green leaves with white margins, and butterflies and bees seem to enjoy the nectar of the fuzzy summer blooms.

To get started, try a couple of different types of mint in a container above ground. Even though it loves sun, mint does not enjoy dry conditions. So keeping the container well watered but not waterlogged will go a long way toward maintaining healthy plants.

Another benefit of growing above ground is that it’s easier to maintain control of mint and its aggressive growing patterns.

One of the wonderful things about mint is the many types available.

Standard spearmint is a good starting point, but there is also apple mint, chocolate mint and pineapple mint, plus others.

Like most mints, apple mint is a great container plant. It exudes a particularly refreshing fragrance. And how can you go wrong with chocolate mint, which provides a nice surprise in deserts (think ice cream or chocolate cream pie). Pineapple mint is an excellent addition to salads or cooked potatoes.

Harvest mint leaves at any time during the season. They can be used fresh, dried or frozen. (To dry the leaves, spread them over a screen and keep them in a cool, dry area.) But try to pick them in the morning when the oils are strongest.

In the kitchen, mint is the traditional partner of lamb, but mint is only limited by the imagination of the cook. In summer drinks, mint adds a cool, refreshing flavor.

Try a shot of citrus rum combined with five or six crushed mint leaves, some blueberries and crushed ice for a refreshingand interesting drink that goes well with the end of a warm, summer day.

Iced tea gets a new flavor with a sprig of mint. Experiment with a little pineapple juice and lemonade mixed with the tea or even throw a clear lemon/lime carbonated drink into the mix.

If you have a brown thumb, try growing mint. Your thumb (and the mint) will instantly turn green. Be sure you never leave the mint patch untended. Look away, even for a minute, and the mint may well be in charge.

Easy grilled salmon with oranges, basil and mint

3/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil, divided

6 orange slices

6 salmon fillets with skin about 6 ounces each

Salt and pepper

1 cup chopped fresh basil

1 cup chopped fresh mint

Cooked peas or another summer vegetable, optional

Remove 2 tablespoons oil from measuring cup and use it to brush orange slices and then salmon on both sides. Season salmon with salt and pepper to taste. Grill orange slices, turning once, and set aside on a plate.

Grill salmon, skin side down, for about 5 minutes at medium heat or until skin is crisp. Turn over and grill for 1 minute, then turn again and grill until cooked to desired doneness, just a couple minutes.

Wrap salmon in foil to keep warm. Cook herbs in remaining oil for about two minutes.

To serve, drizzle salmon with herbs and oil. Then put orange slices on top or serve separately. Serve with peas or another summer vegetable, if desired. Makes 6 servings.

Mint and yogurt refresher

1 cucumber, peeled and seeded

24 ounces plain yogurt

3 teaspoons chopped scallion

teaspoon ground cumin

teaspoon ground coriander

2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint

2 garlic cloves, chopped

Salt and pepper

1/4 teaspoon grated lemon peel

4 teaspoons lemon juice

4 fresh mint sprigs for garnish, optional

In a blender, combine cucumber, yogurt, scallion, cumin, coriander, 2 teaspoons chopped mint, garlic, salt and pepper to taste, lemon peel and lemon juice, and puree until smooth.

Adjust salt and refrigerate. Garnish each with a fresh mint sprig, if desired.

Makes 4 servings as a drink.

Cucumber and mint salad

4 cups sliced cucumber

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup sliced onion

3/4 ounces mint leaves, shredded

3/4 ounces dill leaves, minced

Chopped chives, mint and/or dill for garnish, optional

Place sliced cucumber in bowl and sprinkle with salt. Let stand 30 minutes. Drain liquid from cucumbers, then place cucumbers in a serving bowl.

In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar and onion. Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer until onion softens a little, about 2 minutes. Let stand until cooled, about 30 minutes.

Stir in mint and dill and pour over cucumbers; cover bowl and chill several hours or overnight. Just before serving, sprinkle salad with chives, mint and/or dill, if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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