Friday, July 20, 2012

The herb garden: a (mint) family affair

Spearmint is growing into the basil area.
My herb garden faces WSW and is just outside the back door. It receives no morning sun, but lots of the hot afternoon sun. This location is really handy when I need to harvest something quickly as I'm cooking.

Many of our classic herbs are in the mint family (Lamiaceae), mostly because they produce wonderful (to us humans) smelling volatile oils. These same oils help repel some of their predators.

I had a couple of problems with members of the mint family spreading too aggressively in my small herb garden. I needed to deal with these unruly herbs--and now.

Mint rhizomes had spread four feet from the original plants.
The first problem was the spearmint (Menta spicata). I'd sown some seed here a couple of years ago and a few sprouted. I placed them in two pots and sunk them into the ground. The mint in one of the pots died, so I was left with only one sunken pot. But this past year some more mints germinated and I had a problem that I needed to fix before "things" got out of hand.

Their sturdy rhizomes were more numerous than the visible sprouts threatening the basil plants would indicate. I pulled them all out. But I wanted to sink another pot of mint in the garden so I'd have enough mint for my teas and other cooking projects.  I coiled two lengths of rhizome into a pot filled with compost, watered it well, and sank it behind the first pot.

Two sunken pots of mint in the herb garden.
The other day I made a delightful cold cucumber soup with mint as the main herb. Here's a link to the recipe I used.  Except I used plain non-fat yogurt (with some water to make it about the same thickness as buttermilk), white rice vinegar, and I did not remove the cucumber seeds. Yummy; and quite refreshing for a hot day.

The rest of the mint I gave to two neighbors. I suggested that they plant the mint in pots, so they would not have a run-away-mint problem like I did.
Greek oregano makes a good groundcover--maybe too good.

The next problem was the Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum ). I'd purchased a 4" pot with a spindly little plant a couple of years ago. And it has turned into this massive carpet of groundcover, spreading onto the sidewalk and into the chives.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are the smallest species in the onion family. A perennial onion that stays green here in north Florida year round. I've had this group of chives for five or six years now.

Between the chives and the rosemary is a good sized population of another onion family member meadow garlic (Allium canadense), which is a native here in Florida, but it dies back in the summer. So now there is an empty spot in the garden, but it will sprout again when the snow birds begin to return to their winter abodes here in Florida. Read my post, "A native herb amongst the Mediterraneans" for photos and more information.

Family feud: Mints vs. Onions
The onions would lose, probably.
The oregano had grown into the chives, and probably would have eventually choked them out altogether.  I certainly did not "need" all that oregano, so I carefully pulled it from around the chives, from the sidewalk, and from the sprinkler head. I uprooted some of the chives in the process and used them to start two new bunches behind the original population.

As I was uprooting the runners, several toads, large and small, jumped away. Not only is the oregano a beautiful groundcover and a butterfly magnet with its flowers, but now I know that it also provides habitat for my garden bug predators.

A toad flushed from its hiding place
in the mat of oregano.

Other mint family members in my herb garden

The sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual. It can reseed, but won't spread with rhizomes. It is planted toward the back of the garden. Like most mints, it roots easily in water or damp sand. I'm rooting some now to plant in the garden in the fall. Read my post, "The royal herb: sweet basil."

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a woody or shrubby mint family member that is planted in the right-hand corner of the garden. I trimmed it way back last fall, so it's still a reasonable size now. When my husband and I walk by, we bush a hand along the rosemary to unlease its intense aroma. Anything that causes you to breathe deeply and say, "Mmmmm!" or, "Ooooh!" is a good thing.

The last herb in my garden right now is some sweet leaf (Stevia rebaudiana), a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) that came back from last year's plants. I used the leaves in some teas and tried using it in some sweet salads, but we did not care for the super sweet taste. I'm not sure why I left it there; maybe I'll find a better use for it.

After I cleared out the rambunctious mint family members, I mulched the whole bed with street needles--pine needles I gather from the neighborhood streets.

I think all of my actions have resolved the family feud in my herb garden--at least for a while.

When I was done, the herb garden looked much neater.
How does your herb garden grow?

Green gardening matters,
Ginny Stibolt


  1. I grow a lot of perennial herbs throughout the garden so I don't have one spot as an herb garden...I thought about it herbs are doing OK for being in a drought.

    1. Hi Donna, This is the first time I've had a true herb garden. They do well in this hot spot; being native to Mediterranean region, they can deal with hot and dry spells. Plus, as I said, it's so convenient for the cook. :-)