• Got a Black Thumb? Spearmint's Cool With That!

May 31, 2018

No matter your skill level at growing healthy plants, you've got a pretty good shot at raising spearmint. Once you get that negative "you'll kill it" voice out of your head, and that old Wrigley's jingle, that is.

When it comes time to pluck off a few leaves from your first spearmint plant, you'll not only have a sense of accomplishment but a fantastic excuse to go pour yourself a nice, tall glass of iced tea while you ponder all the possibilities: Spearmint has many uses in the garden, the kitchen, and the herbalist's cabinet.

Spearmint's Cultural History

Originating in the greater Mediterranean region, spearmint and its hybrid "child" peppermint were interchangeable in traditional uses and medicine. Peppermint, with its stronger aroma and flavor, was used most often in medicinal applications, while the slightly milder spearmint was reserved for flavoring jellies, sauces, and teas.

Crushed mint leaves, when rubbed on one's hands, were thought to relieve chapping. The scent was also believed to be the best way to thwart tobacco odors, and of course, menthol is used to ease the "throat hit" of tobacco smoke.

Both peppermint and spearmint herbs were valued for their ability to soothe respiratory issues, circulatory disorders, and digestive ailments, and crumbled spearmint leaves are still used today to repel insects from cupboards, drawers, and linen closets.

A nice cup of hot spearmint tea was believed then, as it is now, to relieve stress and reduce nausea.

Spearmint was used in crude toothpaste mixtures as early as the 14th century, and in ancient Greece, it was used as a perfume and substitute for bath salts (the soaking kind, not the weird party drug kind).

Spearmint in the Garden

Mentha spicata is an upright-growing herb. Its vivid green, slightly wrinkled, and serrated leaves resemble a wide spear tip, much like other Menthas. When you imagine mint leaves or see them in illustrations for mint-flavored products, you're pretty much looking at the spearmint plant.

Spearmint leaves are a brighter, lighter green than peppermint, and are more uniform in color while peppermint leaves often have a reddish-brown tinge to their deep, almost "hunter green" foliage.

It has a sweet aroma when it's just sitting in the garden minding its own business, but should you pinch and crush spearmint leaves, you'll instantly smell its sharp, clean, and distinctive minty fragrance.

(That, my friends, is how plants scream. And what a lovely scream it is.)

Spearmint generally grows 12 to 24 inches tall and wide but can be trimmed back to retain a more compact, robust shape. Fluffy white to lilac whorls bloom on the plant's terminal spikes beginning in mid-summer, attracting pollinators and, sometimes, beneficial predatory insects.

Mints are the Tribbles of the Plant World

Like many menthas, spearmint has serious boundary issues. It quickly reproduces through runners and reseeding crowding out its neighbors. We recommend growing it as a container plant, or in bottomless containers set into the soil with about an inch of the pot left above the surface.

Because members of the mentha group easily hybridize through cross-pollination, mint aficionados tend to keep their varieties in different areas of their gardens. Peppermint, for example, is a natural hybrid, "parented" by watermint and spearmint; both plants' favorite habitats overlap (wet and moist, respectively).

There is a ton of different varieties of mints, each with its own flavor and aroma. If you're after the one, true spearmint, it's important to get your seeds from a reputable source. Like, you know, us!

Choosing A Site for Spearmint

Spearmint has its preferences, but overall, it's a hardy, easy-to-grow and adaptable herb. Grown as a perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 11 and an annual down to Zone 3, it's likely that you have just the right spot for a mint garden.

Sunlight: Spearmint does best in full sun, but it also thrives in light shade, especially in the hottest regions.

Temperatures: Ideal daytime averages of 55 to 70°F encourage the best growth in mint plants.

Water and Soil Requirements: You don't want your spearmint plants to dry out. While spearmint needs well-drained soil, its substrate should retain moisture to the point of being wet. Mulch around your plants, taking care not to crowd their stems.

Spearmint likes compost-rich, fertile soil with an ideal pH of 6.5 to 7.5.

Plant the minty herb along pond borders, in low, damp spots in your yard, on the inside slopes of swales, or near downspouts. One of our customers keeps potted spearmint at the base of his birdbath, so he always remembers to water his plants when he refills the bath's basin. He also keeps a pot near his pets' outdoor water dishes to keep mosquitoes from hovering and attacking his dog and cat.

Pests and Diseases: While resilient, spearmint does have to deal with common garden critters and cooties:

  • Cutworms
  • Root weevils
  • Spider mites
  • Root borers
  • Flea beetles
  • Aphids (spearmint usually repels aphids, but we all have our bad days)
  • Mint rust
  • Verticillium wilt
  • Mint anthracnose

Good airflow around your plants, especially near the base and innermost branches, prevents most foliar diseases.

Companion Plants: Spearmint is known to improve the flavor and nutritional value of a wide variety of vegetables, in particular, those in the Brassica family. Parsley and chamomile, however, are not mint-friendly.

Place potted spearmint around your garden and structures to repel these pests:

  • Rodents
  • Squash bugs
  • Cabbage loopers
  • Aphids
  • Moths
  • Fleas
  • Mosquitos
  • Ants
  • Beetle

Of all of the above, we've found that ants, rodents, and mosquitoes are most offended by spearmint. You'll want to experiment with spearmint in sprays, sachets, and strategic plantings to find out how effective it is in your garden on these and other pests... And please, let us know how it works for you!

Growing Spearmint from Seed

Brand-new, wet-behind-the-ears gardeners rejoice: Growing spearmint from seed is easy. Once you've chosen your garden spots and growing containers (you will be growing more than one plant, right? Right!) you've only got a few simple steps to get you on the path to a summer full of juleps and mojitos.

Starting Indoors: Start your mint plants indoors 2 to 3 weeks before your last spring frost. Use a heat mat at 70°F to encourage germination if you're growing your starts in an unheated area. Spearmint germinates quickly, in 7 to 14 days.

Direct Seeding: Once your garden is past frost danger and the ground has warmed up, you can plant your spearmint seeds directly in the soil or into outdoor containers.

Seed Depth: Plant mint no deeper than 1/4". We recommend surface-seeding mint on smooth, fine, damp soil.

Seed Spacing: Space seeds 12" to 18" apart.

Container Size: Select a pot at least 12" in diameter.

Maintaining and Harvesting your Spearmint Herb Garden

Once you've made sure that your spearmint isn't going to run rampant in your garden (and neighborhood) it's up to you how much you want to mess with your plants. Do you love to pick at stuff and have it be "just so"? Spearmint is great for you. Do you have a "live and let live" attitude? That's fine with spearmint too, as long as it gets enough water and the occasional once-over for pests.

Maintenance: Keep your spearmint bushy by pinching off the buds at the tips of each stem. These are great for "as-needed" flavoring, or to rub on your skin to ward off mosquitos as you futz around the yard.

For ground-planted mint, use your trowel to cut a 16" diameter circle in the soil around your plants to sever roots and "creepers". You'll also want to trim any branches that trail over the container and onto the neighboring soil.

Fertilization: Unless your native soil is particularly depleted, don't feel compelled to work in compost after your initial planting. In the fall, you can cut your plants down to ground level and cover them with compost; next season your mint will thank you for it.

Dividing: Like most perennials, spearmint can be divided in its third growing season.

Harvesting Spearmint: While spearmint fully matures in about 90 days, you can begin harvesting a few leaves here are there as soon as your seedlings are about six inches tall. Unless you're growing spearmint for its showy flowers, we recommend pinching off your spearmint tops to prevent flowering. This preserves the flavor and quality of the oils within the leaves. During and after flowering, spearmint takes on a somewhat bitter flavor.

For culinary use, spearmint leaves are best kept fresh or frozen rather than dried.

  • Freeze leaves and water in ice cube trays for use in beverages; thaw cubes and strain for recipes.
  • Dry mint leaves in the sun on a screen, in a dehydrator, or on a cookie sheet in a warm oven.
  • Preserve leaves for use in beverage or medicinal infusions by soaking with vodka in a sealed jar.

Overwintering Spearmint: As we mentioned above, you can cut your plants back to ground level and cover them with compost. You can do the same with potted spearmint, with or without the top-dressing, if you bring them inside or under cover during the winter months. Take care with terra cotta or ceramic pots, which might crack in freezing temperatures.

Spearmint in the Kitchen

If you want that classic mint flavor, spearmint is the herb to grow. Keep a few pots right outside your kitchen door, or in a bright, sunny window. Spearmint flavors hot or cold teas, garnishes all sorts of dishes and serves as an ingredient in a number of delicious recipes.

Fresh Spearmint Ice Cream: Martha Stewart came up with this recipe in 2004 when she stumbled across some naturalized spearmint on the grounds of "Camp Cupcake" during her incarceration. We also understand that she made the best jailhouse hooch ever.

OK, we made all of that up, but thanks to Ms. Stewart for the recipe... and for making all our gardens and potting sheds look miserable in comparison to hers.

Spearmint SyrupWe love recipes that serve as "foundations" for others, so here's a quick and dirty way to have sweet spearmint flavoring on hand for teas, desserts, fruit salads, breakfast pastries, and adult bevvies.

A Brainstorm of Recipes from Chowhound will definitely inspire you to get cookin' with spearmint as an herb for savory dishes starring trout, chicken, fettuccini, red meats, and chipotle meatballs. There are a couple great chutney recipes in there, too!

Want a Refreshing Crop of Spearmint? Start with Constantly Refreshed Seed Stock

When was the last time you looked at your seed stash? Do you have a lot of outdated seed packets? Chances are, your hardware-store brand seeds were nearing their expiration date even before they were packed.

At Seed Needs, we only order enough stock that we can expect to sell in a single season, and we keep our seeds in climate-controlled storage before and after we hand-package them. Not only will you get higher germination rates, but you'll get healthier, non-GMO, open-pollinated seedlings and vigorous mature plants.

If it's time to clear out your personal seed bank, reach out to us and we'll help give you and your garden a minty fresh start!


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