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GARDENING

Some Things in Life Are Just Mint to Be

June 06, 1998|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mint is one of the most popular herbs. Used for thousands of years for flavoring and as a medicine, it was chosen as 1998 herb of the year by the International Herb Assn.

"Mint is a great herb to have in the garden," says Shirley Kerins, a Huntington Beach landscape architect who is curator of the herb garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Mint may have received its name from Menthe, who was daughter of the river god, Cocyte, Kerins says.

"Menthe was happy just sitting in her father's river until Hades, god of the underworld, fell in love with her and wanted to sweep her away. Then Menthe begged her father to save her, so he turned her into a mint plant.

"In cooking, mint can be used for so many things, including as an addition to beverages such as tea and lemonade, in fruit salads and in sauces. Mint infusions add zing to recipes. I make an icing that uses a mint infusion instead of water, and it tastes really good on chocolate cake."

Not only is mint tasty, it's easy to grow, says Kerins, who will be speaking about growing herbs at the Orange County Herb Faire today and Sunday at the Fullerton Arboretum.

There are more than 600 varieties of mint to choose from, with new ones cropping up everyday because mint is easy to hybridize. There are standard green mints, as well as variegated mints that come in red, purple, white, cream and silver. Some mint plants grow tall, while others stay close to the ground.

One of the mints at the Herb Faire is Mint-the-Best, which is one of Kerins' favorites. It has dark green leaves with a pure spearmint flavor and grows about 18 inches tall.

Bergamot is a peppermint with a slight orange flavor that grows to 2 feet. Apple mint has leaves that have a mild apple fragrance, and chocolate mint tastes like chocolate. Pennyroyal is a mint that is often used to ward off fleas.

Mint grows year-round in our mild climate and can be planted at any time. Keep the following growing tips in mind:

* Containerize mint. Mint is an aggressive grower, easily spreading by vigorous underground stems. Grow it in containers to prevent it from taking over your yard. Mint thrives in just about any container, including hanging baskets and window boxes.

* Plant mint in high-quality potting mix that drains well but doesn't dry out too quickly. Use a potting soil with polymers or add some to your potting mix. These are gel-like particles that hold water, releasing it to plants when the soil dries.

* Grow mint in partial sun inland and in full or partial sun along the coast.

* Give mint plenty of water. As long as you don't let it go thirsty, mint will grow well. Remember that pots dry out quickly, especially during hot weather. Watering every day may be necessary.

* Feed mint once or twice a year with a well-balanced liquid fertilizer that has been diluted half strength.

* Use mint as often to keep the plants well pruned and healthy looking. Encourage bushy growth by keeping flowers pinched back.

The Orange County Herb Faire runs through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Fullerton Arboretum. Admission $5; children under 17 and parking free. Call (714) 278-3404.

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