This Is Why Mint Is Invasive

Mrs. Homegrown here:

That’s me pulling out a mint plant from our garden, as part of The Great Renovation. Check out those amazing roots! This container was filled with a 5 inch thick mat of thick, tangled roots. No wonder mint is unstoppable.

I adore mint, but we had two big mint plants, and under the new scheme, I’m trying to be more efficient about the way space is used in the yard. So this guy had to go. I thought I’d be digging roots out of the bed all day, but turns out they formed this thick, impressive mat you see above. I’m sure small bits will remain to haunt me, but all in all, I’m grateful it was that easy.

The moral:

If you’re thinking about planting mint for the first time, keep in mind that it spreads, given space and water. Its roots, properly called rhizomes, run underground and can send up shoots many feet away from the mother plant. In this way, it will cheerfully take over your entire herb bed or your borders, or wherever you thought fit to plant that innocent looking little seedling. If you try to pull it, little bits of leftover rhizome still in the ground can form another plant.

For this reason it’s better to plant it in a container, or in a bottomless container sunk into the ground. You need to corral those roots, basically.

Otherwise, it’s an easy, abundant plant to grow. It likes water and sun, but does tend to wilt or even go brown in hot, intense, summer sun. So I’d either plant it where it gets partial summer shade, or move its pot somewhere shady during the heat. And don’t be afraid clip it back when it starts to look rangy. It will pop right back up, looking much better for its haircut.

Why should you grow mint?

Here’s some of my reasons: Fresh mint tea (fresh mint tea is pretty and has a delicate flavor); dried mint tea (always on hand for overfull belly syndrome); fresh mint chopped up over fresh fava beans and goat cheese; fresh mint mixed with basil in a nut pesto; fresh mint sprinkled over yogurt drinks, mint infused honey for colds; dried mint in the bath; mint simple syrup; mojitos; and I’m sure there are more…and the tiny native bees like it a lot.

Should you plant spearmint or peppermint?

Both are good. Peppermint is stronger, but I consider them interchangeable. (If you’re trying to figure out which you’ve got in your yard, spearmint has matte, bumpy leaves that are bright green where the growth is new, whereas peppermint’s leaves are smoother and somewhat shiny and darker green, sometimes with purple tints.) For tea, I like the flavor of fresh spearmint best. Purely a subjective opinion. So the plant I’m pulling out in the picture was our peppermint plant. Spearminticus Victor!

Propagating herbs via cuttings

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Say you have one lavender plant, but you’d like to have more. Or your trusty sage plant is getting old and woody and needs to be pulled, but you wish you could save a bit of it and start fresh. One way to accomplish this is to grow new plants from cuttings taken from your existing plant. This is process called taking softwood cuttings. You cut small bits of plant, dip them in a rooting hormone, then baby the cuttings until they grow roots of their own. Basically, it’s cloning.

Herbs are particularly suited to this sort of propagation, since it’s better to have a fresh young herb plant than scraggy woody old herb plant, and this is a way to renew your herb plants. Also, it may be hard to collect seeds from your favorite herbs, particularly if you live somewhere cold.

It takes a good while for cuttings to root, so you don’t do this when you’re in a hurry to get plants in the ground. But if you plan it right, this is a cheap and satisfying way of propagating plants.

Erik and I are ripping up our back yard, basically taking it down to bare soil. I’m taking cuttings of many of the things I’m ripping out, so that I can replace them later.  I decided to document the process for the edification of all ya’lls.

A note on timing:

If you live in a cold winter climate, this will be the wrong time of year to take cuttings–wait til spring. But in a warm winter climate this is the ideal time. We plant perennials in the winter, so that they can use the rains to get established before the long, dry summer.

You’ll need:

–Something nice and sharp to take cuttings with, ideally a grafting knife, but really any very sharp cutting implement. What you don’t want is to take cuttings with something so dull it crushes the stem. Think like a surgeon.

–A seedling tray or a bunch of little plastic containers filled with good potting soil.
(Note: Don’t use peat pots or egg cartons or anything similar. In general I don’t think they’re good vessels for starting plants, but in this case in particular it would be disastrous because they’d disintegrate in the constant moisture, and/or attract mold.)

–A bottle of rooting hormone powder (available at nurseries)

–A glass of water

–A small dish or tray

–A plastic bag or two, or a plastic lid for your tray, or some plastic bottles. See below

–Maybe a spray bottle full of water–for watering later

How to to do it:

This is your set up:

On your worktable you’ll want a glass of water and a dish or tray with a bit of the rooting hormone in it. You don’t need much. You dip in the tray instead of the rooting hormone bottle to keep the contents of the bottle clean and dry. One jar of rooting hormone will serve for hundreds of cuttings.

You’ll also want your seedling tray or plastic pots or whatever you’re using full of soil and ready to go before you start.

Take some cuttings and trim them down:

Go forth ye into the garden and pluck a branch of herb. When choosing a branch to propagate, look for the freshest, plumpest, prettiest sprigs you can find. The ones that seem to be flushed with life force, not ones that seem mature, or worse, in decline. The stems should be pliant, not woody. Look for tiny leaves sprouting at the tips. That’s always a good sign.

Here’s a nice bit of lavender that will be used for this demo:

Next you’re going to strip your cutting down to just a little nubbin. You start by plucking off all but the very topmost leaves. Do this cleanly, try not to strip skin from the stem. The reason you do this is because leaves are a site of moisture loss during the rooting process. Excess leaves would die anyway, and too many will imperil the cutting. Pluck it down until there’s only a pair or two pairs at the top. Erik says I always leave too many. Consider what you see in the following photos a generous quantity.

The next photo is the same sprig stripped down. It’s not the clearest picture–I was having serious problems with the macro lens on the camera–but I hope if you look close at the bare stalk you can see the swelling in the stem in the places where the leaves used to emerge. These are called nodes.  There are three in that picture. The first a little bump just beneath the leaves, the second a kind of busy node, midway down, and the third just above the bottom of the picture. Ignore that tiny stray leaf between nodes 2 and 3. 

The next step is to make a cut at a node–make the cut just beneath the node, as cleanly as possible. Remember, you don’t want to crush the stem at all when you make the cut.

Which node you choose depends on what sort of herb you’re working with. It’s just a matter of common sense. The cutting will be planted in soil, so the stem needs to be long enough to bury–about an inch, more or less. The lavender cutting is large, relatively speaking, so in this case it was cut at the topmost node. But that day I was also rooting thyme cuttings. These were much smaller and more delicate, so I was cutting them three or four nodes down. I hope that makes sense.

Dip it, Dip it Good:

After you cut the stem, dip the cut end in the glass of water and then dip it in the rooting hormone. Dip only the tip of the stem–try not to get it on the leaves. So you end up with this:

Okay, again, not the best pic. The crap on the end of the cutting is the hormone powder. The pen is for scale. I should have/could have removed another set of leaves from this cutting.

Plant the Cutting:

Next, make a hole in the soil with you fingertip, plant the cutting up to its leaves and gently pat down the soil around it.  Here’s a portion of my tray, showing sage and thyme cuttings:

Now, here’s an important tip. Make lots and lots of cuttings of each plant you plan to propagate. Many more than you actually need because there is a high failure rate. Expect that a good number of them will wither up and die of various causes. I figure my failure rate will be 50%, so I make twice as many as I need.

Cover it in Plastic:

The cuttings are very delicate, so they need a moist, hothouse atmosphere. They must be completely covered in plastic. If your tray comes with a plastic lid, that’s great. If you don’t have one, put a plastic bag over your pot(s) or tray. It does not have to be clear. A regular plastic grocery bag or a white plastic bin liner is fine. Cut plastic bottles are good for pots, too.

If you’re using a bag, contrive a way to keep the plastic up,  so it doesn’t lay on the cuttings. Prop it up with sticks or plastic utensils or arcs of wire. Encase the entire pot or tray in the bag, so no air gets in. If they have ventilation, there won’t be enough moisture inside.

Aftercare:

The cutting part is the easy part. The hard part is waiting, and keeping these babies alive. They must always be moist, but not boggy. The plastic should make keeping them moist easy, but they will need a bit of water now and then. You might find it easiest to water them with a spray bottle, because if you water with any force before they root, you might dislodge them.

Every couple days take the plastic bag off and turn it inside out, so that there’s not too much condensation collecting on the underside of the plastic and splattering on the cuttings. It’s a delicate balance between nicely moist and too wet.

If you see any fungus or mold–anything suspicious at all– on one of your cuttings, pull it out. You don’t want that spreading.

If the cuttings are outdoors, you also have to protect them from heat and sun. Remember, the plastic could make your tray into a solar oven. We’ve come home after a day of unexpected heat to find our cuttings steam cooked in their trays. Move them to a shady spot if the weather is expected to be warm and sunny.  They like to be warm, but not too warm. The 65-70ºF zone is perfect.

You know your cuttings are succeeding when they put off new growth. They should be well rooted and ready for transplant in about 4 weeks.

Hops Growing Resources

Reader Matt sent a couple of detailed links on growing hops. First an organic hops growing manual (pdf) by Rebecca Kneen of the Left Fields organic farm in British Columbia. Secondly, a PowerPoint presentation by hops farmer and breeder Jason Perrault here (pdf) along with the transcript here (pdf). I’m going to go through these resources before transferring the hops I’ve been growing in containers to the ground in the spring.

Thanks Matt and happy brewing to all!

Hops in Containers Update

“And I behold in breath of space
The autumn’s winter sleep.
The summer’s life has given
Itself into my keeping.”
-Rudolf Steiner The Calendar of the Soul Week 23

We’re going to drink “summer’s life” this winter. Year two of my hops (Humulus lupulus) in self irrigating pot experiment has yielded enough of a crop for at least one batch of beer. Read more about how we grew our containerized hops here. Some things I’ve learned:

1. There are two types of hops, bittering and aroma. Beer recipes call for both. Find out what varieties of hops grow in your climate, choose a type of beer you like, and plant at least one aroma and one bittering variety for hops self-sufficiency. I settled on cascade (very easy to grow) and nugget, both of which, when combined, make for a nice American pale ale.

2. Plant your hops somewhere where you will see them every day. I’ve enjoyed watching our hops bines grow just outside our bedroom window. They’ve come to symbolize summer for me as well as a restful night’s sleep. Plus the harvest window is brief and you need to keep a close eye on those cones–when the they get papery it’s time to pick them. I dry them for a few hours in our solar dehydrator, but you could also just let them dry for a few days inside with a fan pointed at them. After drying they go into bags in the freezer.

3. Plant hops in such a way that you can access them for easy harvest. Hops grow upwards of ten to twenty feet and beyond. If you can harvest them safely without cutting them down you might be able to squeeze more than one crop out of them in a season.

4. Hops need rich soil. I’m considering putting them in the ground next year with a lot of compost. I fertilized them in their containers, but clearly they could have used more nutrients. I did not get as much of a crop as I did the first year.

5. Hops are apparently deadly to dogs, so  be careful if you have a pooch. I don’t know if they will eat them off the bine, but they’ll definitely try to get them in the compost pile.

6. Prune to the strongest two bines for each plant and train them in a “V” shape. It’s really important to keep different varieties labeled and separate so, come harvest time, you know which one is which.

While painting the south side of our house I put up a pulley and rope system so that I can grow more hops. The pulleys will enable me to lower the bines during the August/September harvest season. More on our hops planting plans next spring.

Gideon Lincecum Virtual Herbarium

–click to biggify–

(If you still can’t read it, it says “Erigeron canadensis, the common hogsweed, bruise and press out the juice from the green plant and take it in tablespoonful dose as often as the stomach will bear, for bleeding lungs, bleeding from the stomach, bowels or womb. It is a powerful agent in stopping hemorrhage from any organ.”)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Our friend Nancy gave us some salve made up of calendula, plantain and a plant I was unfamiliar with, something I vaguely remembered her referring to as horseweed or fleabane. Actually, I mis-remembered the name as colt’s foot, and then discovered another kind of plant called fleabane, two more actually. All these plants have their uses, but the plant I was looking for had astringent properties–enough to stop bleeding in small cuts. Our salve is for thrashed gardeners’ hands, and I remembered that this …uh…horse…colt…flea…weed…plant was in the salve for that purpose.

This is why scientific names are so important–common names overlap. But thank the good lord for Mr. Google. I found the plant I was looking for: Conyza canadensis, formerly Erigeron canadensis. When I saw the picture, I said, “Oh, you!’ for it is a very common summer sidewalk weed. Recognize it?

Conyza canadensis
(image courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

And along the way I found a charming resource to share with ya’ll: The Gideon Lincecum Virtual Herbarium, a project hosted by the University of Austin, Texas.

Dr. Lincecum was a 19th-century naturalist and “botanic physician” who lived in Mississippi and Texas. This virtual herbarium includes scans of more than 200 pressed specimens of medicinal plants and his hand-written notes on each specimen. The image at top is his note on horse weed.

Here’s another card of his, this one on opium, where he not only condemns the plant, but other physicians for misusing it:


Go take a gander. But just beware it’s a real time suck for plant geeks.

Chumash Plant Wisdom

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Great news for our readers in Southern California (and parts near)! I’ve just found the holy grail of local plant guides: Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. It’s co-authored by a Chumash healer, Cecilia Garcia and a USC pharmacology prof., James David Adams, Jr., both of whom write for Wilderness Way magazine. It features full-color pictures of plants familiar to you from hikes in the desert and the chaparral, and discusses the recommended use of the these plants from both the Chumash perspective and the western scientific perspective.

I found this book in the wonderful Green Apple book store while visiting San Francisco. It can be ordered direct from the publishers. The title link will take you to their site. It also is available in our Amazon store.

More Nettle Love: Nettle Infusion


Mrs. Homegrown here:

It’s nettle appreciation week here at Homegrown Evolution. Inspired by Homegrown Neighbor’s post, I thought I’d throw in my own two cents about nettles.

First, it’s one of my favorite plants. Its nutritional profile is outstanding. In fact, it’s one of the most nutritionally dense foods available. It’s a rich source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamins, chlorophyll–the things your body might be lacking after a long winter, or a period stress and poor eating. For this reason it’s long been treasured as a spring tonic.

The most straightforward way to take advantage of these nutritional benefits is to eat nettles as a green, but as our neighbor mentions, they don’t make great eating. They’re not bad, just bland. It’s funny how such a prickly plant is so aggressively mild when all is said and done. That’s part of its charm and mystery. When I harvest it in the wild, usually from tall stands of tough, mean plants, I really feel like I’m hunting or doing combat of some sort. The older nettles get, the more intimidating they become. Though I wear long pants and sleeves and rubber dishwashing gloves when I go into battle, I never escape unscathed. But stings are just part of the process, a price I pay gladly.

I recommend you check out the website of Susun Weed, an herbalist. Reading there, I learned that infusions make more of the plant nutrients available than regular tea, so now we put one ounce of dried nettle (an ounce is quite a lot–a cup if it’s chopped, half a jar or more if the leaves are whole) in a quart jar, fill the jar with boiling water and let it sit 4-8 hours before drinking. The resulting brew is stronger tasting than ordinary nettle tea, but not unpleasant at all. It’s our house energy drink.

Nettle Harvest

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Stinging nettle- Urtica dioica is a both a beloved and hated plant. Yes, it does sting. The stem and leaf edges are covered in stinging hairs. It can be rather painful. But it has been used as a food and medicine plant dating back at least to ancient Rome. Interestingly, if you sting an inflamed or painful area of the body with nettle, it has been shown to decrease the pain.
Mr. Homegrown has also written about nettles on the blog here.
Nettle is considered anti-inflammatory and is a diuretic. It has been used to cleanse and build the blood, treat prostate problems, to promote healthy menstruation, to reduce arthritis pain and even to treat hair loss. I have always taken nettle when I feel a little anemic and weak. It has a mild taste that is easily blended with other herbs for tea. My favorite pick me up is a teaspoon of dried nettle with a teaspoon of jasmine green tea.
Nettle is nutritious, if not delicious. If I were lost in the woods or just trying to find something to eat here on the streets of L.A., I would be happy to find nettles. Luckily, nettle thrives in both locations. It reseeds readily, making it an annoying weed if you don’t know how to make use of it.
I found a weedy nettle patch while hiking one day. I dug up a little bit and put it, roots and all, in my backpack. I transplanted it into my front yard when I got home. The nettle grew and set seed. So now I have a nice big nettle patch in my front yard.
The nettle patch has grown so lushly that it stings me every time I walk to my car. It borders the entire driveway. I’m kind of immune to the little stings at this point. I hardly even notice it. But a friend of mine got stung rather badly the other day as I forgot to warn him about the weeds. So I realized it was time to harvest.
I put on latex gloves, got my kitchen shears and a brown paper bag. I discovered that nettle can sting you right through a latex glove. And my wrists were stung quite severely. But oh well. I was so excited about harvesting I just plunged my arm into the deep green patch and started cutting.
I cut the plants off near ground level and carefully placed them in my paper bag.
Then I closed the paper bag and hung it inside near a sunny window to dry. If you live in a humid climate or need it to dry quickly, I recommend setting your oven at a very low temperature, like 200 degrees and placing the bag in it for half an hour.
It will take about two weeks for your nettles to dry on their own. Check periodically to make sure they are drying properly and not getting moldy. Once they are dry, the sting is gone. You can safely strip the leaves from the stems and store in a jar in your pantry. Make some tea and enjoy. Stinging nettle is a tonic for almost anything that may ail you.

Basil all winter long


Mrs. Homegrown here:

Basil is a summer plant. When the nights get cold, basil turns unhappy. It yellows and loses flavor. Here in LA that doesn’t happen until quite late in the year. Erik just pulled out our summer basil a couple of days ago to make room for winter plants. I’m replacing it–in a culinary sense–with Italian parsley, which loves cool weather, but hates the heat. It seems our gardening year swings between the basil and parsley poles.

I made the last of our basil into basil cubes, which is my favorite way of preserving it. Just wash and coarsely chop your basil leaves and shove them into an ice cube tray, so that there’s a spoonful of basil in every cube. Cover with water and freeze. Pop them out of the trays and transfer them to a ziplock freezer bag. Throughout the winter, whenever you want a little fresh basil flavor, all you have to do is grab a few cubes. Toss the cubes straight into sauces, or let them melt to retrieve the leaves alone to use for toppings, salad &etc.