Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

As summer inevitably winds down, the evenings become increasingly cooler. This is the time of year when a day’s-end cup of herbal tea really begins to hit the spot. About the only thing that will make you appreciate that tea more than the chill in the air is the knowledge that the tea in your cup got its start in your garden. Over the past few Garden Gossip columns we’ve been looking at some plants that are key ingredients in a great cup of herbal tea. We could probably fill a year’s worth of columns if we took the time to explore every potential tea plant in such detail. In the interest of remaining interesting, it would seem like a good idea to go through just a few more plants, and in a more concise manner.

Other than chamomile, which we’ve already discussed, probably the best known and most commonly used herbal tea plant would be mint. And although I use the word mint as a singular, the varieties of mint available to the home gardener are boundless. Not only is there the major distinction between the peppermints and the spearmints, there are myriad variations of each these to choose from. While both traditional spearmint and peppermint have plenty to offer on their own, now plant breeders have provided you with selections that will tantalize your tastebuds and your imagination in an all new way. Flavours now exist such as chocolate mint, apple mint, orange mint, pineapple mint, banana mint, ginger mint, marshmallow mint, candy lime mint, berries and cream mint, margarita mint, sweet pear mint, candied fruit mint and, well, you probably get the idea. You could probably just grow a mint garden for your herbal teas and never get bored. Most mints are best purchased as plants or rooted cuttings. Avoid mint seeds as they are generally disappointing. Your mint plants will appreciate rich moist soil and will also respond well to a little protection from hot afternoon sun. One thing to bear in mind with mint is that it can be invasive. If not controlled, mint can rapidly spread via fast growing underground stems. You can either plant your mints in a garden where you will welcome their aggressiveness or you can keep them in easy to manage containers. Another solution is to combine these ideas and plant mint in bottomless containers that can be buried with the rims left a couple centimeters above the soil level. Since mint’s invasive stems generally grow fairly shallowly, they should remain much better behaved in such a system. Both spearmint and peppermint are quite cold hardy and survive Manitoulin winters easily. Some of the newer flavoured mints can be a little more delicate. If you are unsure of a new mint plant’s cold hardiness, dig up a portion of it and overwinter it indoors. If the parent comes back in the spring then everything is good and if not, then at least you have a replacement ready to put back in the ground. The only real pest here that affects mint is the four-lined plant bug. The signs that this neon green and black striped bug has been feeding on your mint is a pattern of small black polka dots on the plant leaves that look more like the results of a fungal disease. While quite disfiguring, this damage does not render the leaves unusable for the target herbal teas.

How about a super easy to grow plant that loves our climate, happily reseeds itself, and has reputed medicinal effects? Catnip is one of those underrated herbs that should have a spot in every serious herbal tea garden. And don’t worry about attracting every stray cat in the neighbourhood. For whatever reason, cats seem far more interested in catnip once it has been dried and I’ve never seen them pay much attention to the green herb. If your cats do prove more interested, it’s easy enough to use a small screen fence around your plants to keep the felines at bay. Catnip is easily grown from seed. You can sprinkle catnip seeds on some bare soil in late fall and let them wake up and germinate naturally the following spring. This method is a bit of a crap shoot as small critters may abscond with your seeds and leave you scratching your head while staring at empty soil in the spring. An easier solution is to pre-start a few, and I mean a very few, seeds in March or April and set the small transplants out once the danger of frost has passed. One catnip plant can easily supply you with enough dried herb for your winter teas while also dropping a few insurance seeds and leaving a small supply for any cats you may wish to treat. If you leave the seed heads of catnip beyond maturity they can easily drop more seeds than you may like and become moderately invasive. Stray catnip plants are easily pulled and can be dried to add to your tea stock. Catnip leaves and flowers are traditionally used in teas and have been reported to help with insomnia, anxiety and stomach upsets. As usual, do some research before using herbs for medical purposes. Otherwise, just enjoy catnip for the flavour. The cats are right…this time.