Mint – the garden tyrant that just keeps on giving
Sarah Morgan Jones
While growing veg and fruit tends to deliver later in the season, there are two things in my garden which are already proving too prolific to ignore: mint and rhubarb.
When I moved into this house in 2013, the garden was wild and unkempt, with so much to be done, but as a starter for ten, there was an ugly breezeblock raised bed near the back door.
It was about two metres by half a metre and about half a metre deep, it was fully enclosed, and had nothing in it except a purple ‘hardy’ geranium (as distinct from the pelargonium) or cranesbill (Geranium platypetalum) which was struggling to survive,
Knowing how big and beautiful they can become, I cleared the strangling weeds and the dead matter determined to give it a fighting chance.
I also mused that while this would be nice in one half of the contained bed, a ‘little bit’ of mint on the other would create a nice mix of extended purple flowering to feed the bees and the plants would compete against each other in a power battle that’d give me the look that I wanted.
So, with a little pot of said spearmint (Mentha spicata), pulled from my previous garden, I completed the bed and sat back to await the garden wars.
The first year or two made my plans seem almost well thought out and I had enough mint, enough purple flowering and bed mates which were well balanced in their assertiveness, if not aggression.
But slowly the mint began to shout louder.
The little textured leaves popped up earlier than the cranesbill each year and would quickly flourish as the weather warmed up and usually had a good display by the end of April, just as the cranesbill was starting to wake up.
As it sent its tendrils through the soil and popped up everywhere, the bed gradually went from 30:70 to 40:60, to 50:50, to 60:40… today it sits at 85:15 to the mint, but with a sense of risk to life, the cranesbill is popping out flowers like mad.
Standing a meter high in a raised bed, it serves as a mighty barrier between what we laughingly call the patio outside the kitchen door and the increasingly cottagey garden beyond.
A couple of years ago, just after my mum died, I suddenly found an urge to pickle, to bottle, to jam… she had tried to instil the art of preservation over the years, with sloe gin, with pickled onions (the best I’ve ever had, even to this day), marmalade, and she had recalled in her dementia the lemon squash she used to make when we were kids.
For the first time ever, I had strawberries and tomatoes in the greenhouse, and I had bags of mum’s sloes in the freezer (top mum tip – freezing sloes means you don’t have to prick them before adding them to the gin), there were rosehips hanging over from next door, and I had a lot of mint.
I needed to do what I thought she had wanted me to do. I needed to preserve…not just these edibles but her memory, her skills, the part of her that was in me.
A shout out for jars proved…erm fruitful…and my husband’s collection of cockle jars finally found a purpose. I looked up what I needed to do to sterilise them (wash in the dishwasher (or hot soapy water followed by a good rinse if you’re not as lazy as me) and then fifteen minutes on a baking tray in a hottish oven while still wet…be careful when handling…obviously), and I was away.
Now it’s probably necessary to explain something here…my mum was a very intuitive cook, and ‘some’ was always a valid measurement, unless you were baking, making something ingredient sensitive, or possibly making jam, when measurements were more important.
The other thing that was handed down was the substitution of ingredients and creative thinking when it came to adapting a recipe to fit the contents of my cupboard.
And so it was that with mixed success I made strawberry jam (quite gloopy), blackberry jam (too firm, too much lemon juice), rosehip syrup (gorgeously sweet yet seemingly healthy), tomato chutney and ‘sundried’ (slow roasted) tomatoes in olive oil.
But by far the most successful, with the highest yield, was mint sauce. Jars and jars of it made from a recipe I found online, with quite a bit of ‘some’ involved in scaling up from the original, which dealt in fairly piddly quantities.
It flew out to neighbours, was proudly given out to friends, and was added to everything, until unfathomably – having made so much in the autumn – I found myself with none over Christmas, leaving me to run to the local shop to buy some for the dinner of the season.
Last year, I was more cautious and while I gave plenty away, I made sure that I kept a few of the jars specifically for my Christmas lamb, and to see me through the winter.
This year, I am already fed up with the overgrowth, so this week I have started the cropping early, and have decided to do it in batches throughout the summer.
Batch one, taking only the mint that leant over the path, has made ten (various sized) jars. With a bottle each of malt, distilled and ‘cyder’ vinegar from Aldi (about £1.50 in all), ‘some’ sugar and ‘some’ lemon juice, each jar weighs in at about 20p each, and with a taste that I think far surpasses the shop bought.
Before I found a second-hand Kenwood chef on marketplace, the chopping took forever, but now it’s a breeze.
The longest part of the process was stripping the stems, and washing the pots, followed by the 15-minute boil up which filled the house with a tang so sharp it woke the sleeping husband and dog.
It’s a negligible dent in the cost-of-living onslaught, but the feeling of some grasp on self-sufficiency, something small to share with friends, and the thought of tangy green freshness spicing up any incoming lamb dinners… is priceless.
Mum would approve.
Here’s the recipe I used. Don’t forget – plenty of room for ‘some’.
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