Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mountain Mint

This is a post I gleaned from another quirky blog that I like to read (The Garden Professors). Mountain mint is truly a neat plant and something to consider for our flower borders. The author of this post is Holly Scoggins.

“Mint!” is tantamount to the cry of “Bear!” to many gardeners.  Mints tend to run amok, in just about any environment, and are difficult to remove once established. A pot or hanging basket is useful for containment, but not always successful.  It wants out.  The upside to mint in your garden is, of course, cocktails. Essential for the mint julep and the mojito.  Also useful in lots of dishes - I prefer my tzatziki with mint, thank you. 

Culinary mint is Mentha, but the subject of this post is mountain mint:Pycnanthemum.  Same family (Lamiaceae), different genus. It's a fabulous garden plant that I’ve been blathering about in various talks for a few years, yet the mention of "mint" seems to cause audience members to cringe, glare, or worse.  This is yet another example of a common name with negative associations scaring people off (like "Stinking Hellebore" - that'll sell some plants).

There are 19 North American perennial species in the genus, with lots of naturally-occurring varieties within many of the species. Many look A LOT alike, complicating i.d. Most mountain mints are found from Quebec and Ontario down to Florida and west to the Mississippi; a few species make their way to the Great Plains, with one species in California.  
Pycnanthemum muticum (short-toothed mountain mint) is probably the most widely available; usually propagated and grown by nurseries with a native plant emphasis such as North Creek Nurseries (Landenberg, PA) (wholesale propagator).  Hardy from USDA Zone 4 all the way down to 8, it does best in warmer climates in part shade, similar to the edge of meadows where it’s usually found.  In both our campus garden and our home garden (z 6a), it’s in full sun.  It doesn’t need tons of water – the one at home hasn’t seen rain nor sprinkler in 4 weeks and looks just fine.
Factoids out of the way, here’s why it’s wonderful:  the upper bracts are silvery, topping the bright green clump like frosting on a cupcake. It’s not small – 3’ tall where happy. The foliage is plenty “minty” – it would actually work in a mojito emergency. The clump gets bigger over time; great for digging up chunks for your friends.  In the center of the bracts, the flowering stem is compressed into this little disc, with a teeny flower arising at the perimeter  (hard to describe, the photo does it better).   But packed within the miniscule pinkish-white flower is a ton of nectar. Especially attractive to bees, wasps, and some Lepidops, the entire top of the plant is buzzing with action on a warm sunny day.  Nectar flow (essential for honey) is very limited this time of year, especially during drought.  
Residents of our home hives are going for it in a big way – will be interested to see if there are any minty notes to the next batch of honey extracted.  So there you have it -  a truly wonderful plant…beautiful, tough, native, pollinator attractor, and minty fresh!

More thoughts on tomato blight

Re: tomato blight.  I had beautiful plants until the weekend of the 15th of July.  A number of unusually violent storms went through the area that weekend and I was away on a camping trip.  When I got back, lots of leaves had already been affected well up the vines (I removed as many leaves as possible but it was clearly too late even after only being gone 5 days).  Fortunately, I had planted early so I had lots of fruit that set on the vines (I've harvested well over 125 tomatoes from my little plot and I've still got more to harvest).  I think that it was really the nature of the storm that sprayed blight up onto the plants.  I had mulched right from the start and heavily throughout the summer.  I only watered right at the base of the plants.  The only thing I think I might have done differently was to remove the lowest leaves from the plant right from the start and maybe give the plants a bit more space for air to circulate better.  I had eight varieties of tomatoes purchased from Whitewater Gardens and Bronks and they were all affected.  My Bronks plants faired much better, but I bought them big (they were in gallon pots, were large and vigorous plants and were already flowering).  I think buying larger plants actually helped me and the yield I got.  They ended up being much bigger, much healthier (despite the blight), and had much more fruit.  The only other recommendation I'd make is to make sure that everyone knows about crop rotation (even with the small plots).  I also wonder if we could solarize the soil to kill the blight. Recommendations can be made to keep tomatoes in containers to let them grow big while the soil is cooking (usually six weeks).  Those of us who pull plants early should maybe also solarize in the fall???  Sanitation practices could also be covered, perhaps (keeping tools and gloves clean, putting affected leaves in the black compost bins, not gardening in wet plants, etc.).  Just some thoughts... I hope they help in some way.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Some Random Observations--
  • The garden is glorious right now. What a pleasant place to hang out. It's been a good year for gardening. 
  • Early blight on tomatoes seems better this year. Some tomato plants are faring better than others. It might be useful to consider why. Better prevention? (mulching carefully, watering only at the ground level, pulling and discarding of affected leaves) Variety of tomato? Notice which plants are heavily affect and which not so much. When I called Johnny's Seeds last winter they said they didn't know any varieties specifically resistant to early blight, but we can see what works for us. Or is the weather just more favorable?  But it's not gone, so it's important to keep on working at it.
  • Lack of mosquitoes--look up and notice the swallows and dragonflies-they are well fed.
  • "Wayneing" of the vole population-that's a really bad pun, sorry Wayne, but thanks for all your work on this.
  • Thistle seems diminished, but not gone, Another situation to stay on top of. Keep at it. 

Weed! weed! weed! 
The outside perimeter of the fence is becoming weedy and could use some attention. Those pretty yellow flowers (Butter and Eggs, I think they are called) are pretty aggressive and need to be pulled.  Foxtail and crabgrass are forming seed heads. Pulling one plant now avoids thousands of pulls later. If you haven't completed your volunteer hours, here is an opportunity to spend a little time improving the garden. 

Cover cropping
There is a bag of seed (either oats or rye, I forget which) in the back of the shed to use for cover cropping. When you harvest something and have bare ground, sprinkle a little seed down.