Article - Floral Encounters

GROWING MINTS FROM SEED. Yes or no.

Actually growing the seeds is not usually a problem. Mint seeds, while often slow to germinate, usually grow fairly quickly and easily.
The problem is what plant you will get from the seed.
There are HUGE number of plants in the mint family and many of them are really happy to cross breed. If there was a category for promiscuous plants then mint would be right up there at the top of the list. Some species just don't care who they mate with. So if you have another type of mint or even a wild mint growing near your mint bed then the pollen is bound to find its way by one insect or another to your prize mint bed. The mint does not care it will produce seed with any old wild boy. Thus when you come to plant the seeds you can get all sorts of results.

So is buying mint seed a waste of time?
Yes and No. It going to depend in several different factors.

Some mints, like mountain mint, don't cross pollinate easily. They - like a lot of plants - are just fussy about who they mate with. We have been growing mountain mint for many years, and testing the seeds, we get the same thing every time. Good for mountain mint.

Other mints are not so fussy. After all its how we got some of our mints in the first place because they cross bred with something else. However you can make it so you do get good seed.
The grower has to ensure that there are no other forms of mint that the plants can cross pollinate with within the radius that the insects will fly. This is not easy but it is doable. These mints would include peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint and other such mints, they all look very similar and its not until you taste it that you can tell what kind it is. They will cross breed with each other and many of the wild mints that are far more common than most people realize.

So if I buy peppermint seed from a reputable dealer I will get peppermint plants?
Sort of. Mints have a lot of chromosomes and so you can get a lot of diversity. From a good dealing hopefully most of the plants you grow will be peppermint however some might not taste quite the same and some may be horrible no matter what the seed.
To create the best 'true' seed - which due to genetic diversity in these mints is never going to be fully 'true' the grower would need to have his plants growing in very large plots totally away (meaning several miles) from any other form of mint to prevent cross pollination. This would mean one of those huge monoculture areas where nothing else growing but the mint crop for miles. To do this they would need to be in an isolated area with no other mint plants growing anywhere near them. Wild mints are pretty common and can grow in hedgerows, wild areas, abandoned gardens or even out of the sidewalk. They are darn tough. Its very hard to get a mint to be isolated from all other sources.


Young peppermint leaves

So growing mint from seed is a bust?
NO! It a matter of numbers. If you buy a packet of mint seeds you are going to get a lot of seed. Mint seeds are very tiny, our small packets are about 275 seeds. So when you sow them you are going to get a lot of plants. I am guessing that you don't need 250 mint plants unless you are going into the mint business. But you still plant a lot of seeds SOME of those plants that develop will be perfect peppermint (or spearmint or whatever mint) plants that you want. The rest you just throw away.

Is growing from seed cost effective?
Yes! If you buy a packet of mint seeds for say $2.50 you get 275 seeds. Mint seeds usually germinate pretty well so even if you only get half come up (which is unlikely) you will end up with more than 130 plants. Most likely you are only going to need one or two plants as mint will spread out well once established. So now you taste test each of the mint plants you have grown and choose the ones that taste as you want them. You are bound to have at least a few that taste the way you want them too. You may even find something that you like better. Its like Forest Gump said 'you never know what your gonna get'. Whatever you end up with its cheaper than buying one plant at the store.

But store bought plants are cuttings right?
Maybe, but in most cases no. Checking around the commercial seed catalogs there are a lot of companies offering peppermint and spearmint seeds, and they offer them year after year. They would not be doing that unless the growers were buying them. We bought some and tried out our theory and even with their seed only a some of the tasted like we expected peppermint or spearmint to be. Some were horrible and some were, well, interesting.

Today plants for garden centers are grown by specialist growers. These companies have specialized growing facilities in greenhouses that can cover tens of acres and all they do is start seeds and grow little plants that they then sell to garden centers. These centers either buy very small plants and grow them on themselves then sell to you, or they buy slightly bigger plants and sell them on immediately. Very few garden centers grow their own seeds any more its not cost effective. The price of plants has not gone up much with inflation and the margins these people work on is very very small. So they are now grown on a production line crop, it's the only way that anyone can make a profit from growing seedlings. There are a couple specialist growers near our farm with over 15 acres of greenhouses and all they do is grow little seedlings for garden centers. Ever wondered where all those little plants are your garden center came from? Well now you know.


Some mints have small fairly insignificant flowers

How can a tell a seedling from a cutting?
That's not easy. In most cases you cant. When the plant is very small with just a small thin stem and a few leaves in as small diameter pot then its going to be a seedling. Once that plant gets bigger in a 4-6 inch pot (10 - 15cm) or more its pretty well established and there is no way to tell if its from a cutting or not.
Check the root ball. Take the plant out of the pot if necessary but most often just turn it upside down and see if the roots are coming out of the pot. Good rooted cuttings will have thicker stems and well developed root balls. Seedlings often have not filled out the pots with roots.
Don't trust the label. It wont usually tell you if it's a cutting but even if it does that does not mean its true, there is no law to stop the grower from saying it's a cutting even if it's a seed. Most likely the growers are doing exactly what I just described and sowing seeds then tossing the ones that don't taste right, if they even do that. There are too many seed companies selling mint seeds for this not to be true.

Always taste test the plants before you buy them.
It comes down to you and taste. . Always taste test your mint before you buy it. Buy in the spring when the phytochemicals that give mint its flavor are the strongest so you get a good idea of how it will taste. Don't just taste one plant, taste test several, maybe even from several different markets until you are happy with the taste. IF you don't how one tastes then don't buy it. Keep tasting until you are happy with the plant. Just don't take too much off any plant or the garden centers wont like you. You need to make your own judgment. Its going to be down to, do you like the taste is it what you want. (this applies to other herbs too especially tarragon where most 'French' tarragon is not really its Russian).


Other mints have larger more showy flowers like this spearmint.

But I just want one plant!
Then get one from a good garden center. Just make sure you test it first. Some places do have plants that are grown from cuttings, there are companies that sell cuttings for these growers to root and sell on. However these are far fewer than those raising seed.

For everyone else, buy some seed and pick your own its more fun, you get the same results and it's a lot cheaper. Don't be afraid to throw out a plant, growers toss hundreds of plants every year. Don't feel like you have to save them all. You pull up weeds with impunity just think of these are more weeds. Find a mint you like and enjoy it. You may find you enjoy it more because you had to 'discover' it yourself and your mint is genetically unique to you.

How Floral Encounters grows mint.
We grow several different kinds of mint but the only two promiscuous ones we grow are spearmint and peppermint. - We tried growing chocolate mint too but that really messed with the other two so we ripped it out. - These two we have placed at opposite ends of our farm to maximize the distance between them and prevent cross pollination. While its not impossible for bees to fly between the two and pollinate both its unlikely as they tend to be lazy and work only one patch at a time. We also try to ensure that there are no wild mints growing on our property however we cannot ensure that there are none growing outside the farm especially since we back onto a wildlife management area. That area however is pretty wooded and not the ideal place for wild mints to grow.

So does that mean that all our seeds will be true to type? No. As stated above mints have a pretty large gene pool and they do like to express it in different ways. Not all the plants that arise will taste totally peppermint or totally spearmint there are going to be things in between and some that are darn nasty. That is going to be the case no matter what mint seed you purchase is just genetic diversity which mint is very keen on expressing. So grow what you like and toss the rest.

 

Peppermint info and seeds

Spearmint info and seeds

Mountain mint info and seeds