I'VE BEEN mucking in the mint. It hasn't been the joyful kind of mint work -- muddling. That task will begin later today when the horses parade to the post at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., and I make a mint julep or two in their honor.
For me, the running of the Kentucky Derby and its accompanying ritual, the making of a mint julep, is an unofficial acknowledgement that good times are here, that it is time to shed clothes and inhibitions, to hoot and holler in the sunshine.
But the kind of mint work I have been doing lately, hacking back the mint, has made me moan and groan in the mud. Far from frisky, an hour or two of battling mint has left me feeling stiff and arthritic.
Like so many of life's problems, my mint mistake stems from a good idea gone astray. How far astray? The mint that went into my rented garden plot in Druid Hill Park some years ago as a polite little 2-inch plug has since gobbled up the lower third of the garden.
I had been warned of the tendency of mint to behave badly. Mint is a sprawler. It claims new ground by sending out horizontal roots. If left unrestrained, it will propagate faster than Starbucks. But I believed I could hold the mint in check.
I had a mint containment strategy. It had elements of appeasement and restriction. The appeasement component consisted of letting the mint roam freely over the southern end of the garden. I allowed this to happen for two reasons. First, I thought there was a chance that free-ranging mint might taste better, might have more oil in the leaves than leashed-up mint. That supposedly is true for free-ranging chickens. I'm not sure it works for mint.
Secondly, I was counting on the mint to be my ally in the battle against weeds, specifically some nasty thistles that had laid claim to the lower end of the garden. I figured that if the mint invaded that patch of ground, it could choke out the thistles.
That happened - the thistles are in retreat. The trouble came with implementing the other part of the strategy, the line in the dirt that the mint was not supposed to cross. The mint was not content to dominate just the lower end of the garden. It wanted more territory.
To keep the mint confined, I had buried a large wood plank and several feet of plastic edging in the garden soil. These obstacles marked the northern border of the mint's homeland. But instead of respecting these boundaries, the mint mocked them, sending shoots around the barriers, claiming ground that rightfully belonged to the tomatoes. (Later, I read about another containment tactic, planting mint in a 5-gallon bucket, then burying the bucket.)
Late last summer, the mint made a major power grab, executing an end sweep around the plank and invading the cantaloupe patch. Rather than battle the mint in the heat of August, I waited for cooler weather to retaliate.
So last Saturday, in the mist and mud of early spring, I went to war with the square-stemmed perennial. I attacked the invader with a shovel, with my hands and with a strange sense of determination. I dug up roots, pulled out others, turned over the soil. By sunset, the once-dominant herb had been returned to its proper status, a few plugs waving in the wind.
Gardeners who struggle with sprawlers like comfry and horseradish are familiar with this muddy, digging ritual. They know it makes you feel righteous. And they know it works for only a few months, and then you have to resume hostilities.
However, one big advantage of doing battle with mint is what you get to do with the casualties, the mint leaves.
This afternoon, as the thoroughbreds canter in Kentucky, I will place 6 to 8 mint leaves in the bottom of my silver julep cup. I will massage them with my muddler, a miniature Louisville Slugger baseball bat. I will add 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of club soda to the bottom of the cup and let the trio of ingredients mingle as I work on the ice cubes. I will put the cubes in a clean canvas bank bag, given to me some years ago by a julep-loving Mercantile banker, and pulverize them with a hammer.
As I sing "My Old Kentucky Home," I will cram the pulverized ice into the julep cup, pour in the lifeblood of Kentucky - bourbon - and then top matters off with a sawed-off straw and a sprig of banished mint.
I will sniff, I will sip, I will sigh with pleasure.
Growing mint is a nuisance, but once a year, on Derby day, it seems worth it.