The Spiritual Gardener: Mint, Limoncello & Other Good Things

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Heavy rains last week pelted down nearly all of the remaining autumn leaves, spangling the dark green ivy with the bright yellow stars of maple leaves, at least when viewed from an upstairs window.  For some of us, it’s hard to keep our spirits up at this darkening time of the year.  We recently set the clocks back and I grew depressed, as I always do on the first Monday after Daylight Savings, when you have to drive home in the pitch black.

During the day, the color is also rapidly draining out of the landscape, which is hurrying into its dull green and dun gray combination, that is so tiresome to the eye through the long, dragging months of winter. I find that I simply must look for positive ways to stop being a seasonal drudge.

And so I begin a mental list of good things to do, things that will take me out of myself.

On recent walks around our town, I have been picking up long ponderosa pine cones and last weekend I wired them together with florist wire into the shape of a large string of chili peppers; then I spray-painted them gold and wound red ribbon through them. I hung them on the bright white plantation shutters in the three windows in the reading room. Also, my wife has switched out the blue hydrangeas in the reading room for the red and white poinsettias, so I guess the unofficial Advent season has quietly begun, and the house has more of a holiday air.  I even listen covertly to an occasional Christmas CD, Celine Dion being a great favorite.

The furnace is on in the mornings now to take the chill out of the house and as always, even on the deepest days of winter, the reading room is the coziest room in the house, with its three blazing radiators. In the garden there is not much left to speak of. The roses are looking rather ragged and forlorn late in life, as who is not? The mums are still providing a bit of color and the impatiens are mostly undaunted, though time is running out for them, the poor things. And being on the cusp of the first hard frost, as we surely are, makes one think of bringing in whatever herbs you have on hand.

I grow chives all over the yard, more for their purple golf ball flowers than for their oniony leaves, and some autumns I have brought in masses of cut chives and frozen them for winter soups, but find it hard to use up more than a little of that. So this year I am going to bring just one large clump inside after a severe haircut and general tidying up, and grow it indoors in a pot in a sunny window by the patio door. I will do the same with a small rosemary plant.  Fresh rosemary is wonderful in pasta, in breads, on any poultry, and in soups.  If your plant is producing faster than you can use it, harvest a lot of it, strip off the fragrant leaves whole, and then fry them in olive oil that is very hot but not smoking.  Drain the fried rosemary leaves on paper towel, and then freeze the fried leaves for use all winter: they are marvelous on almost anything.

Mint is easy to gather in this season. Practically any yard can support a plant or two of mint and they are very easy to grow.  Actually, the problem with mint is that they are too easy to grow and if you are not very vigilant they will soon take over any sunny spot you give them, with their invasive, shooting roots. So I don’t have to spend all summer worrying about them, I plant them in the ground in the large plastic pots they came in and, while this is not ideal for them, they grow quite merrily this way and at least they cannot sucker as they would like.

In November I cut them down to the ground and take the cuttings to the basement to air dry on spread-out newspaper.  After a few weeks, I strip off all the dried leaves into a large bowl and crush these leaves by hand.  This can be used for making mint tea, hot or cold, and a few plants will easily see you through the winter with mint tea.  You can also use it to make mint sauce for your lamb.  (I lived in countries where they ate plenty of lamb with mint sauce, but now cannot bear the idea of either mint sauce or eating lamb.)  The twiggy stems that are left behind after the dried mint is stripped can be tied into bundles, and I keep these in a large basket by the fireplace.  They burn very hot and keep the fire lively, plus they give off a wonderful, minty aroma, not unnaturally.

Speaking of fragrant winter fires, I can’t resist saying that, as you go around your yard in winter pruning things and doing a general clean-up, some aromatherapy opportunities will crop up and help keep your spirits high. Russian sage should be cut back a third each winter, just like lavender, and the cuttings for both can be gathered and put in your firewood basket. Keep some string or twine handy to tie these into bundles, or they make a great mess and attract the unwelcome attention of other people in the household, who tend to make unkind remarks about one’s efforts.

A really great source for fragrant firewood is the huge amount of wood you take out of mature buddleias in winter, if you are lucky enough to have one or two of these about the place, as I am.  These are cut back severely in February and please do not be timid here.  Be firm; tough love is what you should be thinking.  Ours grows to 20 feet tall in summer and we cut it back to pollarded stumps about four feet high each February.  And then we (I say we) chop up the cut stems for the fragrant hearth.

But where was I?  Oh yes, why is the mint tea good to have around?  It is delicious and fresh, and it is good to know you organically grew something, however simple and easy, on your own land that you can enjoy in winter when you are feeling more than usually cut off from the land that sustains you. But also because it gives you an important component in solving the problem of how to make lemons a larger part of your life.

In Tuscany, lemons have of course been an important part of the agricultural countryside for hundreds of years.  Here, we tend to take them for granted. Italian limoncello is a miracle of intense and refreshing taste, and is drunk in Italy as an apéritif, a digestive, as a dessert wine and as a nightcap to settle your stomach before bed. In America, limoncello is available, but is rather expensive considering what it is: just sweetened vodka infused with lemon.  Making this yourself is surprisingly easy and satisfying, and is related to the topic of mint, which I will get back to in a moment.

Combine the peels from six to eight medium lemons in a large jar with three cups of vodka, and let this stand for two weeks.  Boil three cups water (or 2.5 cups if you want a stronger drink) and one cup sugar until the sugar is dissolved, then allow this simple syrup to cool; add to the vodka and lemon peel mixture, let stand another week.  Then drain the limoncello away and store in the freezer (discarding the peels); serve in frozen shot glasses on a hot summer day, closing your eyes and thinking of Tuscany.  When you peel the lemons, use an ordinary vegetable peeler, but be careful not to get any of the white pulp from the lemon rind, as this adds a bitter taste to the drink.  The first time you make this, go buy a nice bottle of limoncello, preferably one with frosted glass or an interesting shape; you can keep this in the freezer and sample it while your own batch is brewing.  Then use this bottle to house your own product thereafter.

Now, back to the mint.  Once you have the peeled lemons left over from the limoncello process, you can squeeze them into a large pitcher and make another simple syrup, this time with a cup of water and half a cup of sugar.  Add this hot mixture to the lemon juice.  Take a large handful (about half a cup) of your fresh, organic, dried mint, and pour four cups of hot water over this, allowing it to steep.  For the steeping process I use one of those French coffee presses, which works well to separate the tea from the dregs.  When the mint tea turns a strong golden green color, pour it into the pitcher with the lemon juice and sugar, then fill up the pitcher with water and chill.  You will love the mint lemonade that results; it tastes so great and fresh, and you can drink it all winter.

Fresh mint, limoncello, long winter walks and Christmas music – these are some of the good things that brighten our days at this time of year.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.