Let’s Grow a ‘Cocktail Garden’

Let’s Grow a ‘Cocktail Garden’

What’s the point of vegetable gardening, except to have access to fresh herbs and vegetables.And if you happen to prefer your daily allotment of vegetables in a glass, a garden can be a mighty playground.  If you’re a cocktail aficionado, almost every building block of your favorite drink has a vegetal component: a flavored or infused liquor, a fruit-based syrup, bitters, muddled fruit or vegetable, juice, and garnish. And you can source those ingredients straight from your garden. Each year, some of the most popular outputs from my garden are the lavender syrup, pickled cherry tomatoes for garnish, and the endless amounts of citrus juice I make. You can grow a “cocktail garden” too. 

Start by establishing a healthy herb garden

Herbs come in two flavors: perennial, like sage and rosemary, and tender season herbs, like cilantro and basil. It’s helpful to sit down and consider which herbs you actually want to work with, and then divide that list into perennial and annual herbs. While herbs are great to intersperse in your garden, particularly since they can get large and shrubby, you can also consider keeping them corralled together in one space, like an herb spiral.  These installations create space for a variety of herbs, and based on how they’re arranged in the spiral, they allow the hardier herbs to protect the more tender ones. Remember that although your hardy herbs like winter thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, and even parsley can be harvested in winter, your annual herbs like basil, dill, cilantro, lemongrass, lemon verbena, and chives can only thrive in summer. You’ll want to consider an indoor hydroponic garden to keep these herbs going all winter. 

A note on mint: There are, you’ll find, an endless varieties of mint out there, and it’s important to be really choosy about this herb. Find one that has the right amount of spice for you. It’s incredibly rare anyone advises you to plant mint in the ground because of its propensity to spread—instead, plant it in a planter with a very secure bottom. 

Grow aromatics for bitters and syrups

Lilac shrubs, citrus trees, lavender or elderberry bushes, roses, and jasmine vines are a building block for syrups that smell like heaven. You can harvest the flowers and infuse syrups with them, or use them to create bitters from your own yard. Obviously, these plants require more space and time, so you need to give them more care in planning. Elderberry, for instance, produces both elderflower and elderberry, both of which can be incredibly useful in your garden. But the plant itself can double in size in a year and is not self-pollinating, so it requires a mate. Lilacs and jasmine are spectacular when in bloom—you can smell them across the yard—but the bloom period is sadly short, particularly for lilacs. In many cases, they offer a narrow window of only a week or two to successfully harvest  the flowers, but luckily, making a syrup is a simple ratio of sugar to water and takes little skill or practice. 

Make a long-term investment in fruit

Some fruit, like strawberries, can be wildly productive in its first year. Most fruit, however, takes longer to establish. Berry vines like raspberry, blackberry, and boysenberry are rewarding, but you have to find a spot that can support the canes, and then care for them so they don’t take over your yard. You’ll also need to learn how to prune them, since berries tend to grow on second-year wood. Fruit trees can take years to be very productive, but are prized possessions once they do; just remember to find trees appropriate for your climate, and learn about the local issues with the varieties you’ve chosen and how to care for them. For instance, in rainy areas, stone fruit must be treated with copper twice a year to prevent viruses from killing the tree. 

Try growing rhizomes like ginger, turmeric, and horseradish

We think of spices like ginger, turmeric, and horseradish as herbs, but they grow as rhizomes: They multiple and grow via an underground web of roots and produce shoots. If you find the right conditions, you can grow these at home. In the case of ginger and turmeric, you can buy “starts” off Etsy, but you’ve likely noticed your ginger sprouting at home if you keep it around for a bit. Once it does, you can take that ginger, plant it about three inches deep, and cover it with about an inch or two of soil in a place with partial sun, partial shade, and access to water. You’ll see shoots emerge, and at the end of the season, you can dig up your spoils and use them. Ginger and turmeric also freeze well. Horseradish is a tap root, so it grows like a carrot, and spreads via that taproot underground. Horseradish will spread and multiply easily once in your garden and likes some of the same conditions as ginger. There is simply nothing like fresh grated horseradish, but unfortunately it is one of the hardest spices to preserve. It begins to lose intensity the moment you grate it. You can freeze it, but the result is unsatisfying. 

Go ahead: Grow a Bloody Mary

When you consider the vegetables that end up in your cocktails, peppers are an obvious choice. Though they only grow during the summer, they preserve really well. You can produce hot sauces, dried peppers, and pepper flakes to use the rest of the year. The benefit of your own garden is that you can really play around with vegetables you wouldn’t think of otherwise—consider fresh spring peas, for instance. They have a sweet, herbaceous but mild taste and can add a pop of spring color to your drinks, and peas are incredibly easy to grow and adapt to a lot of spaces. Imagine a fall cocktail with pumpkin or even eggplant. Allow your imagination to play with the products of your garden.

I think there is, however, no greater joy than making your own Bloody Mary from the garden. You can use any vegetables you please, but I like to approach it from a V8 perspective, and infuse my tomatoes with carrots, celery, cucumber, bell pepper, and eggplant. Celery, in some places, is perennial and will come back year after year, but even when it doesn’t, a few starts from the nursery will ensure you always have some in your garden. 

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