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Cocktails in the Garden

Raise the bar with garden-fresh ingredients that transform cocktails into signature drinks

Amy Stewart's cocktail garden

Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist, has created a cocktail garden in very little space, most of it in pots and planters. Photo: Amy Stewart

Amy Stewart's strawberry planter

Amy Stewart's vertical strawberry planters have nasturtiums planted in the top level. She says: "This is a fancier version of a 'pallet garden' I've just added trim to dress it up, and some bits of Victorian gingerbread on top from an antiques salvage place." Photo: Amy Stewart

CHEERS! Drinks made with just-picked herbs, fruit, and vegetables as flavorings and garnishes are the toast of the summer party season, whether made with alcohol or not.

As cocktail gardeners have grown more adventurous, the happy-hour repertoire has expanded well beyond the classic sprig of spearmint for juleps and mojitos and into the realm of refreshing homegrown blackberry cocktails and summer drinks garnished with edible dianthus petals and frilly little marigolds. When the ingredients are within easy reach of an imaginative backyard bartender, every cocktail becomes a flourishing signature drink.

Above all, a cocktail garden should be a pretty and comfortable spot, says Mary Palmer Dargan, a landscape architect who lives in Atlanta and in Cashiers, NC. Good design should really come first. "My recipe for a successful cocktail garden is easy," Dargan says. "You need a flat place for a table and chairs, and an étagère — a two-tier table where you can park wine or cocktail mixes and backup glasses."

Plants for the Cocktail Garden

Cocktail gardens usually feature lots of herbs and some fruits and vegetables. To get an idea of what to grow, take a look at plants offered by Territorial Seed, a company that has teamed up to create the Drunken Botanist Collection:

Simple Syrups Collection

  • Golden Jubilee agastache
  • Grosso lavender
  • Attar of Rose scented geranium
  • Orange mint
  • Archangelica angelica
  • Thai basil

Gin Garden

  • Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumber
  • Lemon cucumber
  • Blue borage
  • Genovese Compact basil
  • Golden Lemon thyme

Here at Gardener's Supply

The cocktail garden at our Burlington, VT, headquarters features these plants:

Herbs

  • Lavender
  • Rosemary
  • Orange mint
  • Cuban mint
  • Spearmint
  • Thai basil
  • Genovese basil
  • Golden lemon thyme
  • Lemongrass
  • Lemon verbena
  • Cilantro
  • Rose-scented geranium

Vegetables and fruits

  • Gherkin cucumber on a Tomato Tower
  • Red Currant tomato on a Tomato Ladder
  • Fireball pepper
  • Alpine strawberries
  • Mini watermelon on a trellis

Dargan, the author of Lifelong Landscape Design (Gibbs Smith), recommends a stone or brick patio. Built-in seating is especially nice, "because people like to perch," she says. "If you have a seating wall instead of a lot of furniture, you get an A+ in my book."

Renewed interest in kitchen gardens, community gardens, farmer's markets, and edible landscaping has contributed mightily to enthusiasm for garden-to-glass cocktails. Gardeners with bumper crops of strawberries, cherry tomatoes, or cucumbers are looking for new ways to use and combine favorite ingredients, and stylish cocktails shake things up quite a bit. Scott Beattie, the author of Artisanal Cocktails (Ten Speed Press) led the way, putting a fresh twist on the cocktail hour with his bold use of local, organically grown fruit, herbs, and vegetables.

Plant Stand Trio

The Plant Stand Trio can make an attractive outdoor étagère.

Beattie grows some of his own ingredients, forages for wild blackberries, and relies on the dizzying choices available from local organic farmers in his Sonoma County, CA, neighborhood. Never underestimate the value of the flavor of fresh produce in a cocktail, Beattie says. A Pimm's Cup made with cucumbers from your own backyard or a farmer's market — "it's a huge difference from what you get at a grocery store," he says. "You'll be blown away by how something that simple can be so good, with a delicate and very complex flavor."

Amy Stewart, whose book The Drunken Botanist (Algonquin) explores the plants that are used in the world's most famous cocktails, proves that you don't need a big space to be successful. She turned her narrow side yard in Eureka, CA, into a flourishing cocktail garden, most of it in pots and planters. Stewart grows hops on a trellis and raspberries and blueberries in pots. She keeps a romping clump of mint in check by growing it in a raised planter that also serves as a bar, and she installed shelves on a garden wall for pots full of herbs, with room for bottles and party glasses.

Dargan learned to make the most of small-space gardens when she lived and worked in Charleston, SC. "A human body takes two and a half feet to stand up and drink a glass of champagne," she says, "but people love being crowded in together. Don't be afraid to over-invite. People will figure it out."

If you have room, a fountain adds to the glamour of a cocktail garden, she says, and in the evening, candlelight "will move the mood toward romance."

Dargan likes to garnish cocktails with nasturtiums or daylilies, mixes fresh peaches with champagne for festive bellinis, and recommends cordials made with elderberry blooms steeped in sugar, water, and lemon slices. But while you're mixing the punch, don't forget that the atmosphere of the garden itself is part of the cocktail you're serving, she says. "It provides the ambiance, and when you're out there, you're drinking up fresh air, sunlight, and bird song," she says. There's something intoxicating about the very idea.

Garden-Inspired Cocktails

Elderflower Cordial

From The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

Serves 20.

  • 1 750 ml bottle dry rosé wine, not sparkling. (Example: La Vieille Ferme rosé)
  • 2.5 cups (20 oz.) St-Germain elderflower liqueur
  • 30 oz. club soda
  • Strawberry slice or raspberry for garnish
  • Ice

Mix the rosé and St-Germain in a pitcher—this can be done ahead of time. Fill short tumblers or wine glasses with ice, add 2 oz. of the rosé/St-Germain mixture to each glass, and top with 1.5 oz. club soda. Garnish with a strawberry or raspberry.

To quickly mix larger or smaller quantities, do:

  • 5 parts wine
  • 4 parts St-Germain
  • 6 parts club soda

If serving in a punch bowl, add club soda right before serving so it doesn't go flat.

Related Article

How to Make Simple Syrup: More recipes for sugar syrups that are infused with herbs

Garden-Infused Simple Syrup

From The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

"Simple syrup" is a cocktail staple for balancing the flavors in other ingredients. It can also be used to add a hint of sweetness and flavor to seltzer.

  • 1/2 cup herbs, flowers, fruit or spice
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 oz vodka (optional)

Combine all ingredients except vodka in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and stir well, until the sugar has dissolved. Let the mixture cool and pour through a mesh strainer. Add the vodka (if using) as a preservative and keep refrigerated. Good for one to two weeks; lasts longer in the freezer.

The Grape

The Grape

The Grape

From Andrew Silva, a Burlington, VT, chef and cocktail enthusiast.

The flavor of fresh Concord grape juice harmonizes beautifully with Bourbon. Makes two cocktails

  • 5 oz. Bourbon
  • 1 oz. fresh lime juice (NO bottled lime juice or anything that comes from a plastic lime)
  • 1 oz. Cointreau
  • 2 oz. grape juice

Mix all the ingredients in a shaker filled with ice. Shake and pour into chilled cocktail glasses.

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