Tips on growing a Cocktail Garden

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Complementary Plants for Spirits:

Every great drink starts with a plant. Rum comes from sugarcane, tequila comes from agave, and whiskey comes from barley, corn, rye, and wheat. Vodka and gin can be made from almost anything, from potatoes to grain to fruit. But then what? We've teamed up with Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist, to choose our favorite plants to mix with our favorite spirits. Read on for recipes and tips for making great drinks from your garden.

Old Havana Rum Garden Plant Collection
Alpine strawberry ‘Golden Alexandria’
Mint x villosa ‘Cuban Mojito’ mint
Lemon verbena
Farmer's Market Vodka Plant Collection
Tomato ‘Red Currant’
Cilantro ‘Slow Bolting’
Celery ‘Redventure’
Pepper ‘Cherry Pick’
Pepper ‘Fireball’
Heart of Agave Tequila Plant Collection
Sage ‘Grower’s Friend’
Pepper ‘Jalapeno Peguis’
Watermelon ‘Petite Treat’
Rosemary ‘Arp’
Mint ‘Margarita’
Old Tom Gin Plant Collection
Cucumber Mexican Sour Gherkin
Cucumber ‘Lemon’
Borago officinalis ‘Borage Blue’
Basil ‘Genovese Compact’
Thyme ‘Golden Variegated Lemon’
Southern Belle Whiskey Plant Collection
Mint ‘Kentucky Colonel’
Chamomile German
Thyme ‘English’
French Tarragon

Plant profiles:

Scented Geranium: (Pelargonium spp.) Not a true geranium, these fragrant pelargoniums are the result of endless hybridizing, which is why it’s impossible to list a particular species. You can get scented geraniums that smell (and taste) of roses, coconut, apple, nutmeg, strawberry, lime, and ginger. They do great in containers, they can tolerate dry soils, and they prefer full sun but will put up with a little shade. If you’re growing the plants for flavor, do give them as much sun as possible to encourage the development of essential oil.
The flowers are edible so they’re safe to use for garnish, and the leaves release a tremendous amount of flavor into simple syrup. They’re also fantastic muddled into gin or vodka to dress up a basic Martini. In fact, a British distiller is making Geranium Gin, which does taste of rose geraniums, but it’s not yet available in the United States so you’ll just have to use your imagination.

Anise hyssop: Also called agastache or licorice mint (Agastache foeniculum) This tough little perennial is, in fact, a member of the mint family, and the leaves do taste and smell of licorice or anise. It’s hardy on the West Coast and will survive winter temperatures as low as -25F. In summer, the plants thrive on sun and very little water, pushing up flowering stalks that reach a couple feet in height. Because it’s such a widely adaptable plant, you’ll find that anise hyssop does just fine in partial shade as well.
These plants have been the subject of a great deal of hybridizing, but we haven’t noticed any compromises in the flavor of the leaves. So you might as well indulge your vanity and shop for good looks. ‘Golden Jubilee’ is popular for its chartreuse leaves and brilliant blue flowers, and A. aurantiaca ‘Fragrant Delight’ produces a mix of orange, purple, and lavender blossoms. ‘Blue Fortune’ is considered the workhorse of the bunch, with light blue flowers and a really vigorous habit. They all attract bees, butterflies, or hummingbirds, and they require zero care except for shearing back the dead blossoms at the end of the season. So what do you do with them? In Scott Beattie’s book Artisanal Cocktails, he slices the leaves into long, thin strips and shakes them over ice with vodka and a berry-infused simple syrup, then serves the drink with seltzer water and garnishes with more of the leaves and blossoms. I’ve also seen it muddled into a gin & tonic, and anise hyssop-infused simple syrup is generally a good upgrade to ordinary simple syrup in any fruity or floral drink. The flowers are edible, so feel free to garnish with them as well.

Cucumber Mexican Sour Gherkin: These tiny Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumbers (Melothria scabra) are the coolest thing to ever end up in a cocktail. No bigger than an olive, these close cousins to the cucumber have a tangy, lemony crunch and make a fabulous garnish. They’re easy to grow and remarkably prolific. Try one in a gin and tonic made with Hendrick’s, a gin flavored with real cucumber.

Elderflower or Elderberry: The species of elderflower in question is Sambucus nigra, a native hedgerow plant in Europe and the United Kingdom. A variety called ‘Black Lace’ has, as the name implies, gorgeous burgundy-black foliage. The pink sprays of flowers are mildly fragrant, and if you have two of them, the flowers will give way to burgundy fruit in late summer. I grow it alongside a regular green, white-flowered variety, often sold as “common elderberry,” on the theory that the fruit will be better if at least one of its parents is the old, wild strain rather than a newer specimen bred for good looks. Plant them in full or part sun (‘Black Lace’ develops more color in full sun; it goes a little green in shade), give them regular water, and if you want smaller, bushier plants, cut the taller branches down in mid-summer after they flower.

Cordials and sodas flavored with elderflowers are a very British thing, but it took an American distiller to recognize their potential. Rob Cooper, a third-generation distiller, tasted homemade elderflower syrup in a London bar and decided to create a liqueur from the flowers. The result is St-Germain, made in France’s Bordeaux region from fresh elderflowers that arrive at the distillery the day they are picked. The liqueur has a floral, fruity flavor somewhere between honey and pears; it has become internationally popular and makes a lovely addition to sparkling wine or just about any drink made with gin. The fruit, by the way, is a bit tart to eat raw, but people do make it into jams and wines. Just keep in mind that all elderflower fruit contains some amount of cyanide. S. nigra is lower in cyanide than our native American species, and ripe fruit across all Sambucus species is lower in cyanide than unripe fruit. Cooked fruit is safer than uncooked. So—be careful out there.

Making elderflower cordial: Elderflower cordial is made by dropping fresh, clean blossoms into simple syrup immediately after picking and washing them. (Simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water, brought to a boil and allowed to cool. Two or three cups would be about right.) Most people add sliced lemons and oranges, and if you want a little more preservative, try an ounce of citric acid, available at health food stores. A splash of vodka also serves as a perfectly respectable preservative. Cover and wait 24 hours, then strain into a clean jar. Store it in the fridge and use it up within a month.

Blueberries: The trick with blueberries is that they put out very shallow roots that form a mat of fibrous threads very near the soil surface. Most of us know that blueberries like acidic soil, but what we forget is that they need a great deal of organic matter and regular water.

So before you even think about bringing blueberries home, choose a site that gets plenty of sun and that you will realistically get around to watering, even in the summer. Putting them right in the middle of your vegetable garden might be a good way to go.

It’s a common practice to use peat for blueberries; if you’re concerned about depleting a peat bog, the manufacturers of Canadian sphagnum peat would like you to know that their peat is harvested sustainably and renewed constantly. However, if you’re not happy with that solution, ask at the garden center for a few bricks of compressed coco fiber. Be sure and pick up a dry organic fertilizer intended for acid loving plants while you’re there.

Soak the peat or the coco fiber in buckets of water. It takes a few hours for them to absorb the water and be ready to go into the ground. Prepare the ground by digging a wide, shallow hole. Add the wet peat/coco fiber, mix well with an equal amount of native soil, add fertilizer according to the package directions, and integrate as much organic matter as you can. Compost, decomposed leaves or grass clippings, worm castings, and aged manure are all good options.

If you’ve done it right, you have a loose, rich pile of soil to plant into. Get your plants in the ground and keep the roots covered in organic mulch. Plan on watering them weekly in the summer, and add a ring of fertilizer about a foot away from the plant in June.

There are lots of varieties to choose from. One popular cultivar is called ‘Draper’-- it grows 3 to 4 feet tall and is popular on U-pick farms throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Raspberries: There is just nothing better than fresh raspberries out of the garden, and they are ridiculously easy to grow. If you don’t have any in the ground yet, this is the year. Give them rich soil with plenty of compost, and stand back. They do need a little water year-round, and they prefer the cool summers that we have on the west coast. They are easier to handle if you put up a simple trellis such as a post at either end of the row with sturdy wire strung between it. (Warning: if there are weedy Himalayan blackberries growing in the area where you want to plant your raspberries, dig them out or find another location. Keeping the two separate will drive you crazy.)

Now, there’s one trick with raspberries that you need to understand before you go shopping. Raspberries are broadly divided into two categories: summer-bearing and everbearing. The summer-bearing varieties produce more fruit, but over a shorter season. The ever-bearing varieties will give you less fruit, but you’ll be harvesting from June through September.

Regardless of the variety you choose, you’ll need to do one pruning job during the winter. Just cut down the canes which have already fruited, which will be fairly obvious because there will be bits of dried stems and flowers where the raspberries once were. Just cut those down to the ground and let the young, green canes grow.

And by the way, you can grow a raspberry plant in a large container (like a wine barrel), but plan to use stakes or trellises to keep the canes confined, and be sure to keep it watered.

Homemade flavored vodka and berry liqueur:

You can make your own flavored vodka by filling a jar with clean, loosely packed berries and then pouring in as much vodka as the jar will hold. Gently crush them with a wooden spoon to release the juice, then seal and store in a cool dry place for a week.

Strain it and use it in your favorite cocktails, or add simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, heated until the sugar melts and allowed to cool) to taste to make a liqueur.

Either way, keep it refrigerated and enjoy it within a few months—like anything fresh, seasonal, and handmade, it’s not meant to last forever.

Rhubarb: There is no special trick to planting rhubarb. Just give it some sunlight, plenty of compost, and choose a permanent spot, because rhubarb doesn’t like to get moved around. Space the crowns about 3 feet apart, and bury them just deep enough to cover the top of the crown with a couple inches of soil. Pile a little more aged manure around the plants every spring, give it regular water, and that’s all the care it needs. Go easy the first year or two, harvesting only a few stalks. By the third year you’ll get a better harvest, but don’t ever pick more than half the stalks from a single plant. Rather than cutting the stalks, grip them firmly near the base and give them a little twist and pull. They should come out fairly easily. The most tender stalks grow in spring and early summer; by July they can get a little tough. Remove flowering stalks to force the plant to put its energy into growing more foliage rather than setting seed.

Remember that the leaves are toxic; you only want to eat the stalks.

Nasturtium: Peppery flavor, pretty flower, a good garnish if you’ve got room in the glass. It’s ridiculously easy to grow from seed, and you get more interesting varieties that way. Just give them good rich potting soil, moderate water, and cut them back if they get too leggy. This is an annual; the first frost will kill them off and you can start a new batch the following spring. If you’re short on space, look for mounding as opposed to climbing/trailing cultivars. Territorial offers lots of options; I like the dramatic ‘Night and Day.’

Viola & Pansies: For sheer decorative purposes, nothing beats pansies and Johnny jump-ups. They are so absurdly easy to grow that there is almost nothing to say about them, except this: they do need regular water, so make life easy on yourself by buying a potting soil intended for hanging baskets. Ask about this at your locally-owned, independent garden center, which is staffed by people who actually know something. They will point you to one or two potting soils that you’ve probably overlooked a hundred times. These specially-designed soils contain coco fiber and hold water much better than ordinary potting soil.

Otherwise, growing violas requires zero expertise. They will put up with sun or shade, they are surprisingly cold-hardy, and available almost all year. (The new “ice pansies” even bloom through frost.) And they will behave like a perennial—just shear back leggy growth to force them to rebloom—although you would be forgiven for tossing the spent plants on the compost pile and buying a fresh six-pack every few months. They’ll grow in any kind of container—think strawberry planters, hanging PVC pipes with holes drilled in them, vertical garden frames, or “gutter gardens”—a length of old gutter, filled with soil, with holes for drainage, suspended from wires or attached to a fence. It’s a cool way to grow herbs, strawberries, succulents, and other plants that don’t have much root mass.

The ice cube trick also works with pansies, but here’s another garnish idea: Make a very thin slice of lemon or lime, and cut a pansy so that a little bit of the stem is attached to the flower. Pull the stem through that little space in the center of the citrus slice (the hole left behind by the “central column,” if you know your citrus anatomy) and float that in a cocktail glass.

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