Shake things up in the backyard this summer: Cocktail gardening puts a new twist on edible landscaping.
Fresh herbs and fruit have long been the key ingredients in some of summer’s most refreshing libations, and when they’re within easy reach of the backyard bartender, every cocktail becomes a flourishing signature drink.
Making a mojito with homegrown mint is only part of the picture, though. A successful cocktail garden should be a comfortable and inviting place to be.
“You can’t just translate the indoors to outdoors,” says J’Nell Bryson, a landscape architect in Charlotte, N.C. “An outdoor room needs more space to be in scale with nature.” Postage-stamp patios in big backyards don’t look right, Bryson says, but if a small space is all you have, there are lots of ways to make it work as a cocktail garden. “Even if you live in a condo and just have a tiny patio, you can do a vertical garden, or use pots,” she says.
Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist (Algonquin, $20), turned the challenging side yard of her home in Eureka, Calif., into a lush and colorful cocktail garden worthy of her book, which delves deep into the horticulture and lore of hops, rye, barley, grapes and dozens of other plants used to make and garnish the world’s greatest drinks.
Stewart worked with garden designer Susan Morrison on the plans for her limited space, which relies heavily on container plantings and includes an outdoor bar, where Stewart stirs up garden-fresh cocktails. Most of the garden is only 7 feet wide, with a wider patio at one end. 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. Colorful liqueur bottles inspired the lively palette of the garden and the painted planters.
Stewart’s cocktail garden is furnished minimally with one chair and a bench; it’s basically a standing-room-only space. If you have a little more room, comfortable garden furniture makes guests feel at home. Before you decide where to place a patio, study the terrain and the sun and shade patterns in your yard, Bryson says. Pull up some garden chairs and check on the views from several angles. “Choose an expansive view, not a view right into the back door,” she says. “If you have the house walls on one side, a fence on the other, and in the third you can look up into the trees, that’s what I would choose,” she says. “Focus on a view away from the house.”
Bryson suggests hanging strings of lights to suggest “a sense of a ceiling,” but “don’t dare turn on the spotlights,” she says. “You really want soft, muted lighting.”
Clients are always eager to talk about flowers in a garden’s design, but you should not neglect foliage texture, Bryson says. Thyme and oregano are both good groundcovers with interesting texture; she also likes purple basil, lemon thyme, lavender and other aromatic plants. Of course, plant all the flowers you want.
Flowers and garden-fresh ingredients of all kinds are at the convivial heart of the stylish culinary cocktails Scott Beattie created for Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, Calif. The cocktail recipes are preserved in Beattie’s Artisanal Cocktails (Ten Speed Press, $25).
“I’m really getting into edible flowers right now,” Beattie says. Bachelor’s buttons, cosmos and carnations are all pretty in summer drinks, he says, and Gem marigolds have “a citrusy flavor,” perfect for garnishing a Pimm’s Cup. Beattie also decorates drinks with the flowers and leaves of scented geraniums and the flowering stems of basil, sage and mint. He grows his own borage, which has deep blue star-shaped flowers that taste just a little bit like cucumbers.
In the summer, Beattie makes a rum drink with a fistful of muddled mint, cilantro and Thai basil leaves, with a little coconut milk, lime juice and ginger beer, garnished with a sprig of basil flowers. For some drinks, he prefers to chop leaves of mint and other herbs into a chiffonade, because the confetti-like strips of green leaf look so beautiful as they wrap themselves around pieces of ice in a glass. With a big pot of mint right at your fingertips all summer, you can try it both ways. Give it a shot.