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Botany and booze: Grow the perfect cocktail garden

Monday - 4/21/2014, 6:51am  ET

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Use your garden for more than just dinner. Fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables make great cocktails as well. (Courtesy Amy Stewart)

WASHINGTON -- It's time to think outside the flower box.

The food you grow in your garden isn't limited to the salad bowl. Amy Stewart, author of "The Drunken Botanist," says it's time to drink in the fruits of your labor. She offers tips and ideas on how to garden for the sake of cocktails.

To start a cocktail garden, Stewart says, plant what you like and what grows well in your area.

"This is really about embracing the climate that you have," says Stewart, who lives in the Pacific Northwest and has success growing raspberries and blueberries. "I was just in Mobile, Ala., and they can grow sugarcane and I was so jealous. Fresh cut sugarcane in a mojito? That is so fabulous."

According to the USDA's Plant Hardiness Zone Map, The Farmer's Almanac and WTOP Garden Editor Mike McGrath, the following plants are a few examples of ones that thrive in the greater D.C. area:

Mamani Gin and Tonic Cocktail: Gin, tonic, jalapeno pepper, cilantro, cucumber, celery and tomato. (Amy Stewart)

  • Apples
  • Asparagus (requires its own bed but lives for decades)
  • Beets
  • Beans
  • Blackberries (perennial; needs lots of room)
  • Bell peppers
  • Blueberries (require very acid soil)
  • Cantaloupe (long-season crop; not easy)
  • Cherries (big trees)
  • Chives
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes (perennial; needs lots of care)
  • Eggplant
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Peaches (requires the most care of any fruit)
  • Parsnips
  • Radishes
  • Rosemary (not hardy over winter in outlying areas; perennial in the city)
  • Sage
  • Strawberries
  • Thyme
  • Tomatoes

Herbs: Use the Uncommon

When choosing plants and herbs to add to your cocktail garden, Stewart says, pick odd and interesting herbs that are not "the run-of-the-mill kitchen garden plants."

Tomatoes, peppers and strawberries are common in home gardens, and while they are all great in cocktails, Stewart says less common plants, such as scented geranium, lavender and lemon verbena, all make great drinks as well.

"Those are herbs that are all very edible, but we can't really cook with them much," Stewart says. "You can make shortbread cookies, but there's not much else you can really do. But in cocktails, you can use them for everything."

Champagne Mojito Cocktail: Rum, simple syrup, lime juice, mint, fresh berries amd sparkling wine. (Amy Stewart)

Stewart says scented geraniums (Pelargonium sp.) are perfect in a simple syrup.

Commonly called geraniums, the leaves of these plants have fragrances and flavors that range from rose to cinnamon, coconut and apricot. Stewart makes a simple syrup (one part water to one part sugar) with the rose-flavored leaves and uses the mixture to make a refreshing cocktail, perfect for spring.

"That is something that can be splashed into a vodka or gin drink, and you get this really amazing floral flavor that they can't do for you down at your local watering hole," she says. "It really takes a gardener."

Another refreshing, herbal cocktail Stewart makes uses lavender and lemongrass -- two plants that are generally among the first of spring's bounty.

Stewart makes a simple syrup with a "bunch" of lavender and some "big chunks" of lemongrass in the mix.

After the syrup cools, Stewart mixes it with vodka, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a splash of club soda.

"It's amazing," she says.

Summer Fruits and Vegetables in Cocktails

As the season gets warmer and summer approaches, Stewart likes to incorporate tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers into her beverages.

Her Herbarium recipe calls for gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, cucumber, basil, lemon and club soda.

"The flavor of basil in a drink is so fresh and interesting. I just love it," Stewart says.

When tomatoes and cilantro come in, muddle them with 1.5 ounces of vodka, add a splash of celery bitters and serve the drink shaken, in a cocktail glass.

Fresh peaches and potted mint go great muddled with bourbon and mixed with a splash of simple syrup and some peach bitters over crushed ice. Peaches also make a great summer old-fashioned.

Presentation and Parties

When it comes to garnishing drinks, Stewart suggests taking advantage of edible flowers in your garden, such as pansies, violas and borage flowers. Flower "ice cubes" make quite a splash with guests.

Fill each spot in an ice tray halfway and freeze the cubes. Then, place a flower on the frozen half-cube; fill the rest of the cube with water and freeze the cubes again. When it comes time for your garden soirée, add the flower cubes to your cocktail for an added effect.

If a flower is too fragile to float in a cube in a drink, Stewart likes to make "rafts" for the flowers.

"Take a super-slim slice of citrus or cucumber and punch a hole in the middle and draw the stem of the [flower] through it so that it's sitting on top of the little slice of fruit. You can float that in a drink," she says.

And if you need an excuse to throw a party, making drinks from your garden might be the perfect one. Stewart says that's because syrups with fresh, seasonal produce don't last forever.

"They're meant to be enjoyed this season; don't save them," she says.

"This is not an heirloom to pass on to your grandchildren. If you're going to get into the kitchen and do flavored simple syrups or flavored vodkas, do them, but have a party and use them up and enjoy them."

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