Beverage Garden

Spritz up your drinks with sprigs from the herb garden.

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Most of us do the bulk of our gardening in the summer when it's hot outside. So why not reward an afternoon of sweat with something cold and fizzy, grounded in anise, perfumed with chamomile, touched with lemon and decorated with rose petals?

Here's why not: You don't have a beverage garden.

It's about time, don't you think?

Gardens aren't just about salads and corn-on-the-cob, borders of aromatic color, rows of dense greenery and rocky hillocks laced with purple and white blossoms. A garden can revolve, too, around that thing most of us do constantly — gulping liquids like these:

  • Smush a bunch of anise hyssop leaves into a ball, tear it up, sprinkle the leaves over a glass of ice, fill it with seltzer water, stir.
  • Lightly crush a lavender blossom in the bottom of a glass, fill it with ice and lemonade, stir.
  • Sprinkle a wee bit of smashed rosemary and lemon thyme over a glass of ice, add tomato juice, spritz with lemon, stir.

     

    You get the picture.

    For the most part, a beverage garden hinges on herbs. You may already have all of the herbs you need to turn seltzer water or iced tea into ambrosia. If you're starting from scratch, though, why not dedicate one chunk of land, or even just one array of containers, to beverages?

    A handful of herbs seem crucial, but otherwise have fun experimenting with different flavors. Marjoram in a bloody mary? Go for it. Bee balm seltzer? Sure. Tarragon orange spritz? Why not?

    And don't forget the possibilities fruits offer, especially berries. Raspberries will improve upon nearly any drink, but blueberries, strawberries and blackberries will rock your beverage too.

    Dig What Herbs Need

    Not all herbs favor the same soil and sun conditions, but most do. And many herbs will do well in most regions of the country, but there still are plenty of exceptions. Lemon verbena will thrive where it's hot and humid. Wyoming? Sorry. Make sure you understand how individual herbs pair with your climate and soil profile before you start plunging plants in the ground.

    Fortunately, soil is one element that can be controlled, through top soil and compost. Herbs make it easier anyway, because they're not especially picky. In fact, soil that might seem inferior for many garden vegetables will often perform superlatively for herbs. On the other hand, extremely rich soil that might, for example, cause your tomatoes to thrive, could turn your herbs insipid. The idea with herbs is to concentrate as much flavor — through oils in the leaves — as possible. Anise hyssop leaves rendered beautifully broad and fat might look pretty, but there's a good chance their flavor will pale, because the essential oils are spread out over a larger leaf.

    One thing about herbs, though: For the most part, they demand excellent drainage. If all you've got is heavy, wet soil you'll want to build a raised bed and use top soil for your beverage garden. And herbs need sun. So if shade defines your property, you may need to rethink your beverage garden. Assuming it's just partially shady — and not full shade — you can always plant mint, a broad and useful category of herb that embraces a healthy dosage of shade.

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    Anise hyssop

  • Anise hyssop. Here's an herb that not only resounds with anise flavor, it also looks striking in the garden, growing tall and lush and spangled with long, purple blossoms that broadcast perfume and attract legions of butterflies. If you like the taste of anise you have several choices, including basil and tarragon. They all work. But anise hyssop may be your favorite for a beverage. The plant is not especially invasive, but it does grow tall and wide. Give it a few feet all around in the garden.
  • Lemon balm. Few flavors seem to marry with drinks as well as lemon. Just about every beverage, it seems, thrills to lemon. Which is one reason lemon balm is such a winning choice in a beverage garden. It's not the only herb that exhibits lemon flavor — there's lemon thyme, lemon mint, lemon verbena, bee balm — and it's not the prettiest, either (that title probably goes to bee balm). But it produces bumper crops of leaves and asks little of the gardener for its health. In fact, lemon balm definitely falls into the "aggressive" category. It creeps, it spreads, and if you don't control its wanderings, soon you'll have a garden of nothing but lemon balm.
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    Lavender

  • Lavender. Soap — that's what many people conjure when they think of the flavor and aroma of lavender. And that's natural because many soap recipes involve lavender. But if used sparingly — very sparingly — it adds a pleasing perfume to many drinks. Paired with lemon (the fruit, or even a lemon plant, like lemon balm) makes it ambrosial. Find the lavender variety that thrives in your region and make sure you plant it in full sun, with well-drained soil. The leaves are potent and should be used with great care (otherwise, soap). The blossoms are gorgeous and less potent on the tongue.
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    Bee balm

  • Bergamot (bee balm). It can be similar to lemon balm, but it's got a little something extra that makes it worth adding to the beverage garden. In addition, bergamot flowers are showy, and butterflies love it. The aromatic plant likes a little shade, and it's less fussy about having damp feet than other herbs, like lavender.
  • Lovage. The leaves taste like celery, which is a great thing for bloody marys or other tomato-based drinks. One great side benefit for beverages: the stems. Stiff, wide and hollow, they make perfect straws. And they're edible. The plant does get big; after five years of coming back every spring, it can reach beyond six feet in height. Like most herbs, it's not especially fussy.
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    Mint

  • Mint. No beverage garden is complete without a selection of mints. Lime mint (perfect for mojitos), orange mint, chocolate mint, lemon mint, spearmint, peppermint and so on. A simple glass of cold seltzer and torn mint leaves over ice refreshes like few others. Caution: Mint is invasive. Plant in containers, or put metal sleeves (borders) six inches into the soil around your mint planting. It's worth the work, though: Mint is invaluable.

    Doug Brown, a writer in Boulder, Colorado, spends his free time tending his garden. And drinking his herb garden.

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