Spring has finally arrived! The days are getting longer, the ground is thawing, and the weather is getting warmer. It is the proper time to clean out the house and to have to start tending to the yard. The first order of business will be to clean up all the leaves and sticks that have accumulated over the cold winter months. Then it is time to get the garden, or gardens, ready. If you are one who plans everything out before heading to the nursery, make sure you consider what you may be drinking during the spring and summer months. You can have all the ingredients you need for warm weather sipping within your reach, fresh and ready for muddling, infusing, and otherwise flavoring your cocktails.
All liquor, no matter what you are drinking, is in some way plant based. While you may not have room to grow corn, agave, or wheat, everyone has a small plot of land that they can put a few herbs in. Maybe a strawberry plant or two. This garden can be the base for your special gin-like concoction. Possibly a delightful blueberry or mint infused simple syrup or liquor. Many of the bitters and amari that are so popular in the modern cocktail movement have dozens of herbs and other aromatics infused in them. Jagermeister, one of the best-known liqueurs, has no less than fifty-six herbs, roots, fruits, and spices. You may not need THAT many in your garden, but it can’t hurt to have a few very attractive, easy to grow options.
Strawberries – Is there anything that says summer more than a ripe strawberry? Perfect for garnishing and infusing, these juicy treats go with pretty much anything. They are a relatively hardy plant that can grow almost anywhere. They prefer a lot of sun but can make it with some shade. Because of their rapid growth, you need to give them room if you are planting them in the ground. If you plant them too deep, they will not grow at all. Maintain them, and strawberry plants will produce fruit for roughly four years. Plant them while there is still a chill in the air, then wait for them to flower. A month later, enjoy the fruits of your labor. Do not put them in bed the first year with flowers. The fight for resources will not go well.
Raspberries/Blackberries – Both pop up a little earlier in the season than strawberries do; they are almost the harbinger of fresh fruits. They will also grow rapidly, so they need room AND a good trimming. Let them go too far, and they start to turn into thickets. They do not enjoy lots of water, so be sparing when you give them extra watering. Missing the spring planting season is not a big deal; they will be fine if you plant them in summer. You can plant them anywhere in the garden, except near the tomatoes. Tomatoes can leave diseases that these berries can pick up. Speaking of…
Tomatoes – These are fruit. Keep that in mind. They are also a little sweet. If you grow them right, you can have fresh tomato juice for brunch Bloody Marys, or maybe make some tomato water. These guys are going to take a little more work. You are going to need a trellis or some method to get them off the ground and keep them clean and growing well. Like the other fruits, give them plenty of room to grow and lots and lots of sun. Unlike the berries, do not plant them too early. Cold is not their friend at all. Pro hint: plant the stem deeper for them to grow more roots and you to get more tomatoes.
Cucumbers – I could almost write “see tomatoes” for how to grow cucumbers. They want something to climb on, want warm soil, but they like much more moisture and fertilizer than the tomato. Throw some mulch on top of that soil to keep that water in, and you will have happy cucumbers. Perfect to muddle into a refreshing gin cocktail or use as a garnish.
Rhubarb – Hear me out. A simple rhubarb syrup, or making a batch of bitters with a little rhubarb as part of the mix, is a delight to have in your repertoire. Rhubarb growing is another early indicator that spring has sprung. This is one plant that enjoys the Ohio winter. More freezes of the ground can produce more stems. All rhubarb needs is fertilized, wet soil, plenty of sun, and some room to grow. Take care of this celery-like vegetable, and you can expect savory delights for up to eight years. Do NOT eat the leaves.
Mint – You know that you’ll be having juleps and mojitos when it gets warm. There is no excuse for not having scads of mint in the garden or around the house. Growing these in pots and keeping them well trimmed is the best way to check their growth. Left to their own devices, they can take over a yard. Maybe the next yard. Possibly the world. Mint is aggressive when it comes to growing, but shy when it comes to the sun. Keep them in in the shade if possible. To get even tastier Kentucky Colonel in your harvest, trim the flowers when they start to appear. That will encourage more leaf growth. Which means more juleps for everyone.
Basil – You are already growing tomatoes, right? Add a little sweet basil to that plot of land, and you have plenty of flavors covered. They not only taste amazing together, but they also grow well together. You can plant them in pots while it is still cold out, then transfer them to the soil when it warms up. As the stalks get taller, they will start to flower. Like mint, trim the flowers when they start to emerge. Then bruise them up with some strawberries for a vodka infusion.
Rosemary – This potent herb can provide a refreshing burst of flavor to cocktails. You do not need much muddled into a cocktail to get that flavor going. Another easy grower, put it in the sun and stand back. This little herb will grow as much as you will allow it. It is a low maintenance herb to have. When the soil around it gets a little dry, give it some water, but otherwise do not worry about it much.
Sage – Delicious, and not just for cooking. It goes well with many fruits, especially citrus. Citrus is the soul of many cocktails, and sage and citrus work well together. Throw in some gin, and you have the base of an excellent cocktail started. This plant will sit nicely with the rosemary and the strawberries, so grow them all together. It loves our Midwestern weather and will thrive in this mild climate. It grows out, not up, so this is another one that needs a wide berth. After five years, digging it up and planting a fresh plant is recommended.
This is by no means a complete list. Dill, lemon verbena, thyme, and many other herbs can be added, depending on the flavors that you love. Marigolds, violets, and roses are edible and can offer some lovely garnishes to your cocktails. They may be useful additions. If you are looking at the long game, apple trees and grape vines will grow in this area, so you can start on those now and see some results in five years. You can even grow your lemons indoors if you have the patience, the vessel, and a window with good light.
The variety of things you can do with these plants is extensive. Even if you do not have a plot of land to call your own, you can use one of the community plots of land that Five Rivers MetroParks offers. Many herbs and flowers can also be grown indoors so that you can put fresh mint in your cocktails all year round. While the weather is nice, head out into the yard and get your hands dirty. Spend a little time getting your garden ready now, and you’ll be enjoying a strawberry basil lemonade cocktail right out of your backyard.