Herbs, Flowers and Fruit
In Grow Your Own Garnish I thought it would be fun (and even a little useful) to highlight some of the herbs, flowers and fruit which you can grow yourself at home to use as a garnish in cocktails and gin and tonics. I have chosen the easiest herbs, flowers and fruit to grow in a temperate climate and also ones which I grow myself at home.
In my garden, as well as pots of herbs and herbs in the borders mixed in with flowers, trees and shrubs, I have an elderberry bush forming a hedge to one side of my garden, a cherry tree, an apple tree, a blackcurrant bush, raspberry canes, strawberries in pots and a fig bush.
I also have an olive tree, whose leaves often adorne a G&T. I haven’t included the cherry or olive trees here as, although they are regularly plundered for garnishes, they take up quite a bit of space and are therefore not ‘easy’ to grow in that sense.
If you don’t have a garden but a balcony or window box don’t despair. You can still grow your own garnish in something as small as a terracotta pot on a doorstep. Many of these herbs, fruit and flowers can be grown small scale.
Grow Your Own Garnish ~ Herbs:
There is nothing so mouthwatering and vibrant as the smell of a fresh green herb garnish, newly slapped and peeking out of the glass of your G&T or cocktail. It adds a new flavour dimension and can be visually very satisfying.
For the green and not so green-fingered among you, it really is easy to grow your own garnish. All you need is a few pots or a small patch of garden. You don’t even have to grow herbs from seed – unless of course if you fancy it and want to put the time and effort in.
Buy the herbs as small plants either from your local garden centre or your supermarket. Even the smallest garden centre will have a range of herbs. Basil, mint and coriander are often sold as living plants in pots in supermarkets.
Grow them in full sun and keep them well-watered, although they’re not so fussy on that front and will tolerate the drought of a forgetful gardener. Just remember to water them once in a while.
Slapping or Spanking Your Herbs: – Herbs need to be slapped before using in a cocktail or G&T. Spanking your herbs just means lightly slapping them against the palm of your hand. This light tap releases more aroma, and hence more flavour, without crushing the leaf and possibly releasing green colours.
A tender herb that most people tend to associate with the warm days of summer and pesto. But although it is an annual, basil is a herb that can be grown any time of year on a sunny window sill.
If growing it outside wait until the first frosts are over or you will find the leaves frosted to black mush. Grow it as a companion plant to tomatoes, its natural culinary partner.
To taste, basil is an odd herb. It can taste spicy, herby or sweet depending on your mood. Or sometimes all three at once. Thai basil is a variety that is slightly spicy.
Basil is the star of its own cocktail in the form of a Gin Basil Smash, originally called gin pesto, a fabulously green cocktail.
Not really a herb to add flavour to a cocktail, although it does very well in a stew! But what it lacks in flavour it makes up for in elegance and style. Grow it for its cocktail looks.
Easy to grow in a pot or border. You can also grow it into a small elegant standard tree or leave it to grow randomly into a bush shape.
Once planted in your garden you will have a friend for life. This herb really needs to be grown in a pot to curb it from invading your garden. It is a member of the mint family which goes a long way to explaining its somewhat happy tendency to spread.
I have a patch of it which appeared from nowhere now firmly and inextricably embedded in a fig bush. I think it is there to stay.
The leaves of lemon balm when crushed release a powerful aroma of lemon floor polish. As such it needs to be handled with care. One leaf, lightly bruised, is all a G&T needs. Try it in a Navy Strength G&T where the more robust botanical flavours won’t be cowed by its bullish lemon tendencies.
I like this unassuming herb. Tall, elegant and definitely fragrant, a sprig in a cold crips G&T on a warm summer’s evening is just lovely. It grows quite happily in a pot on a balcony.
A Meditteranean cousin of thyme, sharing its low growing habit. Not wildly exciting as a garnish but its golden leaves and pale pink-lilac flowers are rather pretty.
It is super easy to grow in a pot and makes a great companion plant for more showy flowers in a window box.
The daddy of all herbs. Easy to grow. Too easy some might say. Definitely, one to grow in a pot to stop it spreading.
It also packs a powerful punch and should be slapped with care. It can ruin a delicate G&T if you let it but it really shines in a mojito, its rightful place.
There are many variants of mint to play with, including spearmint, apple and even chocolate mint. My favourite has to be black spearmint. The aroma and flavour are more refined than garden mint and the leaves are tinged a beautiful dark colour, with purple-black veins.
This is one you might not have heard of. I bought a small plant a year or two ago intrigued by the apparent disparity of the name. How could pineapple and sage possibly go together? But the leaves smell heavenly of pineapple and are great in a summer fruit cup. As an added bonus it has a beautiful spray of red flowers which can last almost until Christmas.
I grow it outside all year round in a sunny border as well as in a pot. I liked it so much I went back and bought another!
Rosemary is a herb that looks good in a herbaceous border. Tall and elegant and, importantly if you are planting it in a border where it will stay all year round, hardy. It provides a green-grey backdrop to more colourful plants. If you grow it in a pot make sure you don’t overwater it. I have killed quite a few specimens over the years this way.
Its beauty though lies in its aroma. Pungent and distinctive it also makes for a great natural cocktail stick when half a spear is stripped of its leaves.
This herb is not grown very much these days. But for Medieval people, the aniseed tasting seeds tucked away in the bright green pods were their sweets. It is easy enough to grow and grows wild all over Europe.
A seed or two popped into your G&T is all you need.
Thyme is definitely a savoury herb that garnishes a savoury G&T well. The variety lemon thyme adds a beautiful sweet-savoury note. I grow variegated lemon thyme and allow it to flower. It’s pretty delicate lilac flowers brighten up a G&T. Like marjoram, it grows well in a window box or even a hanging basket.
Grow Your Own Garnish ~ Flowers:
Quite a few garden flowers are edible too. Elderflowers for one make a lovely cocktail syrup. If in doubt though do check a reliable source and if really in doubt then don’t use them. The ones I’ve included here are edible flowers in my garden which I have often used as garnishes. There are plenty of other edible flowers too. Any balcony would look fantastic with this colourful array of flowers.
Also known as starflower, borage is a Mediterranean plant and as such loves a sunny border. Once planted it will happily self-seed and pop up everywhere. Its blue flowers look so pretty in a cocktail that its profligate self-seeding can be overlooked.
Ok, so this ‘flower’ is not for everyone’s garden. It’s really a large bush or small tree. Elderflowers can grow quite big. But I included it here because they respond really well to hard pruning to keep them in check.
I grow two varieties: the common elderflower that you might find in a hedgerow and the variety Black Lace with its black leaves and cherry blossom coloured flowers. I have to say though that the flowers of the common variety seem to be more fragrant and useful in making cocktail syrups and for garnishes.
Lavender seems to be a bit of a Marmite garnish. You either love it or hate it. Quite a few gins use it as a botanical though and as such it makes for a pretty and complementary garnish.
I grow French lavender because I think it makes for a more interesting garnish with its purple ‘rabbits ears’.
A member of the brassica family which also includes cabbages, nasturtiums are often used as a decoy plant for cabbage white butterflies and their leaf-munching caterpillars.
The flowers, leaves and seeds are all edible making this such a useful plant in the garden, with the added bonus that its bright flowers of yellows, oranges and reds look good in a cocktail too.
Shrub or climber
Damask roses, originally from Syria, have been used to make rose liqueurs for a long time. They need to be distilled to release their aroma and flavour. Not really practical for the home bartender.
Disappointingly for generations of children, soaking rose petals in a bowl of water does not extract the aroma to make rose perfume.
You can though use them fresh or dried as a garnish. They will give off their delectable aroma and complement many a floral gin or cocktail.
Violas, or Johnny Jump Ups as they are more popularly called, are my favourite flower garnish. Their cute ‘faces’ are an attractive addition to any cocktail, particularly a violet G&T. Every spring I buy a tray from my local garden centre to plant out all around my garden.
Grow Your Own Garnish ~ Fruit:
Fruit is an obvious choice to add as a garnish for cocktails. The zest of citrus fruit is a wholly different experience from the juice. Spritz zest over your G&T and round the rim of your glass for an intense citrus hit. Add a wedge of fruit for a more mellow flavour.
Don’t be tempted to dry your citrus in slices. The current trend for dehydrated citrus is pointless. Not only does the slice of dehydrated orange, or whatever, look sad and unappetising bobbing about in a G&T, it will also taste of very little.
Very few of us have the space for an orangery in which to grow limes and lemons ~ pity. But there are some fruits you can grow at home. I have picked out the few that I have grown in my own garden for years.
I have a 7ft tall dwarf eating apple tree in my garden grown on an M9 rootstock and as such it will never grow any taller or bigger. Yet every year since I planted it 7 or 8 years ago it has given me the most delicious apples. It is easy to look after too. This year is a year of abundance and I look forward to making lots of apple crumble and pies.
Pies aside, a slice of apple is also a good garnish in a G&T. Some gins even use apples as a botanical. And why not.
My blackcurrant bush in my garden is a migrant from the days when I had an allotment. By cutting one of the stems from the 7 bushes I had on the allotment, all I needed to do to create a new blackcurrant bush was to plant the ‘slip’ in the ground. It was that easy. Within a couple of years, it was yielding quite a lot of fruit in July when the currants are ripe.
Rich in Vitamin C, the currants ripen on 1-year-old shoots. Every year prune back old shoots to the ground to encourage new growth.
Both the leaves and the currants are fragrant. I use the leaves as much as the currants in cooking and cocktails. Homemade blackcurrant syrup makes a passable swap for Crème de Mure.
The variety Brown Turkey is the one you are most likely to find at the garden centre and the one I grow in my garden in a south-facing corner. I have had it for nearly 20 years now and each year it never fails to produce fruit. Some years are more generous than others depending on how hard I cut it back the previous year.
The figs make for a great garnish, although their flavour is so mild it does tend to be dominated by the gin or cocktail which invariably has a stronger flavour.
The variety I grow is an autumn fruiting raspberry. I have found autumn raspberries easier to grow than summer ones. You only have to remember to cut the canes down to the ground in winter, unlike summer fruiting raspberries where only the old canes which have previously fruited should be cut. Also, in my experience, they seem to be less prone to maggots and are also much more abundant.
They will happily grow up a sunny fence or wall. Stretch a piece of twine at knee height and again at waist height around them to keep them tidy and from flopping over.
Raspberries are often infused in gins to produce a compound gin with fresh raspberry flavour. They are also a key ingredient in the cocktail Clover Club.
Strawberries take a little more care to grow. A strawberry bed will take about 3 years to mature and start producing a good amount of berries. Once the strawberries start to grow they will need to be protected from the damp soil and risk of mould with a bed of straw. Blackbirds are also very partial to strawberries which will need to be netted for protection.
Once established the strawberry bed will produce a seasonal delight of strawberries and propagate themselves with the aid of runners. All you need to do is keep a few of these runners to replenish the plant stocks as they grow old.
Strawberries make colourful garnishes and are also the star ingredient in a Gin Strawberry Smash.