OK, it's not summer yet, but if you're starting plants from seed, now's a good time to get going. These should all be planted in early June, or as soon as the last of the chilly spring weather is past. If possible, shelter them from the strong winds we sometimes get in early summer. Here are my must-have cocktail plants for the summer:
Tomato: The tomato to grow in a cocktail garden, in my opinion, is a small and flavorful cherry tomato that you can muddle into a drink and use a garnish. Cherry tomatoes also happen to be a little bit more tolerant of cooler temperatures, and they do better in containers and hanging baskets.
You'll be seeing more and more grafted tomatoes in garden centers this year, and if you haven't tried one yet, I highly recommend that you do. The idea behind grafted vegetables is that a flavorful but somewhat finicky tomato can be grafted onto a sturdier tomato rootstock to help it resist disease and produce more fruit. This is the same reason that many fruit trees and roses are grafted rather than grown on their own roots.
My favorites are "Sungold," which reliably produces lots of sweet, orange fruit, and the very abundant red "Sweet 100" and "Sweet Million." "Red Currant" is a variety that does exceptionally well in containers, and the small fruit really does have a powerful tomato flavor.
If you're going to be growing them in containers, be sure to use a potting soil that contains coco fiber to help hold in moisture. Ask at the garden center about this -- they'll have at least one soil made especially for containers and hanging baskets. Give them a healthy dose of an organic dry fertilizer formulated for fruits and vegetables, and plan on watering regularly.
And if you decide to try hanging baskets or one of those upside down tomato planters, be sure you have a freakishly strong hook that is heavily anchored to a good support beam. The plants get incredibly heavy as the season goes on, especially when you water them, so make sure the supports are seriously overbuilt.
Here's a trick with tomatoes: When you put the plant in the ground, snip off the lowest set of leaves and submerge the plant a little deeper, so part of the stem is buried as well. The stem will take root and contribute to a stronger root system. (Don't do this if you're growing a grafted tomato: in that case, the graft needs to be visible above ground.)
I have never found the flavors of tomatoes to be very stable in infused vodkas. If you want to mix up a batch of tomato-flavored cocktails, my suggestion is to chop or mash the tomatoes with vodka and let it sit for a few hours at the most. You won't get much additional benefit beyond that.
Peppers: As with tomatoes, the trick to growing peppers for cocktails is to choose a variety that is small enough to fit in the glass as a garnish. It's also important you actually like the pepper; there's no point growing hot peppers if you can't stand spicy cocktails.
A good variety to try is "Peguis," a heavy producer of large, green jalapeño-style peppers. For sweet peppers I like "Cherry Pick," a small, round, red pepper that matures early, making it a good option for our cool summers.
In any case, give peppers full sun and protection from the wind. If the summer gets off to a slow start, you might even consider giving them a little shelter behind a cold frame. Even using an old glass window as a lean-to above the pepper plant can give it a little extra shelter and warmth. Like tomatoes, they need rich soil amended with plenty of compost, a granular organic fertilizer formulated for vegetables, and regular water. Uneven watering in temperature swings can stress the plant out and keep it from blooming or producing fruit.
I use slices of peppers in a lot of vodka, gin and tequila drinks, and I've found the flavor to be pretty stable in infused vodkas. Don't go overboard with the heat, however. Even if you love spicy drinks as much as I do, a blindingly hot infused vodka can just be overpowering. Dial it back a little and add fresh hot peppers when you make the drink if you want to.
Tomatillo: I love tomatillos in cocktails because they add such a bright, citrusy flavor. Grow them as you would tomatoes, giving them plenty of sun, rich soil, regular water, and a granular organic fertilizer formulated for vegetables. There's really just one difference: to get fruit, you need two tomatillo plants.
The purple tomatillos look great on the vine, but that purple color can get a little muddy in cocktails. I actually prefer green varieties like "Toma Verde." There's also a yellow variety called "Pineapple" that is so sweet that you can make jam out of it. They blend very well with tequila; a tomatillo margarita is a wonderful thing.
Melon: If you're growing melons specifically for a cocktail garden, it really makes sense to look for small-fruited varieties. Better to have a steady supply of small melons on hand than two or three jumbo fruits that took all season to ripen. There's a beautiful heirloom watermelon called "Small Shining Light" that tolerates short, cool growing seasons and produces 10-inch fruit. "Sugar Baby" is another small, icebox-style watermelon you might try. I also like "Minnesota Midget," a miniature cantaloupe bred to tolerate short seasons.
No matter what variety you grow, remember to give them at least 4 to 5 feet of growing room in every direction, and to plant them on top of a mound of rich soil amended with plenty of compost. I love melons in tequila and rum drinks, but I'm sure you'll find a use for them in vodka and gin drinks as well. Melon-infused vodka is a wonderful thing, but the flavors don't stay stable for long, so mix up a small batch that you can use within a month or so.
Agave y Sandia
1.5 oz 100 percent agave tequila
.5 oz Combier or another orange liqueur
4-5 chunks fresh watermelon
¼ fresh lime
3-4 sprigs "Margarita" spearmint or rosemary
Optional: fresh jalapeño slice
Reserve a chunk of watermelon or herb sprig for garnish. Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and crush with a muddler or wooden spoon, being sure to release all the watermelon juice. Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Add garnish.