Eat + Drink » The Drunken Botanist

Cocktail Garden Crazy Talk



This is the final installment in our Year of Cocktail Gardening. To wrap things up, I give you the craziest, most unrealistic plants you will probably never actually grow in a cocktail garden. It is only because I can't grow them that I think about growing them so much. Read on, dream away, and let me know if you've figured out a way to make these work in our climate.

Sugarcane: The last time I was in Miami, I ordered a mojito and it came with a swizzle stick cut from fresh sugarcane. I've wanted to grow my own sugarcane ever since. It's crazy, I know, to even consider cultivating a tropical plant like this unless you live — well, in the tropics. I have not yet figured out how to pull it off myself, but how hard can it be? It's just a big, overgrown grass, right?

Sugarcane very much prefers year-round temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, regular water and full sun. But really, anyone with a greenhouse could nurse a pot of sugarcane along as long as temperatures didn't get below 40 degrees in the winter. So if this intrigues you, search around for a tropical nursery that will sell you one of the extraordinary varieties of heirloom sugarcane prized by tropical plant geeks. There are black, red and purple-stemmed cultivars, red and white striped varieties, bright yellow varieties and so on.

Give the plants a couple of years to mature, and remember that the sugar concentrates in the lowest portion of the stem. To harvest the plant, you'll want to cut it down at the base, cut the lower parts of the cane into six-inch segments, and then cut them lengthwise to peel away the tough outer skin and get to the sweet, tender stuff inside. Good luck with that!

Lemongrass: It's easy enough to start a lemongrass plant: Just buy fresh stalks in the produce section, set them in a glass of water and wait a few weeks for them to take root. Give the plant rich soil amended with plenty of compost, a good granular, balanced organic fertilizer, full sun, and as much heat as you can provide. Plan on watering it with a nitrogen fertilizer every few weeks throughout the growing season. (I use a mixture of fish emulsion and kelp meal.)

You can also grow lemongrass in a container, which makes it easier to shelter in the winter. The plants do well in a greenhouse but aren't suitable as houseplants because they won't get enough light indoors, even in a sunny window.

If you are lucky enough to have a healthy plant growing in the ground, dig out a 6 inch chunk of roots and sticks before winter comes and bring it indoors in a pot. It will stay fairly dormant, but it will get through the winter and you can plant it outside again in the late spring.

Harvest lemongrass by reaching down to the base of the stalk and giving it a firm twist and pull. Muddle the tender stalks into rum, vodka and gin drinks to give them a more interesting and complex citrus flavor.

Pineapple: Pineapple? That's insane! It is insane to grow a pineapple, but I know that somebody out there wants to do it. If the authors of Growing Tasty Tropical Plants are to be believed, you can start one in a pot by simply taking the green top of a pineapple from the grocery store and planting it so that the base is covered by about an inch of soil. Pineapples need lots of light and warmth, so this is definitely a summer project. Once the plant has produced plenty of leaves and looks like it's about ready to fruit, there's a weird trick you can do to move things along. Take a slice of apple and push it into the crown of the plant. The apple gives off ethylene, a gas that promotes fruiting and ripening.

Now, the downside to growing your own pineapples is that after all that effort, the plant's pretty much just going to give you one new pineapple. So it's worth doing as a mad horticultural stunt, but you're not going to get an entire summer's worth of pineapples for your piña coladas unless you go to the grocery store.

Pomegranate: Growing a pomegranate tree just so you can make your own grenadine may sound like a completely wacko idea, but there actually are dwarf varieties that could be nursed along in a large container and sheltered through the winter. "Nana" reaches only two or three feet tall, and "State Fair" gets to five feet. They can actually tolerate winter temperatures as low as about 10 degrees, but a tree in a container should come indoors when nighttime temperatures are routinely below 40.

You may be thinking that this is an awful lot of trouble for a batch of grenadine, and you'd probably be right. The easier (and possibly less expensive) route would be to buy a bunch of fresh pomegranates when they're in season, juice them, and make grenadine by heating equal parts pomegranate juice and sugar on the stove until the sugar melts. Let it cool, pour it in a jar or bottle with a secure lid, and add a splash of vodka as a preservative. It'll keep in the refrigerator for a month or two, or in the freezer for much longer.

My favorite grenadine cocktail is the So-So Martini, made with equal parts gin and dry vermouth, a splash of calvados, and a dollop of grenadine. It's a beautiful red color and a fantastic drink for the middle of winter, when pomegranates are in stores. Or — you know. Growing on trees. Somewhere.

Lemongrass Mojito

1 ½ ounces white rum

 ½ ounce lemongrass simple syrup

¼ lime

3 to 4 sprigs "Mojito" mint or another spearmint

1 stick lemongrass

4 to 6 ounces club soda

Crushed ice

Reserve one sprig of mint for garnish.  Make simple syrup by heating equal parts sugar and water until the sugar melts, then add the lemongrass and allow to cool and steep for one hour.

Combine rum, simple syrup, mint and lemongrass in a cocktail shaker, then squeeze lime juice into shaker and drop the lime in. Using a muddler or a wooden spoon, crush all ingredients to release the flavors. Add ice and shake thoroughly, then strain into a glass of crushed ice. Top with club soda and garnish with mint — and a sugarcane stalk, if you've got it.

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