From Mojitos To Mint Tea, Grow Your Own Beverages To Sip At Home This Summer
By Kate Silver | July 8, 2020
Gardening is growing like, well, a weed, as people look to fill their time - and their tables - while staying close to home. According to news reports, seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co. sold more in March 2020 than any time in the company's 144-year history. This summer, as herbs bloom and and strawberries ripen, experienced and novice farmers alike will be looking for new and different ways to put their bounty to use.
Author Jodi Helmer has some ideas about that. In her new book, Growing Your Own Cocktails, Mocktails, Teas & Infusions: Gardening Tips and How-To Techniques for Making Artisanal Beverages at Home (Companion House Books, 2020), Helmer, who lives on a farm in Albemarle, North Carolina, encourages people to think beyond the plate, and embrace a garden-to-glass mentality. Using home-grown ingredients in beverages, she says, takes the flavors - and fulfillment - to a whole new level.
"You don't get a drink, you get an experience," says Helmer. "You can try many different varieties of mint in a mojito or tea to see how subtle differences in the flavors of the herb have a difference in taste. It sharpens your palate. There is also something really satisfying about knowing that you had a hand in growing the ingredients that are in your glass."
We talked to Helmer about why she loves grow-your-own (GYO) drinks, and how to get started with your own beverage garden.
Connect the Dots: The timing of this book, which published in April, couldn't be better. Can you speak to why now is an ideal time to get started growing your own cocktails, mocktails, teas and infusions?
Jodi Helmer: We're spending more time at home than ever before, which means we have more time to devote to our gardens. I think people love the idea of planting something and watching it grow - and to use it in their favorite drink is such a bonus. The world also feels a little uncertain right now and a lot of people turned to gardening to feel a sense of control and accomplishment. No tomatoes at the supermarket? I'll grow them. Not sure when it will be safe to have friends over again? Digging in the dirt relieves stress. We've always turned to gardening in times of crisis and the pandemic is no different. We're also returning to the idea of local food - and local drinks - and there is a lot of passion for being creative with the literal fruits of our labor.
CtD: How do people tend to react when you talk about growing your own beverage ingredients? Are they surprised?
Helmer: Yes, surprised is a good word. People have been using fresh ingredients in their beverages, or purchasing beverages made with fresh ingredients, forever but have never given much thought to growing their own. Herbal teas are crazy popular but there is a disconnect between the chamomile in your tea and the plant that grows in your garden.
I want to make that connection. I came up with Growing Your Own Tea Garden, the predecessor to this book, when I was at the garden center shopping for herbs and thought, "These flavors look just like the ones in the tea aisle." Even though I'm a lifelong gardener, I hadn't made the connection either. Once people realize they can grow their own ingredients, and they taste the difference between a strawberry margarita made with artificial flavoring and one made with real strawberries, they'll never go back.
CtD: Is it easier than people might think?
Helmer: It depends. There are a lot of herbs, flowers, fruits and roots that are very easy to grow and some that are more complicated. The gardening piece is harder than the drink-making part, but it is still easier to than most people think. If you're new to gardening, I'd suggest herbs like mint, lemon verbena, lemon balm, pineapple sage, or fruits like strawberries, which are all easy to grow and can be grown in small spaces, including containers. The options for drinks are endless. Cocktails? Try a mojito with fresh mint. Tea? Steep some lemony leaves. Smoothie? Harvest those berries and drop them in a blender.
CtD: For the novice gardener, what are the basics that a person needs and what are some good starter herbs?
Helmer: I'd start with a few pots and different varieties of mint - I'm obsessed with mint. You can look for chocolate mint, citrus mint, spearmint, or Kentucky Colonel mint, my favorite. It's such an easy to grow herb - bring it inside in the winter - and grows really, really vigorously, which is the reason you want to grow it in a pot because it will take over the garden and is almost impossible to kill.
Fun fact: one of our goats, Willie Nelson, escaped the pasture last summer and headed straight for a raised bed full of mint. He ate it down to the nubs before we caught him. A few weeks later, I was harvesting mint from those plants. It grows fast. I like something easy to grow to get started because it gives you the courage to keep going. Mint can also be used in a huge diversity of beverages. We add some chopped mint leaves to our ice cube trays and use it in water or lemonade in the summer. Mint tea is my go-to.
CtD: What is your go-to GYO beverage?
Helmer: Tea, hands down. I'm a tea freak - on my third cup of mint tea this morning, all made with herbs from the garden. I also love drinks made with pineapple sage. We use that in ice cubes, lemonade and infused water. It's very easy to grow, the pollinators love the red flowers, and it has amazing scent and flavor. For cocktails, the mojito. It's a mint thing! I also love a strawberry margarita. Our strawberries went nuts this year, so we had a lot of fruit to use.
CtD: This sounds like it could be fun for the whole family.
Helmer: It's a great project to with kids or grandkids. Plant a seed, watch it grow, use the leaves in creative ways. Kids love tossing ingredients from the garden into the blender to make a smoothie, or having tea parties with ingredients with ingredients from their own gardens.
Don't be afraid to experiment. Try herbs fresh, dry them and see how the flavor changes. Other advice: I don't spray pesticides on anything I plan to eat. Make sure you wash ingredients well before using them. Measure, or don't. Part of the fun of making your own cocktails, mocktails, teas and infusions is making them to your taste. Add some herbs, taste, add more as needed. It's all about satisfying your taste buds.
Tip: If you’re like us and tend to get a hot flash along with your cocktails, try adding two sprays of our Hot Flash Cooling Mist to the back of your neck before your first drink. Cheers!
Kate Silver is a Gen X writer living in Chicago. Her work regularly appears in Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and on her own website, www.thekatesilver.com.