The Cocktail Garden: The Unvarnished Truth

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So! Sunset magazine stopped by a few months ago.

sunset shoot

It was great fun hanging out with a couple of pros all day and watching them work. (Oh, and there was some mixing of cocktails, too.) Anyway, you can see the results in the February issue of Sunset, which is just hitting the stands now.

And now–I’m delighted to share these charming hand-drawn illustrative plans of the cocktail garden that Susan Morrison of Creative Exteriors Landscape Design designed for me. Susan is a cocktail aficionado and an expert in small-space gardening: her book Garden Up! , co-authored with designer Rebecca Sweet of Harmony in the Garden, is the definitive guide to vertical gardening.

This garden was tricky to design. It’s situated in the narrow side yard off my kitchen door and much of it is only seven feet wide. It gets half a day of shade thanks to the shadow cast by my house. And I needed a wide, usable walkway for garbage cans and anything else that might ever have to get hauled from the back of the house to the front–in other words, it’s the only path around the house.

And–everything in the garden had to be a cocktail ingredient! And it had to grow in Humboldt County, where temps rarely get past 70 degrees.

We came up with the idea of using painted wooden containers to reflect the painted wood construction of my Victorian house and the rest of the neighborhood. Susan laid it all out, then I had the planters built locally, painted them myself, and had a new concrete walkway poured.

I’ll be posting more photos and details later, but the drawings (done after everything was built and planted) are so charming that I just wanted to share them now. Scroll down for plant lists. Oh, and you can just about all of these plants from Territorial’s Drunken Botanist Plant Collection. You can also find them in garden centers on the West Coast supplied by Log House Plants starting this spring.


Amy Stewart cockail garden

Along the fence, which measures about 45 feet. This is the entire length of the garden. From left to right, containers only:

Calamondin citrus tree, lemongrass, Mexican sour gherkin cucumber, strawberry, Thai basil, Redventure celery, red pepper, ‘Raspberry Shortcake’ dwarf raspberry, Johnny jump-ups (in pots on purple shelf), pineapple sage, Triolife planter on a raised triangle stand with cilantro, basil, parsley, mint, and edible flowers. Mint growing out of planter/bar with edible strawberries above it on shelf built into fence, then, in the corner, ‘Black Lace’ elderflower with rhubarb growing underneath it. (Susan drew a tree where the elderberry is. Artistic license!) On the ground in between the planters are thyme and edible flowers like viola and calendula.

Amy Stewart cocktail garden plan

Now here’s an overview of the whole thing. You’ve already seen the elevation of the plants along the fence, which is shown here in the top part of the drawing. Here are the plants in the bottom portion, which runs along the house. Left to right:

Hops growing up trellis in back, then dwarf ‘Jelly Bean’ blueberry, and growing in a strip in the ground are elderberry, assorted black currant. The square container with tree indicated holds a sloe, Prunus spinosa. (I only know of two places to get them in the US: Forest Farm and Lincoln Oakes, and their quantities are limited.) Rectangular planters and ground surrounding them contain: Sage, thyme, winter savory, oregano, rosemary, fennel, dill, scented geranium, lavender, rugosa rose. ‘Peach Sorbet’ dwarf blueberry in round pot. Larger planting areas, bottom right, contain existing fuchsias. (the fruit makes a beautiful purple syrup!) In front, not shown, is a jasmine climbing over the front gate trellis. (Jasmine liqueur, anyone?)

And go here to read Susan Morrison’s post on the whole process.

Before & After

Because I am a big believer in showing gardens when they look like crap, not just when they look great, I searched around for the absolute worst photos I could find of this narrow side yard. This is one of those awkward spaces sandwiched between my kitchen door and my neighbor’s house. It was really the only spot that would work for a cocktail garden–we have chickens free-ranging in the back and fencing them out seemed too complicated, and the front yard was too exposed. That left this space, which is great because of the access to the kitchen, but awkward otherwise.

Here it is, in all its unweeded horribleness, from the front:

And here is more unweeded horribleness from the back looking toward the front:

This is the highly inaccurate and confusing diagram I sent to Susan, who lives six hours away and had to design the garden without ever visiting it:

and here is the totally meaningless sketch I sent, which was supposed to convey my ideas for the garden, whatever those were. Basically, I was trying to convey the idea of height and vertical gardening and bar-like drinking/hangout spaces, and also the idea of painted wood containers, because I live in a neighborhood of painted wood Victorian houses and it wouldn’t make sense here to do stone planters or Italian pottery or anything like that.

Here’s what I got back from Susan, after much discussion:

I knew I needed to replace the fence, which was on its way out anyway. I was also willing to replace the concrete walkway, which was very old and cracked and uneven. So Susan greatly expanded the concrete, which not only made for more of a hangout space, but it gave us a place to park the ridiculous oversized trash and recycling bins we’d recently been issued (lower right in this plan), which could be wheeled away and replaced with a chair for parties. Expanding the concrete also got rid of the “bowling alley” effect (or at least reduced it) by making the garden more viewable from various angles, not just front-to-back.

What happened next? I hired fence guys, hired a concrete guy, and hired a guy to make wooden planters. I saw some of his planters at a local garden center and they put me in touch with him. He used to work at one of the mills (this is timber country up here, folks) and had access to second-grade wood at a good price. He made me 13 containers in all, including the raised planter-turned bar you’ll see in a minute.

First, this thing showed up. I picked a warm, natural color called Goldenrod from Brickform. This color was specifically chosen to match a color scheme I’d carefully selected with the help of a local professional who has never steered me wrong. I then rejected the entire color scheme, but only after the concrete was poured and I had applied said scheme to the fence and most of the planters. But more about that in a minute!

Okay, so that happened! Then the fence went up, and I paid someone to paint it a color that I later decided was all wrong. The guy I hired had already moved on to another job and could not come back, so after sensibly paying him to paint so I could do my job and earn the money to pay him, I then had to take a few days off my job and paint over it myself! Yea! This is the wrong color, which was way too bright:

Then the planters arrived, and they had to be primed, except for a few that I intended to stain. I didn’t want the garden to look like a box of crayons–I did want some neutral colors (apart from the greenery, which really does serve as a kind of unifying neutral color). So I intended to stain the wood steps of my porch, the planter/bar, and a couple of other things so we’d have a combination of wood and painted wood.

I thought it would help to set the planters in the garden and just see how they filled the space. That Most Definitely Did Not Help. It terrified me. The whole thing looked like crap and I was getting seriously worried that I’d gotten in over my head. Also, it was taking much longer to paint everything than I’d counted on. And did I mention that my helper was gone? I tried to hire more people at the last minute–didn’t happen. In all, I probably lost about 3 weeks (of time I could have spent doing work and earning a living) to this project. Ouch.

Even seeing my cool planter/bar in place did not help.

Then this happened. I’d been saving bits of Victorian house trim to attach to the planters. My idea was to make the planters feel like they belonged with the house by working in some architectural salvage, and I also thought that I’d paint all the trim a contrasting color, so it would really very much tie into the whole West Coast painted lady thing. But none of the colors were working (I don’t have photos of all the non-working colors, but they were just too bright. The place looked like a garden for toddlers, not for adults drinking gin late at night.) So I kept going back to the paint store and buying darker and darker colors. Finally I ended up with an assortment of colors that looked almost black on the paint chip. One of them was this Glidden Black Bordeaux.

That was it! Then I had it. The trim would be painted the same color as the planter boxes, which reminded me (in a weirdly appealing way) of a creepy old house whose rooms are painted all one dark, intense color, even the trim. There’s something cheap and tawdry about it. I was delighted.

So at that point, I went back to the paint store and got the darkest versions of purple, blue, and burgundy I could find. All of them, I realized, perfectly matched the colors on liquor bottle labels. THIS is what I was going for! It was more French Quarter than northern California. I also picked out a sophisticated pale blue and pale green–think pastis, absinthe, and Chartreuse–as contrasts. I stained the wood the darkest color available, and painted the fence a much more neutral cream/mustard yellow.

Then I borrowed parts of an old copper still from a friend of mine who admits that it looks so good that she might never get it back.

Then the plants arrived, thanks to Log House Plants. (They are a wholesale nursery, by the way, so look for their plants at garden centers, but if you’re wanting to order cocktail garden plants online, instead try Territorial Seed Company, who Log House supplies)

The result:


Lessons Learned
And here are a few more pictures, along with some lessons learned.

First, about the bar. What I did was ask somebody to build me an ordinary raised planter box, but to make it the right height for a bar, which turns out to be 42 inches tall. I had him put boards across part of the planter area so I’d have a place to set drinks in between the plants. The spacing of the boards wasn’t exactly the way I wanted it to be, but the guy who built them for me very carefully glued them in place in addition to using screws, so I wasn’t able to adjust them and they work just fine.

This was taken on the day I planted it — the mint has filled in since then. I added my own trim, which actually came from an amazing local company called Wallace & Hinz that makes custom bars. They sell their odd bits and pieces as scrap, and I found pieces that fit perfectly. I stained it all the darkest wood stain I could find, which turned out to be darker than the barstools I’d already bought — but if you read last week’s post, you’re already getting the idea that none of this went exactly according to plan.

The shelves/vertical planter behind the bar has a very obvious “false front” of Victorian trim. I could have boxed in the sides and made it look more like it was meant to be that way, but I was so burned out by that time–and so very lacking in carpentry skills–that I just screwed that trim onto the shelves, painted it, and called it good. It was mounted onto the fencepost with giant wood screws and L brackets, and I screwed a few horizontal boards into the fence for more lateral support, and then screwed the back of the shelves into those boards.

The idea for a vertical planter behind the bar came from this awesome bar I saw in Montreal:

Can’t you just picture it at night when those shelves are filled with bottles and glassware?

Another thing-and this was Susan Morrison’s idea: These shelves normally hold pots, tools, fertilizer, whatever–but if I have a party, I can just hose the whole thing down and use it for platters and glasses and stuff like that. Nice, huh? The guy who built the planters was like, “You want a bookshelf? Like, a bookshelf? In the garden?” They are just like bookshelves, except there are small spaces between the boards so the whole thing can drain if I hose it down.


What else? Well, I did a pallet planter, only I added house trim to that as well to jazz it up. It sits on concrete blocks to elevate it (hidden pretty well by some agastache I planted in front of it) and is attached to the fencepost with big wood screws. (If you want to know how to do this, I followed Fern Richardson’s instructions.)

Finally, a couple of words about seating. Because we expanded the paved areas, I was able to work in a little seating, even in this narrow, alley-like space. That’s nice because it gives a slightly angled view of the garden–which is not easy in a long, narrow space. Also in this photo, you might see old windows hanging on the wall–I wanted something artsy that could give the garden some height, and I figured I could use the glass to–I don’t know–write cocktail recipes on? Draw silly pictures? You get the idea.

Oh, and I should mention that if the containers are sitting on the ground (instead of on concrete) they have no bottom. That way, they drain really well, and if I plant something deep-rooted, it can actually grow down into real soil if it wants to.

Here’s one more seating photo. This is our nice new pad for garbage cans, but I put the cans away when it’s party time. I actually have a really nice painted bench that fits in that spot, but I can’t seem to find a photo of the bench. So here it is with another chair. You get the idea. Seating.

And the porch got power-washed, cleaned, and sealed. Who knew those grey boards could be this color again? So it’s not really big enough for much seating, but it’s easy enough to move the funky old recycling bins off the porch and put a chair there, too. (Also, below right, you’ll see that I put my Triolife planter on a stand and filled it with cilantro, basil, mint, etc.)

In keeping with the Victorian theme, I even made a vertical planter out of an old wooden medicine cabinet. The mirror had broken and fallen out during the last earthquake, so I stapled chicken wire where the mirror was (inside the cabinet door frame), drilled drainage holes all around and watering holes on top, and planted into it. It’s also attached to the fence with L-brackets, screws going into the post, and an additional chunk of wood I screwed into the post just underneath to help hold it into place. There are also blocks of wood screwed into either side of the fence post so I could attach it in the middle as well. It’s HEAVY!

Okay, that’s it for now! If you’re wondering what I’m growing in this garden, it’s all plants that can somehow be mixed into a drink–with one exception. I didn’t have the heart to throw out an old rhododendron that had been with the house forever. But other than that–every single think is drinkable and mixable! If you’re trying to figure out what that might involve, I’ve got a long list here (click “older entries” at the bottom to see the rest) and most of it is available from Territorial through their Drunken Botanist Plant Collection, and Log House Plants is selling them to West Coast garden centers as well.  Still more about the Drunken Botanist Plant Collection of cocktail-friendly plants can be found here.




  1. I discovered you on the Territorial Seed website today. I do not (currently-that may change!) drink alcohol. But your drinks would be welcome at any garden party I ever throw, and I would definitely try them.
    Your garden is a work of art. I really like how cozy it is. I have a bare acre of lawn, and that is so daunting I have been here 20 years and can’t figure it out. South is our front yard with the small greenhouse and sun but terrible wind. North is dark and cold. We have bad soil all over so I very much appreciate you telling us about the varieties you grown in pots, I have been container gardening for a long time and have not heard of these.
    I was like a kid on Christmas morning watching all your videos today and feeling so inspired. Thank you for sharing! I can’t believe you have written all those books, I have over 120 garden books, and I have never heard of you until today. I will be making up for lost time now!

  2. Wow – what a fantastic idea! Very creative use of the space and I can’t think of anything better than a garden full of cocktail ingredients. If I had the space to plant a full garden like this, I would grow all my own ingredients. Everything tastes so much better when it’s fresh from the garden.

    In my much smaller yard, I planted myself a ‘Bloody Mary garden” – tomatoes, hot peppers, dill, cilantro, chives. All the things I like to put in my Bloody Marys. Not quite as impressive as yours – but it was a lot of fun!

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