When I set out to build my DIY privacy screen, my main goal was, well, privacy from the Airbnb next door. But I will admit I was very excited by the prospect of incorporating a planter box at the base of the screen—one that could fit my most-used herbs for cooking and cocktails. Every time a recipe calls for basil or rosemary or whatever, I run to the store, spend $5, use one sprig, and then...nothing. I try to come up with recipes around the herb so it doesn’t go to waste, but it seems like the herbs usually just sit in my fridge until they go bad. That’s why I love the idea of an herb garden—I can step outside and take only what I need. It’s convenient, saves money and waste, and smells and looks amazing. There’s really no downside.
Swansons Nursery is always my go-to when it comes to this sort of thing, and as someone who admittedly does not naturally possess a green thumb (maybe someday?), I always appreciate their input. (Remember the “Growing Vegetables in the Pacific Northwest” guide?) I knew they had a few handy checklists about herb gardens, and “The Bartender’s Garden” was the perfect fit for what I was looking for. Let’s get to it!
Step 1: Select Cocktail Herbs
If you’re in the Seattle area, visit Swansons Nursery and ask for “The Bartender’s Garden” checklist, which features spearmint, basil, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, sage, shiso, and cilantro. These herbs can obviously be used beyond the bar, but it’s a good starting point if, like me, you’re interested in handcrafted cocktails. Swansons has a ton of other curated herb lists, and you can find even more online, so go with whatever suits your needs! Some herbs are annuals and others are perennials (something to keep in mind as you’re making choices). My garden has both (which I’ll get to below).
And if your local nursery is anything like Swansons, it’s full of very smart, nice people who are willing to help out and offer suggestions—take advantage of them.
“The Bartender’s Garden” checklist highlights which herbs lend themselves to which cocktails, and I had a lot of fun looking at the different varieties of herbs and imagining what I could do with them. For instance, there’s a variety of sage called pineapple sage. A smoked pineapple sage margarita sounds pretty good to me, so I went with that varietal. You can also make substitutions: Swansons was out of mint, so I picked moroccan mint. They also carry a fabulous mojito mint (it smells and tastes incredible) and a chocolate mint plant, which is so cool. Have fun with it! This is a chance to experiment and see what you like.
In addition to my herbs, I picked up some edible flowers partly for their color, and partly for a garnish. A salad is way more fun when there’s flowers in it (so is a punch bowl).
The final thing to keep in mind when picking out herbs is something you should always keep in mind when selecting plants: the amount of sunlight needed. In general, herbs need a lot of sunlight (and well-draining soil), so consider where you’ll be placing them. Design-wise, grab either one or three healthy containers of each herb. I chose one rosemary and three mint, for example—the odd numbers create a nice sense of balance.
Step 2: Fill Planter With Soil
Before I make any commitments, I like to first lay out my plants (in their containers) in the planter box. That means we need to start by filling the planter box with potting soil. I’m using a 1 ¼-cubic-foot bag of Cedar Grove Potting Soil, which you can pick up at Dunn Lumber. It’s important to have a soil that’s rich in nutrients, so opt for a potting soil like this over dirt. My planter box has holes drilled into the bottom for adequate drainage—make sure yours does, too. I used a little less than two bags of soil for my planter box, which is about a foot deep.
Step 3: Arrange Your Cocktail Herbs
We picked out herbs in groups of one and three, and it’s important to arrange them that way, too. Keeping the plants in their containers, arrange them in your planter box how you like. Put the taller ones in back, and make sure you look at the heights on the plant cards, too. I planted the mint in the front because it was the shortest, and after just a few weeks, it’s now taller than everything else. Reading is important!
The vibe I was going for was neat but not symmetrical—organized random, if you will. I think that’s what makes a garden look lush and pretty and wild. To achieve this look, I put most of the plants in clumps of threes, but arranged them in different patterns. Some are in a line, some are more triangular. Again, have fun with it!
One thing to note about annual and perennial herbs: the general rule is to divide them because they have different needs. I've had basil (an annual herb) in my garden, and honestly, my success rate with it is (sadly) extremely low. I don’t expect my basil to last, but I always like to try because it is my favorite. If something doesn’t seem to be succeeding in your garden, that may be why.
Once you have an arrangement you like, take them back out of the planter box and set them (in that same order) aside.
Step 4: Transfer Herbs and Tease Roots
Now that you have your potting soil in place and the arrangement just how you like it, it’s time to transfer the herbs. Pop ‘em out of their containers, and, moving from the back of the planter forward, dig a little hole and plant them. It’s important to tease the roots at this stage, which basically involves loosening and separating the ends of the roots before you put them into the soil. Teasing the roots allows them to grow and thrive better. As you arrange the plants, fill in any holes with more potting soil and pack it down well.
Step 5: Feed, Water, and Enjoy
Here’s the thing: the process of transferring plants can be somewhat traumatizing for them, so give your herbs a little extra care! Extra nutrients give them a reason to hang on, which is why I water mine with a liquid fertilizer I picked up at Swansons.
And, like most chores, watering is more fun when you have an adorable watering can that doubles as a decoration. Plus, it’s a good reminder for someone like me!
It’s been a few weeks since I planted my DIY cocktail herb garden, and everything is looking good (and alive!). I love that this space is totally mine, and that all of these delicious herbs are right there when I need them, plus it looks (and as I mentioned, smells) so lovely. I can’t wait to host cocktail parties at our new place, and I hope your herb garden is an excuse for you to host a little gathering of your own.