Good design is more than following rules. At its best, design is about connecting the right dots. Choosing plants for a space is a key design decision for any garden, but it can be hard because there's so darn many plants out there. In the case of designing what to plant, I think it helps to connect the purpose of the place to the people using it. Here's an example inspired by my colleague Katie's new house.
Back patio at a Victorian-era home and coach house in Oak Park, Illinois (USDA Hardiness Zone 5).
The space will be enjoyed by Katie and her husband, their active dog, and another couple who will co-own the property; and of course, friends. All of the plants I've suggested could go into beds, but will be easier for the humans to enjoy them up close if they're in containers. Also harder for a busy dog to trample and dig!
Katie loves to enjoy craft cocktails, and her friends like to challenge each other to try new recipes. I came up with this list by reviewing herbal and floral cocktail recipes on Pinterest, and considering what grows well in containers in Zone 5.
What to Plant
First, plant some classic flavor infusions that pop up in a wide range of recipes. All of these can be grown from seed, but buying 2-4" pots at the nursery or farmer's market is going to get you started faster.
- Rosemary in a small pot. Any culinary variety you can find will do!
- Mint in its own medium-sized pot to keep it from spreading too much. Spearmint (Mentha spicata) is the variety sold for culinary use, but it's often labeled as plain old "mint". Peppermint and scented mints can be useful for infusions if you like the way they smell, but you'll want to plant them in their own pots to keep their flavors from mingling. Apple-scented mint has a weaker flavor with broader, lusher leaves. Because of that, it's a good choice for garnish. I love using mine as foliage in a small bouquet because it lasts two or three weeks in the vase.
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) in its own small pot or spilling out from the side of a pot with upright or bushy sun-loving flowers.
Next, add some floral garnishes to enjoy all season. All of these flowers can be started from seed or purchased as plants, but you'll have the widest range of options when starting from seed.
- Violas to candy, scatter or suspend in ice cubes. Good for a partly shady spot on the patio.
- Snapdragons in a color you love, because they're edible, elegant, and fun to play with. You'll see tall varieties for cut flowers in most seed catalogs, and your local nursery is more likely to carry dwarf varieties as bedding plants. Check the tag and pick the mature plant size that works for your space and container. Don't be shy about cutting stems from the tall varieties to bring indoors. With enough sun, snapdragons will re-bloom beautifully until just after frost.
- Nasturtiums will provide gorgeous round leaves, bright flowers and peppery flavor for drinks or salads from late Spring to early Fall. You can choose from dwarf, tall, and even vining varieties in a range of colors. Whatever type you choose, they're fascinating to look at while you relax or entertain on a patio.
Blueberries came up a lot in my recipe search, which got me thinking: how about Vaccinium corymbosum 'Pink Icing®' Blueberry in large pots as a shrub? Katie can enjoy the foliage all year, and pop some fresh-picked blueberries into cocktails when they're in season.
Cheers and happy gardening, Katie!