Outside my kitchen window sways an Italian lemon tree I use for exactly three things: candied peel for apple brandy mincemeat; limoncello; and twists of prosciutto-thin peel that flood Martinis with perfect pools of swirling, limpid oils.
When we bought a century-old Craftsman house to restore, my husband reckoned there was room for a pool. I wanted food-bearing trees, bushes, and vines in every possible spot. We compromised. Instead of a pool, there’s a cedar-staved hot tub. That permaculture food forest got the axe, too. In its place, I built a garden driven by a single, overarching maxim: If I can’t eat it or drink it, I don’t grow it.
Throughout the old oak-floored house, we keep rums, whiskeys, and other essential wet goods. Mixers are in the garden.
Visitors here might have a hard time pegging the month. It’s easy to mash too many together into a vague, never-ending spring. But we know. In Southern California, the surest tell for the swing of seasons isn’t any calendar—it’s our produce. As a San Diegan, I’ve leaned into that when cocktail hour rolls around. Throughout the old oak-floored house, we keep rums, whiskeys, and other essential wet goods. Mixers are in the garden.
Our low winter sun brings blood oranges and lemons. Occasionally, tiny citrus mites send some lemon into a rampage of unchecked, tentacled growth. Those Cthulhu-head lemons may look like horrors in yellow, but tossed with sugar as oleo-saccharum for Christmas morning French 75s, they assure that by lunchtime, the fireplace ain’t the only thing lit. Come summer evenings, it’s juleps in frost-rimed silver cups with fresh mint by the fistful. When those have been downed, a quick snit of rye, bourbon, or Armagnac dashed over the remaining ice is enough to eke out one more half-sized, but still respectable, julep from each.
I haven’t always grown melons and such. In graduate school, there was no time, then space was scarce when I lived in South Philly. Now, rosemary, lemongrass, basil, sage, cilantro, ginger, and other herbs thrive just out the back door. They are as likely to show up in lunch or dinner as they are in a tiki mug or vintage coupe. Double-lobed makrut lime leaves might get crumpled into a shaker for Daiquiris or go into a pot of tom kha kai. Those woody herbs, especially with fresh olive oil and swaths of plump citrus peel, are excellent—with a side of Spanish vermouth—for ginning up aperitif olives.
We’ve grown figs, finger-length Mysore bananas, strawberries, and pequin chilies that could strip the enamel from your teeth. Into the blender with them all.
We’ve grown figs, finger-length Mysore bananas, strawberries, and pequin chilies that could strip the enamel from your teeth. Into the blender with them all. Calamansi, a sour citrus hybrid popularized here by Filipino Californians, grows in such profusion that friends who ask for a few may get a full bag. Its juice, fermented into a thin hot sauce with the pequins and salt, is outstanding scattered over grilled fish and a breakfast of garlic rice and pork belly, or dashed into a pitcher of Margaritas to share with neighbors.
After decades of living in rented spaces, most with no access to living soil, I have a garden that grows a little better every year. Within its frame of bottlebrush and bay, hummingbirds race like miniature buzz saws, ravens bully off invasive parrots, and furtive nighttime varmints rake vegetable beds for feasts of grubs and tomatoes. This quiet, green cloister is a refuge where I retreat from news, curse the squirrels, and work the land. Well—our little plot of it, anyway.
My husband still wants the pool. I still want the forest. Over drinks, as the sun dips beyond the ocean in a surreal mantle of tangerine-streaked azure, we toast not what might have been, but what we’ve built. Any minute now, I’ll have to head back inside for more whiskey. But not just yet.