Seasons Magazines

Seasons Magazines

Backyard Banquet Bliss

Want to spend more time communing with nature? Your grilling area is a great place to start. 

By Tovah Martin


Backyarding is newly on everyone’s agenda. One thing the pandemic taught us is to harness every square foot of our space both indoors and outside. And who can blame homeowners for taking the opportunity to create outdoor grilling/dining areas? When you have the land at hand, you might as well do meals al fresco. After all, getting outside feels great. Gather the family together for delicious eats, but also seize the moment to make a scene.

Indoor areas are carefully configured. Everybody from architects to interior designers has devoted a whole lot of head time to pondering exactly how every room inside our homes should be made more efficient. Although outdoor areas might not have such a long design tradition, they also have issues that need to be addressed. Efficiently designing a comprehensive outdoor kitchen/eating area with all the bells and whistles should involve a professional, uniquely trained to tackle the details and do it safely. But how about the horticultural element of the venue? It stands to reason that plants are intrinsic to an outdoor space, right? In fact, they can play a whole lot of key roles from privacy screening to accent planters, and even supplying some of the ingredients to make your outdoor meals a raving fresh success.


Privacy plants

Dining Area 101 should begin with defining the space. Start by creating a privacy screen. Who wants to relax in front of the whole neighborhood? Sure, tucking your outdoor picnic area discretely behind the shelter of your house is an option. But, even then, you might want to set off the space with hedges. The good news is that you can find plants that perform several functions. For example, a whole new generation of compact blueberries has recently been introduced specifically for this sort of job. Blueberries are native shrubs, so they are also serving the function of positively benefiting pollinators that could potentially reside on your land. And the beauty of blueberries is that they put on a long performance. In spring, blueberry buds are among the first spring flowers to swell. Then, their early season foliage blushes a beautiful glossy color studded by those prolific white flowers. Eventually, you’ll feast in berries followed by the visual beauty of raging orange autumn foliage. Talk about bang for your buck. For a new introduction that provides dense twig-work, try the ‘Top Hat’ lowbush x highbush hybrid.

Want an evergreen screen? Craft a hedge using the evergreen member of the holly tribe, Ilex crenata. Forming a dense mass and easily sculpted into shape, Ilex crenata is pretty much a boxwood lookalike, without the health/insect issues. Or, if you are not pestered by deer and want to create a solid, year-around, evergreen hedge, go with an arborvitae; just pick a shape from mounded to spires and space the shrubs snuggly side-by-side. Again, remember that arborvitae is like candy for deer. Chamaecyparises are an alternative evergreen. Chamaecyparises are not usually first on a deer’s menu agenda, but they can be nibbled by those browsers when other options are scarce in midwinter. Apply a deterrent to be on the safe side.

Got lots of space to invest in a bulky hedge? Go for a hydrangea. In Connecticut, your best bet is Hydrangea paniculata for reliable blooms every year. Not only has the color range expanded beyond creamy white to include blush pink versions like ‘Fire Light’ and ‘Little Quick Fire,’ but the size range isn’t as mammoth as it was in the past. For example, ‘Bobo’ stands only 3-feet tall while ‘Little Lime’ and ‘Little Quick Fire’ can remain a demure 3-5 feet compared to the bulkier 6-8-foot versions that were our only options in the past.

Another popular method of screening off onlookers is to put up a fence around your outdoor dining room. No matter what fence type you choose, a vine could soften the scene while taking advantage of the support to become upwardly mobile. Some vines tend to be too aggressive for a small, enclosed space. You definitely want to steer away from wisteria, Dutchman’s pipe and trumpet vine, for example. Native honeysuckles (Lonicera) are fast-growing and handsome, but they will eventually need to be pruned to curb their enthusiasm. A clematis might be a better choice for a perennial performer that returns year after year, minding its manners while simultaneously delivering a swank floral display.

An annual vine can also give you a surprisingly rapid cover-up. Scarlet runner beans hastily create a dense cover-up for a fence while producing quantities of bright red flowers. Or try Spanish flag (Ipomoea lobata) with late season wands of yellow and red tubular flowers that hummingbirds adore. For most of the summer, Spanish flag will just be a lacy filigree of foliage, but those prolific late summer flowers are worth the wait. For earlier gratification in summer, black-eyed Susan vines (Thunbergia alata) stretch their performance throughout the warm season months with quantities of open-faced blossoms studded by a dark eye at the center of each flower. Originally, their blooms opened a cheesy color of yellow that was hard on the eyes. Now, black-eyed Susan vines are available in much easier-to-match pink, red, copper and white—all contrasted by that central dark pollen guide. Plus, the foliage is invariably tidy with no grooming necessary.

Plants can provide other functions for your outdoor dining area. Want to soften the area underfoot? How about planting creeping thyme between your flagstones to eliminate the weeding and fill the area with aroma. Try one of the Thymus praecox hybrids for best hardiness and reliable creeping coverage. In addition, there are other “steppable” plants that form a flat mat to tolerate foot traffic such as Mazus reptans and strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera).

Speaking of spending evening hours outdoors, would a natural mosquito deterrent be apropos? Lemon-scented herbs might help. Granted, you need to rustle or brush against an herb’s foliage continually to release the essential oils into the air, but if you place your herbs close by, continual interaction might not be difficult. The most intensely aromatic lemon-scented herb is lemon verbena with woody branches and long, slender leaves that pack an aromatic wallop. Note that lemon verbena is not winter hardy in Connecticut. So, you will need to store your lemon verbena while it goes dormant or purchase a new version annually. Similarly, lemon-scented geraniums can make great potted plants to enjoy annually. Several spins on citrus are available in the geranium clan. Another citrusy herb, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), is steadfastly hardy in Zone 5 and can be planted in beds. Beware, however, that this member of the mint family can spread by underground runners and become too much of a good thing when it’s happy.


Adding to the feast

While your mouth is watering for dinner on the grill, you might want to add some containers of quick pick edible plants to add to your dining pleasure. Hands down, there’s nothing like your own freshly harvested homegrown tomato to add a savory element to an outdoor meal. Take your pick as there are plenty of tomatoes selected specifically for container growing purposes. Check labels when you go to the garden center. To get the most from each pot, consider going with a cherry or grape tomato. Not only are they prolific and produce a pop-in-your-mouth crop, but they tend to look tidier in a container. Other tomatoes also look great from top to bottom (including the “fruit”). Keeping in mind that standard tomatoes can be rangy rather than pretty, check labels to find pocket-size packages suitable for growing in a container.

But tomatoes are just the beginning. It’s amazing what breeders have done to select veggies specifically created to be grown in pots. Renee’s Garden Seeds specializes in vegetables selected to remain compact but also productive while shining in containers. Their container veg line goes the gamut with container greens focused on pot growing including ‘Sweet Baby’ Romaine and ‘Garden Babies’ Butterhead lettuce. Any spinach, arugula and most pac choi will be sufficiently compact to dwell comfortably in containers. Beyond greens, Renee’s Garden Seeds goes into the main course to provide container-worthy ‘Astia’ French bush zucchini, ‘Little Prince’ eggplant, ‘Bush Slicer’ cucumber, ‘Little Crunch’ snap pea, ‘French Mascotte’ bush beans and ‘Pizza My Heart’ container peppers. Keep in mind that all these veggies will grow best when given bright sun and planted with spacing according to the seed packet or label instructions. Give each plant plenty of shoulder room. Although a plant-packed container might look great at first, the green ingredients will be elbowing each other at maturity—which rarely translates into high yields.

Deep containers are key. Not only does a deep container keep your veggies productive, but providing plenty of root room is a way to keep water needs to a minimum. If a container is too shallow, you’ll need to serve up drinks steadily. And don’t scrimp on the nutritious organic soil to make sure you’re giving the veggie roots the nourishment they need to push out the edibles. Then, display your backyard buffet-in-a-pot proudly. However, always supervise the harvest. In some cases, not all parts of vegetable plants are edible. Check out data on the plants you want to grow. When toddlers and pets are part of the picture, make sure toxic plant parts are out of reach.

Another good idea for your backyard banquet is to grow herb plants nearby. Herbs are often sprinkled into a dish right before serving, and who wants to wander far when dinner is almost ready? The good news is that many herbs love to live in pots. In fact, you can group them together and create a mixed bounty. Start with the herbs you use often, like basil. All basils perform well in pots, so feel free to select your favorite flavor. For the best basil performance, remove the flowers to promote branching.

Basil is just the beginning. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are all great in containers but can also dwell beautifully in beds close by your grilling station. Again, be careful to check and double check the identity of an herb before harvesting. Herbs also perform best in deep containers, but keep fertilizer to a minimum—the essential oils in herbs will be more tasty when they’re grown lean. In addition to containers, all the herbs mentioned also make great groundcovers to fill in beds and minimize weeding chores, especially if you opt for a prostrate rosemary.

It gets even yummier. You can grow some favorite fruits in containers close to your outdoor kitchen. Strawberries are an obvious option. To keep nibbling chipmunks and the like from stealing the delicious goods, the best way to go might be a hanging basket filled with strawberries. Although you probably won’t be able to pump out enough harvest to feed the whole family with a summer full of strawberry shortcakes, you can certainly furnish enough fruit for some snacking finger food. Speaking of snacks, try alpine strawberries for pop-in-your-mouth goodness. They are much smaller than the beefier hybrids but produce a healthy harvest over the entire summer.

We mentioned blueberries for their hedging ability but many dwarf varieties are coming onto the market as container bushes. Bushel & Berry’s ‘Peach Sorbet’ is a good example. It is hardy to Zone 6, which makes it an option for some (but not all) of Connecticut whereas Bushel & Berry’s ‘Pink Icing’ container blueberry is hardy to Zone 5, making it apropos for the whole state. Also revolutionary is Bushel & Berry’s thornless ‘Raspberry Shortcake,’ reputed to produce raspberries in a container.

Although patio peaches such as ‘Bonfire’ are mostly about beautiful foliage rather than an edible crop of fruit, ‘Bonanza’ is advertised as an exception. Yield might be modest, but it sounds like fun. Consider channeling Versailles and growing citrus fruits in containers to lounge around the grill in summer and then be safely housed in a sunny window indoors through winter. Go right ahead and splurge. After all, with your new outdoor dining area and all its bounty, you’ll feel like a king.

Tovah Martin is an author, lecturer and garden/lifestyle writer who tends seven acres that she calls Furthermore in Connecticut. Her latest book is the award-winning “The Garden in Every Sense and Season” (Timber Press, 2018).