Chicories are delicious AND decorative!
Nothing makes guests feel more welcome than homegrown ingredients and touches, be they edible or decorative. Obvious marijuana jokes aside, there are lots of great plants to cultivate in your garden if you love to throw parties. I've chosen a handful of favorites, all of which are relatively easy to grow, lovely to look at, and practical for entertaining.
• Mint is a bit of a no-brainer. It's perfect for cocktails, garnishes, or even in floral bouquets, and it grows like crazy, even if you basically ignore it. In fact, it has a tendency to spread and conquer even the most carefully tended of garden beds, so best to grow it in a pot (even better for those of us with limited outdoor space). Certain mints (like peppermint) are hardy even in colder climates, and the plants will need lots of harvesting to keep them in check (more juleps for you!). Grow mint in sun or part shade.
• Chicories like radicchio are an acquired taste—I find them delicious, but their bitterness turns some people off—still, there's no denying that they make fantastic garnishes. Radicchio's dramatic red and white coloring looks amazing as the border on a platter of simple canapes or even as the bowl for a few olives or nuts. Radicchio is a cool-weather crop; if you plant in the late summer, you'll be able to harvest it for holiday parties. Certain varieties are intended for harvest in the warmer seasons, too... just ask for tips at the nursery where you buy your seeds.
• Lemon and lime trees bring lovely fragrance to the garden, and they'll stock your bar all season long (with lots more to dole out as gifts or to use in centerpieces). If you live in a mild climate, you can grow them outdoors, and even if you don't, there are dwarf varieties perfect for containers, which can be brought inside during the winter. Just make sure the tree gets a good amount of light and fertilize once a month to keep the plant healthy.
• Dahlias are excellent plants for cutting; they have long stems that can easily be used in arrangements, and they're prolific bloomers that continue into the fall. The colorful, showy blossoms make a dramatic statement for a centerpiece or to decorate a buffet. They're tubers, so in milder climates they'll come back year after year, but in colder spots you'll likely need to plant them again each spring (easy and fun!).
• I really love certain euphorbias (the type with the unfortunate common name of Mediterranean Spurge) for cutting as well. Their bright green flower heads are sculptural and modern; they make a beautiful statement in a vase just on their own. You've got to be careful when handling them... use gloves, because they exude a toxic sap. An opaque vase (rather than glass) is also preferable for this reason.
• Succulent cuttings make fantastic party favors. Echeveria ('hens and chicks') come in endless colors and gorgeous forms, and they produce little babies you can just pluck from the garden and plant in tiny pots to send home with your guests. Alternately (to save a little cash) you can use wire and floral tape to turn the succulents into "cut flowers" (check out our tutorial here) and just use a bit of ribbon to turn them into pretty gift bouquets.
(Images: Vogue; Harvest Wizard; Edible Landscaping; Susie Nadler; Studio G; Martha Stewart Weddings)