5 Unexpectedly Cool Things You Can Do With Your Garden Flowers

Grow these blooms in your garden to harvest homemade beauty products, cocktail bitters, and even cheese.

March 20, 2017
Lilacs are one of 5 unexpectedly useful flowers in the garden
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Cocktail bitters made from marigold flowers. Lilac flower face cream. Scented geranium sugar. A laurel bay wreath. These are some of the 47 straight-from-the-garden projects in Harvest: Unexpected Garden Projects, a gorgeous new book by edible-landscape designers Stefani Bittner and Alethea Harampolis, who run Homestead Design Collective in the San Francisco Bay area.

Authors Stefani Bittner and Alethea Harampolis and their new book, Harvest
Authors Alethea-Harampolis (left) and Stefani-Bittner (right). Photograph courtesy of David Fenton

“A garden can benefit and enrich your life in so many ways,” say the authors, who urge home gardeners to think beyond herbs and vegetables when planning their gardens. “Flowers can be used in the kitchen as well as throughout your home in beautiful arrangements.”

Here's a cool strategy for making florist-grade flower arrangements at home:

The following are some of the authors’ favorite uses for homegrown flowers.

All recipes are reprinted with permission from Harvest, by Stefani Bittner and Alethea Harampolis, copyright © 2017, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Use marigolds to make homemade bitters

You might already know that marigolds protect your melons and attract beneficial insects. But did you know you could eat them? Marigold petals can be sprinkled on salads, or transformed into a potent Marigold Bitters—just one fabulous way to make cocktails from the garden. Gem marigolds are a perfect component because of their distinct bitter flavor and for the lovely amber hue that results. Here’s how to grow marigolds.

How to make marigold bitters.
Photograph courtesy of David Fenton

Marigold Bitters (Amaro)

Makes 1 quart

Amaro is an Italian herb-infused bitter liqueur, originally used as an after-dinner digestif, chilled or over ice. Recently, however, there’s been a bitters revival, with cocktail enthusiasts mixing the bittersweet digestif into beverages beyond just classic cocktails such as the Manhattan and the old fashioned. For amaro’s signature tartness, we’ve added some chinotto orange rind, the key ingredient in Campari, the popular Italian herbal aperitif. Use regular orange rinds if you can’t find chinotto. 

For the Amaro

Enough herbs and edible flowers to fill a 1-quart jar. Feel free to experiment, but for example your ingredient list might include: 

1 cup gem marigold flowers and leaves
1 to 3 sage leaves
2 to 6 anise hyssop flowers and leaves
1 sprig rosemary
1 to 6 lavender blooms
Small bunch of thyme (such as French, English, or lemon)
1 to 6 calendula flowers
1 to 6 bee balm flowers and leaves
Small handful of rose petals
1 to 8 viola petals 

5 to 10 alpine strawberries or other berries
Rind of 2 chinotto oranges
2 (750-ml) bottles Hangar One Vodka or a similar good-quality, unflavored vodka 

For the Simple Syrup

1 cup water
1 cup organic sugar 

1. Make the Amaro. Gently rinse the herbs and flowers, leaving the blooms intact to capture the bitter attributes of their centers. Add them all, along with the berries and citrus rind, to a 1-quart jar. Fill the jar with vodka to just below the rim (you might not need it all) and seal with a tight-fitting lid. Store it in a cool, dark place. 

2. Check the amaro daily or every couple of days, and give it a good shake to ensure that there are no floating leaves or flowers. After 4 weeks, taste the amaro. If you prefer it stronger, allow it to infuse for another week or so. Once you’ve achieved the flavor you like, strain out the herbs, edible flowers, berries, and rind. 

3. Make the simple syrup. Combine the sugar and water in a nonreactive pan. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer, stirring to prevent sticking. Once the sugar has dissolved (about 5 minutes), remove the mixture from the heat and let it cool slightly. 

4. Add 1 cup of the simple syrup to the strained amaro liquid and let infuse for an additional 2 weeks, then taste. If you find the amaro more bitter than you’d like, add more simple syrup but remember the sweetener is meant to take the edge off of the bitter taste rather than mask it. Once the bitters are to your liking, store indefinitely. 

Use roses to make homemade skin toner

Rosewater is the scent for a fragrance minimalist. This rosewater skin toner is super versatile. Not only does it contain all of the medicinal benefits of roses, the water also takes on the wonderful scent of the flower as well. It tones and softens the skin in one step, and can also be used it for a quick pick-me-up. It tastes great in baked goods and cocktails, too. Making this toner can be a fun project to do with kids. Here’s how to grow roses that are the envy of your neighborhood.


A recipe for homemade rosewater skin toner
Photograph courtesy of David Fenton

Rosewater Skin Toner

Makes 3 ounces

In addition to being an anti-inflammatory and its calming scent, rosewater is a natural cooling astringent with skin-soothing properties. This combination makes this rosewater facial toner a wonderful addition to your skin-care routine. Use daily by moistening a cotton pad or ball with a few drops of the rosewater and applying to your face. 

15 to 30 roses 
3 cups distilled water 
About 12 ice cubes 

1. Dip the roses in cold tap water to clean them, and remove the petals. Place a medium heatproof bowl upside down in the bottom of a large pot. Scatter the rose petals around the inverted bowl. Pour the distilled water over the petals, then place a second heatproof bowl on top of the first, right side up. Cover the pot with the lid placed upside down so that the handle of the lid is inside the pot. 

2. Bring the water to a gentle simmer on the stove. When you see condensation on the underside of the lid, place a few ice cubes directly on top of the lid or on a dish towel on top of the lid; this helps attract the rose essence–filled condensation to the center of the lid, so that it can drip into the bowl. Continue simmering the petals until all the water has been collected in the top bowl, which can take about 45 minutes. (Be careful not to boil longer than this; the delicate essence can overcook or you can scorch the pan if the water boils out.) 

3. Remove the top bowl from the pot. Carefully pour the hot rosewater from the bowl through a funnel into a sealable bottle or small jar. Be careful not to spill any of the precious essence. Your rosewater is ready to use! It will keep for up to 3 months. 

4. Strain the remaining petals from the water and collect any water left in the pan. The simmered water is darker in color than the essence, but it still smells wonderfully rosy. Add it to your rosewater or keep it separate and use it to flavor drinks or baked goods. 

Peppermint Candy Flower, a wildflower native to California, can be added to salads and goat cheese
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Peppermint Candy Flower

Peppermint candy flower are the blossoms of Claytonia sibirica, a succulent, cold-hardy wildflower native to California, but can grow in much of the US.  Also known as pink purslane, it has gorgeous edible foliage and adorable candy-striped flowers that add a pop of color to salads and an edible flower fresh cheese. You can use any other edible flower in this recipe: the flowers on common herbs such as chives, dill, fennel, and vegetables like arugula, are all edible and work well here. Here are 9 more flowers you didn’t know you could eat.


Use peppermint candy flower or other edible flowers to make an edible decoration for goat cheese
Photograph courtesy of David Fenton

Peppermint Candy Flower Pressed Cheese  

Makes 1 4-ounce round of cheese

Flower-pressed cheeses make great host gifts and party appetizers. They are simple to assemble in just a few minutes.

5 to 7 peppermint candy flower stems (or other edible flower), each with multiple flower heads 
4-ounce round of fresh goat or other mild soft cheese, such as sheep 
Crackers, or a baguette, and fresh fruit for serving 

Rinse the flowers in a bowl filled with cold water by gently dipping the flowers to remove any debris. Lift out and place on a clean, dry towel. Remove individual flower heads from the stems and gently press into the cheese round in any pattern you choose. You can also use the mild-tasting leaves and stems to create patterns with the flowers. Serve immediately with crackers, or a sliced baguette, and fruit, or wrap the cheese with wax paper and store for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.

Lilacs are one of 5 unexpectedly useful flowers in the garden
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With its sweet, distinct scent, lilac is the fragrance of spring. But did you know that it’s also edible? The ancient French technique called enfleurage is a simple method that captures the fragrance of spring in a jar. The cream can be used directly on your skin or to flavor sweet dishes. It is best to use blooms straight from the shrub, picking them in the morning when they are most fragrant.


Use lilacs to make homemade skin creams
Photograph courtesy of David Fenton

Lilac Flower Cream

Makes two 16-ounce jars

The Lilac Flower Cream can also be made with other edible flowers or herbs—experiment with whatever you like. 

32 ounces extra-virgin coconut oil 
10 cups lilac blooms picked from the heads in 2 cup increments as needed

1. Pick 2 cups of lilac blooms. Place the coconut oil in a small saucepan and melt over low heat until it is completely liquefied. Pour the liquid into a 10 by 10-inch (25 by 25-cm) casserole dish and allow it to harden. After the oil has hardened, score it with a butter knife. This will help the scent of the flowers penetrate it more deeply. Layer the tiny lilac blooms onto the oil, covering it with 2 inches (5 cm) of blooms. Place a second 10 by 10-inch (25 by 25-cm) casserole dish upside down atop of the first one. Use electrical tape to seal the two dish edges tightly, and place the dishes in a dark area. 

2. After 48 hours, remove the tape seal and discard the spent blooms. Pick another 2 cups of lilacs, add another 2 inches (5 cm) of flower blooms to the oil, and seal again for another 48 hours. Repeat this process three more times, for a total of five cycles with fresh blooms each time. 

3. Scrape up the oil from the casserole dish, place it into two 16-ounce jars, and seal the lids. Store in a cool, dark place; the flower cream will keep for up to 3 years. 


Artichokes aren't just edible, they make stunning bouquets
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Artichokes are a favorite edible garden crop (here’s how to grow artichokes at home), but few know that their layers of prickly leaves can also be used to create a beautiful focal point in a mixed garden bouquet. Bring inside in a few cuttings from the garden to make a stylish and simple composition. 

Artichokes aren't just an edible crop, they also make amazing decorations
Photograph courtesy of David Fenton

Artichoke Arrangement

This artichoke arrangement is made with minimal materials, but makes a big statement. If you've missed an artichoke in your prolific harvest, use one that's about to go to flower as an attention-grabber. 

2 large artichoke heads, stems and leaves attached 
1 or 2 stems with several small artichokes attached 
5 to 8 stems wild carrot flowers (Daucus carota), 12 to 18 inches (30 to 46 cm) long 
2 nasturtium vines with flowers, each 12 to 18 inches (30 to 46 cm) long 

1. Fill a large crock or vase with clean, cold water. Remove any damaged leaves from the stems or leaves that would fall below the water line. Add the large artichoke heads in the front of the crock, with one head resting slightly higher than the other. This creates a focal point and showcases the gorgeous multilayered leaves. 

2. Add in the smaller artichoke stems to the back and left sides of the crock. These heads should sit taller than the larger heads. They add height to the arrangement and create an asymmetrical look. Add in some of the wild carrot stems to fill in the space between the larger and smaller artichokes. These stems should be slightly taller than the small artichoke stems. Place the remaining carrot stems on the back right side of the crock to complement the wild carrot on the left and provide an airy backdrop to the arrangement. 

3. Add the longest nasturtium vine to the front side of the crock, to the left of the large artichokes, so that it drapes over the side of the crock. This creates movement and softens the edge of the vessel. Use the other nasturtium vine to fill any gaps. Make sure that the flower heads are turned to be visible from the front of the arrangement.