Independence Day! The 4th of July means many things to many people, but, here in Bakersfield, one tradition is BBQ!

Complete with watermelon, home grown tomatoes, and corn on the cob, it’s time to party outside! It’s not a coincidence that National Hot Dog Day, National French Fries Day, National Fried Chicken Day, and National Ice Cream Day are also celebrated in July. It’s hot! It’s too warm to concentrate on housework. Best to cook and eat outdoors as often as possible and keep the house neat and cool. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as well as Benjamin Franklin enjoyed summer gardens and outdoor entertaining. Life was quieter in those days unlike today’s urban settings.

Don’t let street noise or the neighbor’s racket disturb your backyard peace. “Soundscaping” can create quieter living spaces in our city yards by using trees and shrubs to mute loud commotions. Evergreens are terrific sound barriers; densely branched and attractive year ‘round. According to “soundscaping” experts, the first line of defense is buffering. A screen of vegetation improves air quality. Foliage, branches, and trunks do a pretty good job of dispersing sound energy, especially in the high frequency ranges. Foliage reflects sound in different directions, so the sound is diminished. Sounds aren’t as loud. Think less “Marco Polo” from the pool next door. Which evergreens do well in Bakersfield? A handy little booklet is available at the Farm and Home Advisor office, located at 1031 S. Mount Vernon Ave. All sorts of conifers (think pine, spruce, and cedar) and broad-leaved evergreens (think holly oak, bottle tree, Carolina laurel-cherry, citrus, and camphor) are great choices. While your greenery is growing, another sound disperser is a gushing, burbling water fountain.

As a horticulturist, Mrs. P loves growing the herb oregano, and you should, too. However, if you’re growing a plant you call marjoram, you’ve got oregano. Bet you didn’t know that. The name “oregano” actually refers to a flavor, created by the essential oil carvacrol, rather than to one particular plant. Oregano and marjoram are common names given to over 36 species of these small perennial shrubs in the genus Origanum. Do not plant anything that has a label Origanum vulgare on it. The word “vulgare” is the takeaway here and means “common,” something mother always warned us against being thought of, right? O. vulgare has very little of that magical oregano flavor. The common oregano has pink blossoms and becomes a creepy invasive weed in the blink of an eye. Look for the white-flowered Greek oregano; if it’s full-bodied, culinary flavor you want. When you’re herb shopping, take a nibble. The plant that bites you back is the one you want.

Or, if sweet and subtle is your pleasure, try sweet marjoram, labeled Origanum majorana, valued for its milder, warmer taste. With its low, compact form and drooping blooms, oregano is perfect for planting in pots. Try these herbs in raised beds or window boxes, where you can appreciate their arching sprays of blooms. Plant oregano in sunny, well-drained average soil. The Greeks used this herb in poultry, fish, egg dishes, vegetable dishes, and sauces. They put it into salads and soups. Other countries’ cuisines include oregano in pasta, rice dishes, pizzas, moussaka, avocado dip, tomato dishes, meatloaf, and with zucchini.

Which reminds me to ask, is your veggie garden erupting with zucchini? No problem, if you act quickly before the monsters form. Pick female blossoms, which have a teeny, tiny baby squash attached. If you want to keep those zukes coming, pick the males, which end in a stem. Use these blossoms to make heavenly cheese-stuffed appetizers. Here’s an easy recipe I use:

Another nice addition to your outdoor barbeque entertaining are bouquets of flowers, herbs, and sweet scented geraniums. Containers of showy flowers double as useful table centerpieces. Old fashioned cockscomb or celosia argentea flowers come in brilliant colors of red, yellow, gold, pink, and orange. Also called brain celosia or wool flowers, they somewhat resemble the combs on the tops of rooster heads. Originating in India and Burma, sun and heat loving cockscombs were well known by our grandmothers (and great grandmothers). Children giggle at their grotesque flower heads. Butterflies are attracted to these flowers. While also beautiful in a bouquet, another way to keep your cut cockscomb flowers around for a long time is to dry them, and boy do they dry marvelously! Dried cockscomb flowers were enormously popular in the padded shoulder 80s and featured in highly expensive floral arrangements. Actually, it’s not difficult to dry your own cockscomb flowers. Begin by gathering your cuttings when the flowers are in full bloom. Cut the flowers close to the bottom of the stem and remove all of the leaves. Separate the flowers into groups of five to eight to band together. The next step is to hang the flowers upside down in an area that is dark, dry, and warm. The warmth will allow the flowers to dry quickly which will help them to keep as much of the color as possible. Put rubber bands around the stems and attach to wire coat hangers with string. Hang on a folding drying rack. Place an old sheet under the hanging flowers to catch the seeds, which you can use next year. Once dried, the flowers can be used in floral arrangements, potpourri mixes, and a variety of craft projects.

Two mosquitoes were buzzing around when they saw a drunken man. One said to the other, “You bite him, I’m driving.”

Keep pots of scented geraniums around your outdoor dining areas. The citrus scented varieties dampen the spirits of pesky insects including mosquitoes. As an aside, I’ve found that Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville has an astounding 38 varieties of scented geraniums in the event you want to experiment. Currently, I’m growing ‘Orange Fizz,’ ‘Lemon Meringue,’ and ‘Lemon Kiss.’ Scented geraniums are cave-man easy to grow although their dainty flowers aren’t especially showy. Take a leaf and rub it on your wrists for an instant refreshing scent.

Uninvited guests at summer barbeques aren’t fun. Mrs. P has another remedy that has worked for years. All one needs to do is grow basil, and how easy is that? Basil makes a good repellant spray. Simply take a packed cup of fresh basil leaves and pour 1/2 cup boiling water over the leaves. Let steep for 10 minutes and add 1/2 cup vodka. Steep another 10 minutes and mix thoroughly. Strain into a clean spray bottle. Spray around your outdoor area to keep mosquitos at bay. An English friend of mine swears that this spray will additionally help stop whitefly around veggie gardens, only he uses gin.

Photos by (burger)/stockakia (mosquitos)/ only_fabrizio (appetizer)/ Andrjuss Soldatovs (squash)

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