Outdoor Dining – Keeping Unwanted Guests at Bay

By Paige Brown | The intoxicating aroma of meat cooking on the grill, the sound of glasses clinking, spontaneous laughter, and the twinkling light from the nightly ‘lighting bug’ show fills the air. Spread before me, on a green and white checked tablecloth, are bowls of potato salad, boiled shrimp, and my favorite watermelon salad. Surrounded by good friends and good food in this beautiful place; outdoor dining doesn’t get any better.

In the Cape Fear region, we are fortunate to have a climate that is conducive to outdoor dining and entertaining for much of the year. During the summer months, however, our culinary feasts, as well as our family and friends, can become a buffet for unwanted guests.

When a mosquito bites someone, it leaves an itchy rash on the skin and can potentially transmit diseases such as Dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever, West Nile virus, and Zika virus. Species of disease carrying mosquitos typically lay their eggs in stagnant water. Sitting in this stagnant pool, the eggs hatch into larva and then pupae, finally emerging from the water as adult mosquitoes. Not much water is needed. Mosquitoes can lay eggs in bird baths, plant saucers, mud puddles, and discarded buckets or other small containers. One of the best ways to reduce their populations is to make sure there is no standing water on your property.

As a second line of defense, consider growing herbs in your outdoor dining and entertaining area. The powerful essential oils found in the plants repel many insects, mosquitoes included. Herbs are attractive, easy to grow, and they provide wonderful fresh flavors for your summer meals.

Basil

Basil thrives in hot, sunny conditions and likes fertile soil and consistent moisture. You can choose from a variety of cultivars whose differences include plant habit, color, aroma, and foliage size. For high color contrast, try ‘Purple Ruffles’ or ‘Dark Opal’. ‘Bush Basil’ is a compact plant that grows well in containers.

Basil’s pungent scent and strong flavor make Italian dishes come alive, complement the flavors of tomatoes, watermelon, and strawberries, and add a spicy touch to cocktails.

Lemongrass

Lemongrass is a lush tropical plant that grows in dense clumps reaching up to six feet. Because of its tropical nature, plan on treating it as an annual or overwintering the plant in a garage or greenhouse. Lemongrass prefers full sun and consistent moisture. When planting in containers, choose a large pot – one that holds at least five gallons of soil – and never allow the soil to dry completely.

This pungent herb lends a light lemony flavor to any dish or beverage. The leaves are simmered to infuse the flavor for soups and drinks. The tender inner stalk at the base of the plant is a common ingredient in Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines.

Mint

Mint is a lush, low-growing perennial that thrives just about anywhere, except really wet areas. It is known to repel ants as well as mosquitos. Gardeners beware – Mint is a rapid spreader and will take over other areas of your garden. The best way to keep mint from becoming invasive is to grow it in pots. Cut often, as mint can become woody. It grows best in full sun or light shade, and moist, well-drained soil.

Mint adds a fresh, zesty touch to salads and side dishes and is found in many international cuisines. And a mint julep would not be complete without it.

Rosemary

Native to the Mediterranean, rosemary is a small evergreen shrub – 3 feet tall and wide, a perfect choice for low-growing borders, accent shrubs or container specimens. The highly ornamental dense gray-green foliage of rosemary lends itself to sculptural topiaries and bonsai forms. Grow rosemary in well-drained, sandy soil with a neutral or slightly alkaline soil.

The aromatic lemon-pine flavor of rosemary complements many cooked foods. Use whole springs to stuff chicken or fish, chopped leaves for roasted vegetables, and infused olive oil for a variety of dishes.

Rosemary’s benefits go beyond insect repellent and culinary uses. Utilized in a bath soak or infused in body lotions, rosemary stimulates circulation and can help reduce inflammation associated with sore muscles or arthritis.

PAIGE’S TANGY WATERMELON SALAD

14 cups seedless watermelon (cubed or balled)
1 med. red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 cup chopped green onion or chives
3/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
5 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon finely chopped sweet red or yellow pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoons ground mustard
1/4 teaspoons pepper
3/4 cups safflower oil

In a large bowl, combine the watermelon and onions. In a small bowl, combine orange juice, vinegar, honey, red pepper and seasonings; slowly whisk in the oil.

Pour over watermelon mixture; toss gently to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Serve with slotted spoon.

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