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GARDEN MAIDEN: Enhance the flavor, production of your seasonal snacking

Feed, water, companion planting matter

Cool mornings and quickly tanned fields on the horizon remind me fall is here.

Edible landscaping, companion planting of ornamentals in between garden rows and naturalizing areas of the lawn has a much less defined end-of-season than simply planting a garden for eating. And an extended window of joy from simple culinary economics, too.

At a regional brew house, I paid more than $10 for a chunk of iceberg lettuce with wedged, almost red but nearly tasteless "garden" tomatoes. My mouth watered on a particularly hungered venture for a caprese salad of thick-cut heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil leaves and buffalo mozzarella, so I didn’t blink at the double digit price. Unfortunately, shredded bagged basil and puckered grape tomatoes just didn’t cut it.

Needless to say, the flavors and colors of dining out rarely top what a gardener can create self-sufficiently. Or what you can buy at a market stand for a fraction of the cost and prepare simply and deliciously at home.

Take Japanese shishito peppers, for example. Often used as a mild substitute for jalapeno peppers, a "blistered peppers" dish runs about $12 for an appetizer portion dipped in plain hummus at a New York restaurant. Healthwise, consumers gladly pay this preventive health cost knowing that just a half-cup serving packs nearly 170 percent of your daily vitamin C. However, at the market stand, they’re just a couple bucks a pint and the total prep time is approximately 15 minutes from garden to plate.

From a gardening standpoint, there are a few simple ways to enhance flavor and production of seasonal snacking like tasty tomatoes, sweet carrots and flavorful sweet peppers.

First, companion planting matters! For continuous blooms, get those pollinator magnets established nearby as early in the season as possible. Even if certain veggies don’t need help, permaculture research shows that self-pollinating plants with scentless blooms, such as peppers for example, produce more fruit when flanked with flowering herbs and blossoming groundcover from the start.

Being a continuous producer itself, basil is a great option for creating hedgerows in the garden where some leaves get picked for harvest while allowing the plant to mature and blossom out to keep the insects coming. Sweet alyssum is a favorite in my potato patch for drawing parasitic wasps and lacewings during the cool season. Once the flowers appear, clusters can be cut and eaten for the daring culinary artist seeking a slight honey flavor to garnish a salad or top a casserole dish of purple mashed potatoes.

If you’re looking for something that will draw beneficial insects early and look good late into the fall, it might be worth the effort of planting a carpet of annual lobelia. Typically used as an edging plant for perennial beds, the tiny clustered, nearly indigo lobelia in the garden centers each spring is an annual type, Lobelia erinus. This lush ground cover has a shallow root system and does best in full sun. While it might tolerate a bit of shade, the blooms will not be as dense in shady areas.

If choosing this as a filler, be mindful that the blooms may stop in the heat of the summer or during times of little watering, but typically rebound as cooler temperatures return and look amazing in the fall if fed during spring and early summer months. Native Great Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica, is a perennial type of lobelia in the bell flower family with upright growth and a central taproot. It does not serve as much of a groundcover and prefers moist pasture or river banks and a bit of shade to flourish.

Second, feed and water all season long, with special attention during heat waves. For some of us who grow veggies organically, water and nutrition are key to keeping up with the miracle growth of using ready-made bottled products. Finding the right combination of plant food means discovering mixed recipes of kelp, blood meal, bone meal and composted organic materials throughout the year.

Foliar applications of fish food or granular humus should be regular regimes as well. Especially in years where rain is uneven, give your plants at least one inch of water each week if you expect well behaved blooming and growth. Over fertilizing may stunt growth of certain plants, so follow the rule to fertilize heavy ahead of time to balance soil nutrition, feed again at bloom time and regularly until fruit sets. While fruit is ripening, plants count on earlier nutrition building to mature fruits.

Third, take time to develop the art of culinary deliciousness. Keep it simple! Explore flavors. Find a few mixes of herbs and spices that give your veggies distinct flavor you crave.

In my kitchen, lemon balm perks up veggies and coarse white pepper gives them zip. Fine sea salt, dried basil, fresh thyme and ground turmeric blend together for an earthy, Mediterranean flair. Paprika is about as spicy as our plates get, though I do reserve some dried turban garlic for adding heat to bland veggie overruns like zucchini and end-of-season cukes that don’t hold that creamy richness as production dwindles.

Preparing fresh food is key to optimizing nutritional value of the veggies and herbs you grow. High heat, short cooking time and preparing as soon after picking as possible are three ways to capture the goodness of your gardens into your body.

Blistered Shishitos

Pick whole peppers and soak for five minutes in a half cup of apple cider vinegar in a tub of cool water. Pat dry and using a sharp knife, give each a half-inch gash for air release during frying.

Heat a quarter inch of olive or grapeseed oil in a skillet on medium heat and toss in shishitos. After one minute, toss for even frying. Remove from heat when outside of peppers begin to pucker, keeping them crunchy on the inside. If “blistered” areas begin to char, pepper flesh will get soggy, so be prompt while frying these up.

Serve with freshly blended cooked chick peas and roasted garlic spread garnished with a pom of sweet alyssum.

Shishito peppers are currently available from Bill and Pam Kunke, of Creekside Natural Farms, at their farm stand in Minooka on the 76-acre organic farm at 1221 W. Bell Road.

IMPORTANT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY: On Thursday, Sept. 13, Friends of the Dayton Bluffs is spearheading the planting of 200 lobelia plants at 9 a.m. at Dayton Bluffs Preserve just north of Ottawa at 2997 Route 71. Please arrive by 9 a.m. if you are free to volunteer.

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing tammies@mywebtimes.com; via Twitter,@gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.

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