Grow What You Eat

by Kathy Van Mullekom, a lifelong gardener and gardening writer living in York County, Virginia

Dad was never a fan of ornamental shrubs and flowers. His philosophy was: Grow what you can eat! And, by golly, we ate good from his huge summer gardens filled with potatoes, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, string beans, spring onions and anything else tasty he could squeeze into the 40-by-100-foot plot behind my childhood home in Newport News.

Those summer gardens fueled my own desire to grow what I could eat, even though Dad continued to spoil me with fresh produce until his health recently declined. Today, I often grow edibles in raised beds fashioned from plain boards of lumber, or try my hand at straw bale gardening, which I really like because the entire garden can be recycled into compost.

My favorite edibles continue to be tomatoes – small grape tomatoes like Juliet and cherry tomatoes like Super Sweet, as well as mini pickling cucumbers that cut up nicely into fresh spinach salads. Eggplant and squash are also easy to cultivate in a backyard garden.

For the past two to three years, I plant extra miniature tomatoes like Juliet because my yard turtle, Fred, favors them so much. Each morning, bright and early, Fred creeps from the creek, along the grassy back lawn, into my pollinator garden where I place one or two tomato plants just for him. He always knows they will be there, and I know he will always be there – it’s one of the best parts of my mid-summer gardening days when the fruits begin to ripen.

This year, I’m introducing my 3-year-old granddaughter, Mattie, to gardening. Using a kit of cedar boards, she and I will plant a small garden of veggies, things like tomatoes, basil, oregano and onions for a homemade pizza, and surround it with marigolds for color and extra pollination.

In addition to my father, my grandmother in Lynchburg mentored my love for any kind of gardening. We spent many hours under her grape arbor, shelling fresh-picked butterbeans and shucking corn. I hope to pass that love onto Mattie and inspire her to grow what she can eat – it’s a healthy way to love your grandkids, for sure!



Homegrown Herbs

Fresh herbs are easy to grow and can make all the difference between a good dish and an extraordinary dish! Once you begin to use fresh herbs in your favorite recipes, you'll never want go back to using just dried herbs again. Chefs know that fresh food is always best and fresh herbs are no exception.

Here are our favorite herbs to create the basic kitchen garden. Of course, this is just a start, there are many others to experiment with in your garden that will add bold flavor. A herb garden can be as simple as having a pot just outside your kitchen door or a group of planters in your window sill or even an extensive garden planted outside. No matter the size, cooking with herbs can be fun and you can’t make a mistake - so be creative and savor the flavor.

Basil - With lots of varieties to choose from, this king of the herbs offers something for every palette. While the taste of sweet basil is bright and pungent, other varieties also offer unique tastes that are true to their name like: lemon basil, anise basil and cinnamon basil.

Parsley - Use this herb for the mild flavor it adds to a savory dish and for the coloring it adds as a garnish.

Sage - This is a must-have herb for seasoning any poultry dish. It has a slight peppery flavor and is best used on meats in a marinade but is also good in stuffing and sauces. We also love Pineapple Sage which is great in pitchers of water to offer flavor.

Rosemary - Rosemary is best used to season fish and seafood products, but it is also a great seasoning for grilled meats, lamb and potatoes. Try Barbeque Rosemary to use as skewers on the grill.... a real crowd pleaser!

Thyme - This is the basic herb used in dishes from all over the world including French, Italian, Indian, Greek and Spanish cuisines. Use thyme on lamb, meats, poultry, soups and stews.

Oregano - This classic culinary herb is one of the most commonly used herbs worldwide. Use in Italian, Greek and Mexican cooking. The flavor is strong enough to stand up to bold flavors like tomatoes, onion, garlic, and beef. We love the Hot & Spicy Oregano in pasta sauces.

Dill - This easy to grow herb is a member of the parsley family. Cut often to keep producing. Dill pairs well with fish and is used for pickling, to flavor salads and in soups.

Mint - Is a beautiful herb that has one of the most recognizable aromas. Spearmint and peppermint are the most popular types of mint, but more unusual varieties like Mint Chocolate are available. Use in drinks, or simply gather a small bunch to offer aroma for a room.



Let's Talk Tomatoes

Check out what's trending in the tasty tomato world. Enjoy a homegrown harvest right from your own yard. Tomatoes are one of the easiest & tastiest foods to grow, and, best of all homegrown tomatoes are much tastier than store bought varieties. Simply choose a few of your favorite varieties. We offer more than 40 different types including slicing, cherry, grape and old fashioned heirlooms. Here's five of our favorites...

  1. Sun Gold - With explosively sweet flavor, this is one of the garden’s sweetest. Sun Gold ripens in long clusters of 10 to 15 fruits. The sweet flavor is ready about a week before full coloring. Wait to pick fruits at their deepest hue and you’ll experience a richly sweet, fruity flavor.
  2. Sweet 'n' Neat Cherry Red - A McDonald favorite, this super sweet, cherry-sized tomato continuously produces all through summer. It's compact size makes it ideal in containers, on decks or in small spaces.
  3. Super Sweet 100 - You'll love these cherry tomatoes bursting with sugary flavor. The scarlet, cherry-sized fruits are produced in long pendulous clusters right up to frost.
  4. Better Boy - With 8 to16 oz round fruit, it has a classic tomato taste and is a great for slicing. The fruit has just the right balance of acid and sugar. This one is a climber and requires a cage for best results.
  5. TomTato - The newest and coolest 'mato on the block dubbed Ketchup ‘n’ Fries™. This tomato plant is grafted onto a potato plant yielding up to 100 cherry tomatoes and 2-5 pounds of potatoes in a year. Yes, tomatoes AND potatoes in one plant! Grow it in a veggie garden or patio container. (available in stores, May 15)

After you select the tomatoes that are best for you, you'll want to purchase a tomato cage to keep them upright. For best results and to ensure a bountiful harvest, a cage will support and ensure maximum growth. The cage will give your tomatoes something to grow through and keep the fruit off the ground and help support the stalks and keep them from bending and breaking. We especially love using colorful cages in red, yellow, orange, green and even purple.

Finally, to make your tomato plants’ roots strong and your fruit plumper, we recommend using Espoma Tomato Tone Fertilizer. This organic fertilizer feeds your plants naturally and will not force rapid growth at the expense of blooms and tomato yield. We suggest applying Tomato Tone after plants are well established (10 - 14 days) and then twice a month during the growing season (May through August).

TOMATO TIP: When planting tomatoes, we suggest adding lime to the soil to fortify the calcium in the soil thus helping to eliminate a common tomato problem, Blossom End Rot.


Plant of the Week:

BETTER BOY TOMATOES, Best Color & Flavor

Did you know that a Better Boy tomato plant once yielded more than 340 pounds of fruit, earning it a Guinness World Record? Although your plant might not yield that much fruit, it will produce plenty of bright red delectables that you can enjoy fresh from your garden all summer long.

Better Boy tomatoes are one of the most popular tomatoes grown. With 8-16 oz round fruit, it has a classic tomato taste and is a great for slicing. The fruit has just the right balance of acid and sugar. It is a climber and requires a tomato cage and staking for best results. They continue to grow until frost and need full sun for best results. Water well to prevent drying out in warm weather and fertilize with liquid or slow release plant food.

Ideal for salads, soups, hot dishes, pickling and superb on sandwiches.


Plant of the Week:


Get your taste buds ready for our newest berry on the block... Strawberry Éclair! This new gourmet strawberry boasts a unique taste with a hint of citrus and raspberry flavor to it. Strawberry Éclair is a Junebearing variety, so expect the majority of harvest in the early summer. This berry is developed from Junebearing and Everbearing relatives, so it often produces fruits longer into the season that traditional Junebearing strawberries. Allow berries to mature before picking to enjoy maximum flavor and sweetness. Enjoy these sweet treats in pies, tarts, jams and preserves... or freshly picked!


Fabulous Fall Herbs

ORGANIC HERB COMBO: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme and Violas

Decorate naturally with a pot of fresh herbs that's just as tasty as it is attractive! This mix of fall herbs and violas is the perfect addition to your home with pretty foliage, flowers and functional herbs. This collection of herbs can be harvested for months and will add great flavor to your dishes.

Parsley is a bright green annual herb available in both flat leaf and curly leaf varieties. Flat leaf parsley is used frequently as a garnish on potato dishes, on rice dishes or with fish, chicken and lamb. Curley leaf is most often used as a garnish. This herb offers the mild flavor it adds to savory dishes.

Sage comes in lots of varieties including garden, golden, blue, pineapple, tri-color and clary - all of which can be used in cooking. Sage is a must in stuffing for poultry. Roast it with pork; add to butter and sauté chicken along with it. Sage also goes well in egg and cheese dishes. Try a little crumbled dry sage over a bowl of black-eyed peas. Dried leaves will keep their flavor for years.

Rosemary, one of the oldest herbs known to man is an evergreen perennial and a culinary must-have. Rosemary is ideal for spicing up pork and poultry dishes and is also used to flavor butter, oils and vinegars.

Thyme, a low growing evergreen herb extensively used in French cuisine. Thyme is the perfect compliment to veal, lamb, beef, poultry, fish, stuffing, stews, soups, sauces, stock, herb butters, flavored vinegars, beans, lentils, potatoes, tomatoes, cheese, onions, cucumbers, carrots, eggplant, leeks, mushrooms, eggs, and rice. Whew, yep... there's no shortage of ways to use this herb!

Violas are primarily cool season bloomers and are perfect additions to fall plantings that last through early spring. Violas are available in wide range of colors and look similar to pansies - they just have a smaller flower than pansies. The flowers may be used to decorate salads or used in stuffings for poultry or fish. Soufflés, cream, and similar desserts can be flavored with essence of viola flowers. The strong perfume of some varieties will add sweetness to desserts, fruit salads, and teas.


Easy + Delicious

One of the easiest fruits to grow: THE FIG TREE

Figs are one of the easiest fruit trees you can grow and NOW is the time to enjoy this scrumptious fruit. They grow happily in both the ground and in containers, making them perfect for all types of gardeners. Figs grow on low, open trees with no thorns and soft leaves, and they are very easy to pick. You'll know a fig is ready to be picked when it feels soft and it separates easily from the tree when you lift it upwards from its drooping position. Unripe figs are harder, more firmly attached, and do not droop. These delicious fruits are at their peak right now in Hampton Roads and will be remain until frost in mid-October.

Enjoying the flavor of a freshly picked fig in the shade of the tree's canopy is a true Southern tradition. Thomas Jefferson claimed in his retirement to want only to sit beneath a fig tree with his books and watch the days pass by. Luckily, he did a lot more than this. Jefferson not only spread the popularity of the fig from Europe, but also expanded the area where the tree is grown. So, grab a shady seat and enjoy this southern treat!

Our Favorite Figs:
There are hundreds of fig varieties to choose from. Here's a list of our faves...

Brown Turkey - boasts brownish, copper-colored skin, often with hints of purple, and mostly pink/red flesh with some white. They work well in salads or in desserts where a sweetener will be used.

Celeste - approximately the size of an egg, Celeste fruits are purplish-brown when ripe, with a sweet, moist, deep-purple flesh inside. Absolutely delicious!

Mission - named for the Mission Fathers who planted these figs along the California coast. This fig is deep-purple which darkens to a rich, black color when dried. Often called black mission figs, they are extremely sweet and are perfect for serving plain , with yogurt, or with a tangy fresh cheese (such as mascarpone, fromage blanc, or farmers cheese) for dessert.

Strawberry Verde - large, black skinned fig with a scrumptious deep, strawberry-red flesh. It is excellent eaten fresh off the tree or dried. This variety is a dwarf tree well-suited for smaller gardens or containers.



Our Berry Top Picks


To be a backyard berry farmer is so easy and so rewarding. We are crazy for berries and growing them couldn’t be easier. As long as they have well drained soil and sunshine, you'll have plenty of berries for your shortcakes this summer. We polled our berry experts and here’s their top picks for Hampton Roads gardens.

Brazelberry Raspberry Shortcake. This new dwarf, thorn-less red raspberry has an endearing, rounded compact growth habit and is perfectly suited to large patio containers. It will nicely fill out no matter what the shape and requires no staking! Self fertile, yielding full-sized, nutritious and super sweet berries in mid-summer.

Sunshine. A semi-dwarf evergreen blueberry it features showy hot pink flowers that fade to white in spring. Yielding medium, rich sweet flavored berries this blueberry is self – pollinizing.

Rabbiteye. These easy to grow, delicious fruits are especially tolerant of the heat and drought of the South. You will need to plant more than one variety for cross-pollination.

Bountiful Blue Blueberry. With large, sweet, juicy berries this award winning selection has the bluest foliage of any blueberry. It is self fertilizer, but a pollenizer such as 'Sunshine Blue' will yield a more prolific harvest. With a rounded growth habit it is perfect for massing in the landscape or featuring in large containers.

We recommend Chandler and Berry Galore Rose.

Chandler. These berries are brilliant red, very large, and produce early-season to mid-season fruit. With an exceptional flavor profile, they grow well in Hampton Roads and a great backyard berry.

Berry Galore Rose. This ever-bearing plant produces deep red, sweet berries. This unique plant bears fruit but also offers ornamental rose colored blooms with dark green glossy foliage. Performs well in containers, hanging baskets, or in the ground.

Triple Crown. This trailing blackberry ripens for about one month from July thru August. Fruits ripen to a juicy sweet flavor with large, flavorful fruit. This semi-erect vine is thorn less and will bear huge fruit yields year after year.

Don't miss this weekend the Pungo Strawberry Fest. This berry-rific event celebrates the perfect harvest time for strawberries in Hampton Roads.



Edible Garden Essentials

Transform your ho-hum garden into an abundant edible masterpiece. Here's a few of our favorites that will keep your edibles going and growing!

Smart Mud Gloves - These garden gloves provide durability through abrasion resistance as well as an excellent degree of tactility. With the Smart Mud gloves you are free to answer your phone, change your music, or take that perfect pic of your splendid garden with your gloves on. assorted colors, $7.99

Espoma Garden Tone - For naturally delicious edibles, use this all natural plant food formulated specifically for vegetable gardens. It is safe, long lasting, and provides nutrients necessary for vigorous and productive plants. 8 pound bag, $14.99

Tomato Cages - Mix these colorful structures in your edible garden. Our round, heavy-duty wire plant cages give your fruits & veggies the support they need while giving you the color and style you need. 42-inch cages in assorted colors, $9.99

Marigolds - These sunny annuals not only look great in beds and containers, but they also chase off unwanted pests and bugs. We recommend mixing them in edible gardens to deter pests from enjoying your yummy harvest. $2.29 (packs) & up

Gronomics Raised Bed Kits - Constructed of 100% western red cedar, these raised bed kits are easy to assemble. They can be set in multiple designs and formats to fit your space. With raised beds, you eliminate tilling, soil amending and minimize wedding. 48x48x13 inch Gronomics Raised Bed Kit, reg. $159, on sale for $99.88. (sold at year-round locations)

McDonald Organic Compost - By mixing our compost with your native soil, you will provide your plants much-needed moisture, aeration and give their roots the optimum environment in which to grow. 1 cubic foot bag, $6.99

GARDENING TIP: Mix edibles and cutting flowers together in your garden to create the ultimate kitchen garden. You'll have beautiful bouquets and delicious foods for the table!


Fragrant and Yummy Too


The Easter holiday is just around the corner, and if you’re looking to steer clear of the traditional sugar laden Easter basket, then we have just what you’re looking for. Why not try a more natural approach to the traditional Easter basket this year? A living basket overflowing with fresh English Thyme, French Tarragon and Tuscan Blue Rosemary brings the convenience of the herb garden to your outdoor patio or a sunny window indoors. And best of all, these herbs can be harvested for months to come - and did we mention that herbs are delightfully aromatic and beautiful too? So this Easter, consider the perfect sugar-free option for that cook or gardener in your life! Here are a few ways to use these edible and fragrant beauties:

Thyme – A low growing evergreen, this herb is extensively used in French cuisine. Thyme is the perfect compliment to veal, lamb, beef, poultry, fish, stuffing, stews, soups, sauces, stock, herb butters, flavored vinegars, beans, lentils, potatoes, tomatoes, cheese, onions, cucumbers, carrots, eggplant, leeks, mushrooms, eggs, and rice.

French Tarragon – This leafy green is also widely used in French cuisine. It's distinctive yet delicate herbal flavor is particularly well suited when paired with fish and chicken. Tarragon is also delicious in salad dressings and in sauces.

Rosemary - One of the oldest herbs known to man, this evergreen perennial is a real treat to cook with. Rosemary is ideal for spicing up pork and poultry dishes and is also used to flavored butter, oil and vinegar.