Veggie Gardening


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!



Portrait of a Pepper

Stuffed, pickled, jelled, roasted, hot, mild, sweet, bell, ornamental, mini, long, red, green, yellow and orange - Peter Piper sure had his work cut out for him! Peppers come in a beautiful array of colors, shapes, sizes and tastes. This fruit is an excellent way to add flavor, color, and crunch to an otherwise bland dish. But peppers can also add a unique range of nutritional benefits to their expansive resume.

Whether mild or spicy, peppers are nutrient packed and are one of the richest sources of vitamins A and C. Just a cup a day can provide more than 100% of your daily requirements. Select from a variety or pepper colors to get the biggest bang for your buck. All peppers, red, green or yellow, are excellent sources of vitamin C and vitamin A - two antioxidants that work together to neutralize free radicals. And, recent research indicates that both hot and sweet peppers contain substances that have been shown to increase the body's heat production and oxygen consumption for about 20 minutes after eating, which means your body is burning extra calories! So, whether you like the sweet or the heat, there’s a peppery for every pallet.

One of our favorite peppers is Red Beauty. Try this variety for a juicy, sweet 3 to 4-inch pepper with extra thick walls and glossy green fruit that turns to vivid red when mature. A great addition to a summer cookout or add to any salad or dish for pop of color and flavor. These enjoy sunny, warm days, and well-drained, fertile soil.



The Fall Veggie Garden

Did you know fall is the perfect time get a delicious veggie garden going? In fact, cooler temperatures make this a great time to plant these crops -- many are even tastier and sweeter harvested after a light frost. If you've never grown fall veggies before, we recommend a crop of leaf lettuce, kale, swiss chard and spinach. These easy to grow plants are great for small spaces like a pallet garden and can often be harvested over many weeks.

The secret to having a great fall veggie garden is getting the timing right and that means thinking a little differently because you have to plan backward if starting with seed. To do this, start with your area's average first fall frost date, which for Hampton Roads is October 15. Then look at the number of days to harvest for each vegetable you wish to plant. You should be able to find that number on the seed packet. Use that number to count back from the first frost date. Then add two weeks; many plants grow more slowly as days shorten in fall.

If you want to start with established plants rather than seeds, we also offer many fall veggies in packs. These plants are ready to plant now for a delicious fall harvest with very little effort. Here’s a few of our favorite veggies to plant now:


Learn more about what to plant now by checking out our planting guide. PLANTING GUIDE >>

Join us tomorrow, September 21st and learn how to transform an ordinary wooden pallet into a garden full of fall veggies! FALL VEGGIE PALLET WORKSHOP >>



Veg Out!

The end of summer doesn’t mean the end of vegetable gardening. Cooler weather makes gardening more enjoyable and there are less insects to bug you. Actually, frost tends to improve the flavor of many cool weather crops. And, an added benefit is that many of these plants are visually pleasing in your yard, giving your landscape a boost in appearance.

To get started, we’ve compiled a few easy steps for fall veggie garden success.

  1. Prepare the Soil.
    Start from the bottom up to really have success. We suggest turning over the soil as one of the most important steps. This process aerates and mixes soil components.
  2. Fertilize with Compost.
    When fertilizing a vegetable garden, organic fertilizers are recommended. They consist of natural, organic material such as forest products, vegetable waste and animal manure. It can be purchased in bags, bulk, or made at home. McDonald Compost (sold in bag or bulk) will do the trick!
  3. Plant Your Garden.
    Dig the hole a bit larger than the plant’s root ball, place the plant in it, and firm the soil around the roots to the level of the surrounding soil. Water to eliminate air pockets and provide moisture to the root system.
  4. Water & Weed Regularly.
    Be sure your veggie garden receives water and you remove the weeds so that the weeds are not competing with the nutrients your plants need to perform their best.

Fall veggie gardening is easier than you think. Convinced yet? If so, we compiled this veggie planting guide to find out what to plant and when. Learn what to plant now by checking out our planting guide. PLANTING GUIDE >>

Join us this Saturday, September 21st and learn how to transform an ordinary wooden pallet into a garden full of fall veggies! FALL VEGGIE PALLET WORKSHOP >>



How to grow a pizza - a pizza garden that is!

Have you ever thought about growing a pizza? You may not be able to grow a plant with pizzas ready to pluck from the vine, but you can grow a garden with pizza ingredients. A pizza garden can be any size or shape, and can easily be grown in containers on a sunny patio or deck, and it’s a fun project for the whole family. It’s also a great way to get children outdoors and motivated to plant and eat veggies.

Here are a few staples to include in your pizza garden but remember, the possibilities are endless so be creative and plant your favorite toppings.

Oregano- This aromatic herb is easy to grow and is one of the few herbs that is stronger when dried than when fresh. Italian Oregano, commonly called "the pizza herb," is a must have for any pizza sauce.

Tomatoes- are a staple for both the pizza sauce and as a pizza topper! Select from a variety of your favorite tomatoes. Choose sweet tomatoes like Sweet and Neat or even add color with a yellow tomato like Lemon Boy.

Peppers- choose from either sweet or hot peppers in a variety of colors for your pie. The classic bell pepper is a sweet pepper and is good way to add color. Try Better Belle or Red Beauty. Hot peppers can spice it up and we like Super Banana or Cayenne.

Basil- This must have is grown for its wonderful sweet flavor. Use in the sauce or top it off with this delish herb. You can use any of the basils, but we really like Sweet Italian Basil.



Let’s Talk Tomatoes!

Growing your own tomatoes pays huge dividends and it's pretty easy. You can enjoy a homegrown harvest right from your own yard and tomatoes are an easy way to be a backyard farmer. And, best of all homegrown tomatoes taste better than store bought varieties.

To get started, simply choose a few of your favorite tomato varieties or identify how you might want to use the tomatoes. We offer more than 30 different types, so there is surely a palette-pleasing tomato for you.

Here's our favorite tomatoes:

SWEET or CHERRY TOMATOES (great for salads and snacking)

  • Super Sweet 100
  • Sweet Chelsea
  • Sweet and Neat (yellow or red)
  • Grape
  • Husky Red Cherry
  • Sungold

EARLY-FRUITING TOMATOES (get tomatoes sooner)

  • Early Girl
  • Roma

SANDWICH TOMATOES (more beefy, less seeds)

  • Big Boy
  • Better Boy
  • Big Daddy
  • Beefsteak
  • Beefy Boy
  • Mortgage Lifter

SMALL SPACE TOMATOES (perfect for growing in containers)

  • Sweet and Neat (yellow or red)
  • Super Sweet 100
  • Roma
  • Tomatoberry
  • Sungold

HEIRLOOM TOMATOES (specialty varieties)

  • Cherokee Purple
  • Mortgage Lifter
  • Black Pearl
  • Old German
  • Brandywine

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 tomato cage to add a bit of whimsy to your garden.

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.


Pallet Gardening

Vertical gardens are all the rage and we are seeing them everywhere made from recycled pallets. From Pinterest to HGTV to all the decorating magazines including Better Homes and Gardens and Southern Living, pallet gardens are everywhere! They are an easy way to garden vertically and there's so many reasons to do it: 1) space limitations, pallet gardens do not take up a lot space; 2) pallet gardens add an architectural element to outdoor decor; 3) fruits & veggie plants lend themselves to growing vertically, like cucumbers or strawberries; 4) increase your growing space. No matter the reason, gardening vertically can be fun and rewarding.... and simply put, pallet gardens look fantastic!

Many veggies and flowers are perfect for growing vertically, just be sure that what you choose has similar water requirements.


  • EDIBLES: strawberries, cantaloupe, cucumber, eggplant, okra, peppers-hot, peppers-sweet, squash, tomatoes, watermelon
  • FLOWERING PLANTS: begonias, marigolds, petunias, celosia, verbena, coral bells, impatiens
  • SUCCULENTS: portulaca, Ice plant, purslane, hens and chicks, sedums


We’ve assembled some quick and easy instructions to get you started. We sell two sizes of pre-constructed pallets for easy growing. The pallet is made of untreated pine lined with Typar landscape fabric to keep the soil in place.

  1. Place the pallet on end and fill with potting soil. Be sure not to pack too full so that the landscape fabric is bulging, but tap the soil down so it levels out.
  2. Pick out your plants to use for planting.
  3. Cut or use your fingers to create a small hole or planting pocket (about the size of the roots of the plant) and sprinkle in McDonald Greenleaf fertllizer.
  4. Place plant in the hole and use your fingers to cover the roots with soil.
  5. Space plants out on each row of the pallet. We suggest about 3 inches apart.
  6. Finish planting by adding edibles or flowering plants to the top of the pallet.
  7. Water. When you water, turn it vertical with the open side up and slowly water every 2-3 days during spring, and then almost everyday during summer. Sometimes, water may need to be added directly to young seedlings when pallet is laying flat. But, be sure to allow enough time for the water to seep down through the soil to get to the bottom plants.


You say tomato, I say basil.

Tomatoes and Basil. A perfect pair for every garden and every palette! There's no two edibles that go together better than these two garden favorites. Many people will grow a tomato or two, but miss out on the delicious rewards of growing basil. Basil is very easy to grow and can be squeezed in near your tomato plants. Some say that, planting basil within 18-inches of a tomato plant can actually improve the flavor of the fruit and repel many insect pests.

Basil is an annual herb and requires a warm, sunny spot to grow. It can easily be started from seed, but if you are impatient you can purchase them as a small plant. Basil is available after the threat of frost has past, typically around April 15. Look for it now at your local McDonald. Basil requires regular watering and you'll want to keep the soil moist, but not saturated. Basil roots will rot and kill the plant if they sit in water too long. Once your Basil plant is about 6 to 12 inches tall, you should begin harvesting the leaves. We suggest using the larger leaves first. Keep your plant from producing flowers by pinching off the flower spikes when they appear. By pinching off flowers, you'll help your plant produce more delicious edible leaves, and not waste energy on flower production. Try these customer favorites in your garden!

SWEET BASIL - A must-have herb for every garden. Best used fresh. Very aromatic with spicy flavor. Sweet Basil pairs great with tomatoes and tomato-flavored dishes.

LEMON BASIL - Known for its fresh, tangy citrus flavor and fragrance. Perfect for use in salads, dressings, vinegars, and fish dishes.

THAI BASIL - Characterized by its slightly sweet, strong licorice fragrance and flavor, it's also referred to as anise or licorice basil. Used as a condiment in Thai and Vietnamese dishes and great for stir-fried dishes.

PESTO PERPETUO BASIL - The beauty and flavor of this variety will earn a prominent spot in your garden. Stunning light green and cream variegated leaves make it an eye-catching gem. Strong enough to carry your best pesto recipe all by itself or to top fresh slices of tomato and mozzarella.



Who says they won’t eat their veggies?

Looking for a way to get your kids to eat their fruits & veggies? Well, there’s bribery and there’s trickery... not to mention all out war! Statistics show kids aren't getting nearly enough fruits and veggies. Only 22% of children ages 2 to 5 meet government recommendations for vegetables consumption, according to a recent study by researchers at Ohio State University. It only gets worse as children get older. Only 16% of children ages 6 to 11 meet the government's guidelines and just 11% of those ages 12 to 18.

It’s a fact that kids love to be involved and learn through hands-on projects, so why not get your kids in the garden with our NEW line of Chef Jeff Kid Veggies. Not only will your kids get involved, but it’s a great way to spend time with your little gardeners too. So get your little ones and make memories in the garden that you can bring to the table!

Scrumptious fruit & veggie plants for your little sprouts:

Tommy the Tomato - tasty fruit that produces delicious, large 1 to 2 pound tomatoes. The perfect addition to sandwiches salads, or use to make fresh salsa or pizza sauce. Requires the support of a stake or cage. Plant in a sunny spot, 24-30" apart (70 days to maturity).

Beansy the Coolbean - produces beautiful white flowers that turn into tender green beans that can be picked all season long! Beans are best picked when they are 7-8" long. Be sure to provide them with a fence, trellis, or pole to climb up. Plant in a sunny spot, 12-18" apart (90 days to maturity).

Luke the Cuke - kids can watch as each yellow flower turns into a tasty dark green cucumber. Pick and eat these cuks straight out of the garden or use in your favorite sandwiches or salads. Plant in ground or containers in a sunny spot and pick often to keep new cucumbers coming all season long. Plant 12-18" apart (55 Days to maturity).

Sherry the Berry - sweet strawberry that produces fruit all summer long! Plant in a sunny location and water frequently, and you’ll be rewarded with fruit year after year! Also great when grown in containers. Use in fruit or green salads or dip in fresh cream for a special treat! Plant 12" apart (height 6-8").



Start from Seeds!

When to start your seeds is always a bit of a guess. First, you’ll need to know when your last expected frost date is. Then check your seed packet to see how many weeks growth are required before setting outdoors. Count back that many weeks from your last expected frost date to get an approximate date for starting those seeds. It’s approximate because weather does not always live up to predictions, but you’ll be in the ballpark. Different plants will require different timing, so use a calendar to write down when to start what items.

Plant at the proper depth. Seed packets tell you just how deep to plant; a rule of thumb is to plant seeds two or three times as deep as they are wide. Use either purchased pots or flats. You can even use containers that you’ve saved like egg cartons, however be sure to clean them thoroughly before use. These will trap warmth and humidity where the seeds need it. Grow plants by keeping the soil moist. Seeds need water to start growing and young seedlings need a consistent supply to grow healthy and strong. If you don't have a bright window, you will need some kind of florescent or high density plant light.

Enjoy! In no time at all you’ll enjoy an abundant harvest of fresh vegetables and beautiful blooms!

TIP: We recommend potting soil for seed starting. Potting soil very often has no soil in it, but is a mix of peat, vermiculite and other fluffy matter that has the wonderful properties of being both water retentive and well-draining, because it doesn't pack down like garden soil. It's also free of diseases and insects that may be over-wintering in your garden soil. Of course, it also doesn't have any nutrients, so you will need to add those.

{ Happy Gardening! Posted by McDonald Garden Center, February 20, 2012 }