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Plant of the Week: Autumn Embers Encore Azaleas

Get fired up this fall with Autumn Embers Encore azaleas! Well known for being hardy and low-maintenance, these reblooming azaleas add vivid, multi-seasonal color unlike any other azalea. This dense, rounded shrub features an abundance of semi-double, fiery, orange-red flowers that are produced in spring and fall and sporadically throughout the summer. Autumn Embers reaches a height of three feet by three and half feet wide and is ideal planted in garden beds and borders, foundation plantings, large containers or as a focal point in the garden. Azaleas prefer partial sun to partial shade, although Encore azaleas will tolerate more sun than most other varieties. So, color your landscape with the colors of fall with Autumn Embers.

Check out more of our favorite plants! OUR PLANTS OF THE WEEK >>

Make a Scarecrow. Make a Difference!

With our 20th annual Make a Scarecrow event coming up this weekend, we thought we'd give you a few fascinating scarecrow highlights to kick fall off with a bang.

  1. For 20 years, McDonald Garden Center has donated 100% of proceeds from the Make a Scarecrow event to the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters (CHKD) -- Virginia’s only free-standing, full-service pediatric hospital. Thanks to the generosity and support of our community, we've donated more than $200,000 -- that's over 10,000 scarecrows made!
  2. CHKD is a not-for-profit hospital, so donations such as these are crucial to the welfare of the hospital.
  3. CHKD Thrift Stores donate enough clothing, hats, ties, belts and other accessories to “dress” more than 1000 scarecrows... that's a lot of clothes!
  4. Scarecrows date back more than 3,000 years. From the Egyptians to the Greeks to farmers today, scarecrows are a solution to a common problem for farmers and gardeners - hungry birds!
  5. We all rely on a plentiful harvest to last us through winter, and scarecrows, human or straw, help us have one. Scarecrows are common throughout the world. In Britain, they are called mommets, tattie bogies and hodmedods. In other places around the world, they are known as jack-of-straws, scarebirds, and shoy-hoys.
  6. The scarecrow was commonly used in 19th century English literature. Who could forget the Scarecrow of Oz from L. Frank Baum’s tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? This just might be one of the most famous scarecrows of all time.
  7. Want to make your own scarecrow? There’s no limit on how creative yours can be. Use straw to stuff pockets and sleeves and to fill in any holes. Glue fabric strips to create patches. Add your own accessories, such as hats, gloves, scarves and even shoes.
  8. Making a scarecrow together is a great family project. By working together as a family you can create a fall tradition that is proudly displayed in your fall décor. It is also a perfect team building activity for groups like the girl scouts, boy scouts, businesses or even sports teams.
  9. It’s a fact... make a scarecrow and you'll make a difference!

This local fall tradition is bails of fun for the whole family. Join us this weekend to MAKE A SCARECROW >>

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African Violets: Optimara Series

Known as the world’s all-time favorite windowsill houseplant, African Violets are growing in popularity. They are one of the easiest and most adaptable flowering houseplants to grow, and the requirements for success are simple -- find a good spot, don’t over water, and they’ll shower you with blooms during any season! With literally thousands of varieties to choose from there’s something for every taste. In addition to traditional shades of blue-violet, there are also shades of pink, fuchsia, white and even bicolor. Flowers come with smooth, ruffled or frilled petals while other varieties have single, semi-double or double rows of petals. Foliage color varies from green to bronze to pinkish and white variegated. With proper care, anyone can grow an African Violet. Just follow these simple rules:

  • The #1 thing to avoid is overwatering. Keep evenly moist and water from the bottom of the pot with room temperature water. Once a month, water under the leaves to push the nutrients back into the soil. Avoid getting water on the fuzzy leaves as water can cause brown spots. Don’t forget to add African Violet fertilizer to your water to boost blooming power.
  • Never place in direct sun, only indirect or filtered sunlight. Windows facing north or east usually provide the best light exposures.
  • Always use African violet potting soil. Violets thrive in light, porous and spongy soil, which allows roots to grow freely and surplus water to pass through easily.
  • Groom regularly by removing dead or dying foliage and flowers.

Be sure to check out our stunning new varieties from the Optimara Series. Select from two-inch minis, which include over 15 full-blooming varieties and are genuine miniatures, with no growth retardants used to keep them small. They are a great option when space is limited. Or choose from four-inch violets with white blooms with bright colored centers.

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Perfect Fall Companions

As nights become cooler and days get shorter, it’s time to get your fall garden off and running. We love pairing mums with companion plants for a truly unique fall garden. Try some of these out-of-the-box plants along with those beautiful mums we all know and love -- and sit back and enjoy a beautiful view this fall.

Sedum - Attractive, clumping perennial that displays large, plate-like flower clusters that start pink then turn to a rosy russet. It's succulent, solid-looking leaves give it a substantial presence in the garden. A fine addition to the rock garden or mixed border, where its flower heads will remain attractive well into autumn.

Ornamental Peppers - Ornamental peppers are a great addition to the fall garden. With foliage of all shades, the real shining star of ornamental peppers is the fruit it bears in bright colors of fall in many shapes and sizes. We especially love using ornamental peppers in container combos!

Encore Azaleas - Another wonderful shrub for the fall landscape. If you love the colorful flowers that an azalea shrub offers, then you'll love our Encore varieties. They bloom three times per year ~ summer, spring, and fall, yes, even fall!

Heuchera - These perennial plants are one of our favorites for all seasons, including fall. From woodlands and rock gardens to containers, borders, and groundcovers, Heucheras make quite the statement.The stunning foliage of these fast-growing, deer- and pest-resistant perennials is so multi-colored they’ll stand out in any crowd. A wide selection of varieties is available with large, heart-shaped or rounded leaves, the striking colors and variegation patterns.

Autumn Sage (Salvia) - Add these stunning perennials with spikes of purple or red tubular blooms to your landscape. Enjoy them from spring through fall! They prefer full to part sunny spots.

Plectranthus - A quick-growing annual that grows 24 to 30 inches tall and does well in either shady or partially sunny locations. Those grown in sun are more compact and the purple color on the undersides of the leaves is much more intense. Spikes of dark lavender flowers bloom from spring until fall.

Check out more of our favorite plants! OUR PLANTS OF THE WEEK >>

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Fall Flowers: Extend the Beauty of Your Garden

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

Last month, my pollinator perennial garden was an overgrown jungle – one very much alive with beaucoup butterflies. After a couple years of milkweed, bee balm and mountain mint spreading and multiplying, it was time to thin out, clean up and make room for fall-flowering perennials and annuals.

First, I removed the fading foliage of perennials that had suffered lack of water while I was on vacation. Then, I sparingly pruned perennials that still had life in them, leaving ripe seed heads that provide a natural food source for birds throughout fall. As I pruned and cleaned, I also pulled up some of the bee balm that was spreading into my favorite shrubs that provide structure to the pollinator palace – hydrangea, Yuletide camellia, nandina, lantana and wax myrtle. The cleaning also uncovered the hiding place of a teeny baby turtle, which I carefully picked up and placed in a vegetative spot where predators could not see him. I laughed as I moved him, his little legs squirming and struggling to get free.

For fall color and pollinating purposes, I’m planting plenty of asters, including New England aster which is a larval host plant for the pearl crescent butterfly’s caterpillar and a perfect fall nectar plant for many butterflies, moths and insects. Goldenrod (sneezeweed, not goldenrod, makes you sneeze), toad lily, sedums and fall-flowering crocus will add more bursts of color. Then, I’ll place a few pots of lemon yellow mums on the nearby patio and sit back to enjoy several more weeks of seasonal splendor.

photos by Kathy Van Mullekom

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Fall for Orchids

Orchids are among the most spectacular of all flowering plants! Available in a myriad of colors, shapes and sizes there is an orchid for everyone. They range in size from a two-inch plant that can sit in the palm of your hand to five-foot giants. Some can be fragrant with luscious scents of citrus, raspberry, lilacs, coconut and even chocolate. No matter your preference, the beauty of the flower is undeniable.

Never grown an orchid before, no worries. Orchids make an ideal beginner plant and are relatively easy to grow given the right care. Because individual orchids have so many different growing requirements, it is important that you get detailed care information for your certain type of orchid, since the care can greatly vary depending on the type you have. For example, Cymbidium orchids prefer cooler weather, so be sure it is kept in a cool place year-round. Moth Orchids enjoy light so find a place near a bright window.

It’s all about getting a quality plant with the correct advice, and the McDonald Garden Center staff can help you select and advise you on the best way to encourage your plant to flourish for many years to come. McDonald Garden Center has one of the largest collections of orchids in Hampton Roads! Here are four you may like to consider:

Phalaeonopsis – also known as Moth Orchids, are thick-leaved plants with elegant, arching sprays of blooms that can be seen in many designer magazines and sitting on coffee tables across America. Color range includes whites, pinks, lavenders and yellows in both solid colors and mixes of stripes and spots, with blooms lasting as long as three months. Phalaenopsis are low-light orchids and will thrive in an east window, or a shaded southerly or westerly exposure.

Cymbidiums – produce large, attractive flowers that come in a rainbow of colors and are one of the most popular and desirable orchids in the world because of their beautiful flowers. These orchids make great houseplants, and are also popular in floral arrangements and corsages. Cymbidiums typically bloom once a year during winter and spring seasons, with blooms lasting for about four weeks. A few hours of weak morning sunlight and shady afternoons are ideal for this variety.

Dendrobiums – possess a long bamboo-like stem loaded with flowers and comes in a wonderful array of colors from white to purple, pink, and even green. This orchid loves the heat and will grow quickly throughout the summer. When choosing a spot for your Dendrobium, select a place in medium to bright light. These plants like strong, natural sunlight;.

Paphiopedilums – also known as the lady slipper, this is an excellent plant for the beginner, since it is among the easiest and most rewarding orchids to grow. Due to their waxy or lacquered appearance, they are often mistaken as being artificial. The blooms are available in broad array of colors, shapes and sizes with flowers lasting anywhere from one to three months. Place this orchid in or near a sunny window.

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Rejuvenate your summer-weary lawn this fall

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

It’s been a weird-weather year for lawns. First, a cool spring was kind to yards and then June’s rainy days kept lawns lush. When a cruel July arrived with little rain and lots of sweltering heat, cool-season fescue lawns succumbed to the heat and limped into summer dormancy. Bermuda lawns – like the one I have -- browned up a little, too. If your fescue lawn looks like it’s been through the crisper, now is the time to bring it back to life. Bermuda also needs fall help to maintain its vigor.

Virginia Cooperative Extension recommends fall as primetime lawn-care season and garden centers are stocked for the occasion. Spring is not the best time to redo or rejuvenate a lawn because new grass roots can’t establish before hot, dry weather typically arrives. To get your cool-season fescue lawn green and growing again, have a three-month plan that first includes spot spraying for weeds. If your lawn is more than 50 percent weeds, the entire lawn needs to be killed and redone. Healthy soil is the key to vigorous grass, so take a soil test to see what nutrients your soil needs. This simple practice saves you time and money from adding unnecessary fertilizers – and, at the same time, benefits the environment, which can be harmed from excess fertilizers running into storm drains and eventually into waterways. Next, aerate your lawn and then seed it. In 30 days, your lawn is ready for its first fertilizer application, which should be done by end of October. Second and third applications should be applied in November and December, respectively. For Bermuda, apply a winterizing fertilizer to maintain strong root development. With a little TLC and a lot of fall focus, your grass will always be greener on your side of the fence.
photo by Kathy Van Mullekom

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Fall Gardening Know-How

Planting Cole Crops in Fall

As our summer gardening season is coming to a close, it’s the perfect time to get your fall vegetable garden growing. What could be tastier than going out in your backyard to pick some fresh cabbage, lettuce, kale, broccoli, cauliflower or spinach for a healthy meal? Here’s our handy garden guide for planting your cole crops! These crops will flourish until frost arrives.

Cabbage - this low-cost, crunchy vegetable is easy to grow in fall. It requires full sun and rich soil, so be sure and use compost and manure in your garden bed. When you plant your cabbage seedlings, mix in a tablespoon of slow-release organic fertilizer to each planting hole. They will need space to spread out when they grow, so 10-12” apart will give you a good buffer. You want to water the seedlings every day for at least a few weeks. After a couple weeks, you can feed the plants with additional fertilizer. It’s time to harvest your cabbage when the plant forms a compact head. Give it a light squeeze and use a knife to cut through the main stalk of the plant right below the head. After harvesting,, remove the entire root system from the soil to avoid disease build up.

Spinach - spinach prefers an area in full sun, however, it is one of the few vegetables that can tolerate some shade. You can choose to plant from seeds or small plants, but make sure to give them enough space to spread out and grow. Six inches is usually enough. This plant requires at least one inch of water per week, and it’s best to water them in the mornings, so they can dry out throughout the day. Spinach can be harvested in as little as six weeks after planting the seeds. You can harvest by pinching or snipping off mature leaves and continue harvesting until the plants go to seed.

Broccoli - broccoli is a fairly slow grower, and you can choose to grow them from seeds or small plants. From seeds, you can start them indoors three to four weeks before transplanting. When you transplant outside, choose an area with full sun, and use compost and manure in your garden bed. Broccoli needs three main elements: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Space the seedlings 18” apart in rows and make sure to give them starter fertilizer. It will take about 60-70 days from the date of transplant for broccoli to mature. Harvest the florets before the yellow flowers appear by using a sharp knife to cut the head of the stalk just below the floret head. You can leave the plant in the ground and look for new florets to sprout.

Plant of the Week: We're Crazy for Crotons

One of the boldest indoor and outdoor plants around, you just can't miss crotons because of their ever-changing show of vibrant autumn foliage. Their thick, glossy foliage is brightly colored in combinations and shades of red, yellow, pink, orange, burgundy, bronze or green. The leaves may be wide and smooth, long and narrow or very irregularly shaped. Crotons are sure to draw attention with their stunning color and make a bold statement both inside and out.

Crotons serve double duty as they can be grown outdoors during the warmer months and indoors as a house plant the remainder of the year. Outside, this tropical foliage looks great when planted in the landscape or grown in pots and grouped together with other plants. Or, mix in containers with ornamental grasses, mums, marigolds and pansies. As a houseplant, crotons add texture and color to dull interiors. Place on a side table or use as a centerpiece on a dining room table. The beautiful leaves can also be used to enhance floral arrangements.

Crotons are relatively easy to care for. When outdoors, they do best in a location where the plant receives at least four to six hours of sunlight during the day. The more sun croton plants receive, the more colorful their foliage becomes. Watch your croton carefully, as new foliage will wilt when thirsty, and can be used as a watering guide. Indoors, crotons also prefer bright lighting, however, be sure to check the variety to determine the light needs of your specific plant. Some varieties need high light while others need medium or low light. In general, the more variegated and colorful the croton plant, the more light it will need. Keep the soil evenly moist and use lukewarm or room temperature water for watering. The plant can also be misted several times a week to help provide moisture and humidity.

So join the croton craze, and celebrate the colors of autumn!

Check out more of our favorite plants! OUR PLANTS OF THE WEEK >>

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Lawn Season Kick Off

It's time to kickoff the fall lawn season. Over the past 70 years, we've gathered valuable information and products to help you establish and maintain successful lawns here in Hampton Roads. We've devised some simple steps to help you get your lawn looking its best. Hampton Roads is considered a transitional zone, meaning you can grow both cool season lawns (fescue) and warm season lawns (Bermuda, St. Augustine, Centipede, and Zoysia). Fall is the best time in this area to establish and repair the fescue lawn. During fall, the soil temperature cools down rather then heating up, so you will get a better germination and a quicker establishment. We also get more rainfall in the fall on a more consistent basis which aides in establishment of the new seedlings. Summer is the hardest season on fescue lawns and therefore planting in the fall gives the longest time before summer will come around again. Root development also occurs on all plants in the fall, which is vital when starting a new lawn.

To help you on your road to lawn success, we've developed easy-to-use lawn kits specifically formulated for Hampton Roads. In addition we're offering complimentary lawn classes every Saturday at 11pm from September 12-October 10. September and October are the best months to come on in and get the information and products you need to make your lawn a success!

Our Grass Seed: McDonald Tall Fescue Mix is comprised of three different types of tall fescue. Every year we evaluate the different types of fescues that go into our mix. They are chosen based on different genetic strengths such as drought and heat tolerance, deep green color, natural disease and insect resistance, and sun and shade tolerance. We are always striving to have the best grasses that have been tested in this area. We use the Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension Turfgrass Variety Recommendation list to aide us in making that decision. The list is comprised of 55 different types of tall fescue. Because our varieties of fescue grass seed have been tested in this area, we are confident they will help make you successful when working on lawn repairs or establishing new lawns.

The Cooperative Extension and McDonald Garden Center believe that a mix of three different types of tall fescues gives the homeowner the highest success rate. When you have a mix of different varieties of fescue you get all the benefits and characteristics you need to have a great lawn, where as one type of fescue will never have all the characteristics that make a great lawn. Some varieties of fescue have also been known to get diseases or be more susceptible to insects as they become more widely used. This is also why we use three different types, because if one variety has an issue many years from now, then you will not experience total lawn loss. With one variety of grass seed, you run the risk of losing everything if this were to occur.

Our grass seed is very fresh and has the highest germination rate available in this area of 92%. It has no fillers and no other types of seed. Most blends have bluegrass (poa annua) and perennial rye in them, which both perform poorly. Both will die off in the summer leaving blank areas that weeds will quickly grow into. They also both seed very quickly, causing discoloration during seed production, and then they re-germinate in the fall, choking out your fescue. (If you have issues with perennial rye and blue grass (poa annua) in the lawn we offer solutions to the problem.)

Soil: When establishing a lawn in the Hampton Roads area you must always consider what is supporting the lawn. The soil becomes a vital part in how successful a lawn will be. We recommend getting a free soil test at any of our locations to determine your pH. Having the right pH will decrease weed levels and increase the nutrient uptake of the grass. Our soil is naturally low in pH which encourages weed growth and doesn’t allow the grass to get the nutrients it needs to survive. Organic matter is also very important to obtaining a strong root system and water retention. By adding a thin layer of compost (1/2-1/4inch deep) to the top of your new lawn or over your existing lawn will naturally aerate and dethatch your soil. Over the course of the year it will continue to decompose and add rich organic matter into your soil that will increase the success of your lawn. Hampton Roads soil is either sandy or clay based and therefore needs amending to encourage a healthy soil for lawns to grow in. There are multiple products that can help encourage a rich soil and increase soil microbes, without having to till or do major soil preparations. You always hear about feeding your lawn, but it is equally as important to feed your soil.

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