In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
When signs of spring begin to appear in North Carolina, there’s no better place to appreciate all that the season has to offer than a vegetable garden. From mountains to coast, in big backyards and tiny patio nooks, fresh veggies give us the chance to exercise our green thumbs (or, ahem, green thumbs in the making). But as beautiful and functional as they are, many novice gardeners feel overwhelmed by the idea of growing a garden from the ground up. Lucky for us, North Carolina is home to plenty of gardening gurus who know just the right approach.
“There are plenty of easy ways to start,” says David Williams, owner of Sunset Market Gardens in Reidsville. “Even if you don’t have a big yard to lay out a garden, you can work with what you have. It’s just a matter of doing your homework so that you provide your vegetables with everything they need to be successful.”
We talked with Williams and two other experts — Dr. Lucy Bradley, a North Carolina State University extension agent and consumer and horticulture professor, and Shawn Banks, the county extension director of Carteret County — to get their advice for growing a vegetable garden, which veggies to plant, and the best time to harvest.
Owner of Sunset Market Gardens in Reidsville
Dr. Lucy Bradley
NC State Extension Agent & Consumer and Community Horticulture Professor
County Extension Director of Carteret County
What vegetables grow well in North Carolina?
Lucy Bradley: We can grow almost anything in North Carolina, so long as it’s planted at the right time. As a rule, grow leafy greens and roots during the short days and growing seasons of the fall and spring — like lettuce, spinach, and radishes. And during the long days of the long summer season, grow plants that must mature, bloom, and set fruit to provide the vegetables that we eat — like tomatoes, eggplant, and squash. Tomatoes are the most difficult as they are susceptible to many diseases and pests; radishes, lettuce, and other plants with a shorter time between planting and harvest are less susceptible to insect and disease damage.
Shawn Banks: You can grow just about any vegetable in our state. Tomatoes can be really finicky about where they’re growing. They need to be heat tolerant if you’re in the Piedmont or Coastal Plain, but not necessarily as heat tolerant if you’re in the mountain area. I found that some varieties that grew well when I was living in Raleigh don’t do as well down here on the coast. So it’s just a matter of finding the varieties that do well in your area. And one of the best ways to find that out is to talk with either your local extension agent or some of the local gardeners that grow vegetables in your area.
Got it! We’ve selected our veggies — now let’s get planting. What is the No. 1 thing people should know about growing a vegetable garden?
David Williams: Have a game plan and try to educate yourself as much as possible before you jump in so that you’re not jumping in and having no success. Design the garden, figure out your space, and make sure you lay it out well so you don’t have to go back and change it.
Lucy Bradley: Start small! Begin with a small area where you can prepare the soil and manage it happily. It is much better to have a delightful small garden that you can expand as you have time and interest than to be ambitious and end up being overwhelmed with weeds and pests.
Shawn Banks: They take a lot of care. You need to pay attention to what’s going on in your vegetable garden to see, for example, when insects first start to arrive, a disease when it’s just one or two spots, or when your vegetables need water. If you do that, a lot of times you can solve a problem when it’s a little, tiny issue — before it turns into a wildfire.
What about tools? What should we have on hand?
Shawn Banks: If you’re doing raised beds or containers, I would recommend a three-pronged cultivator; those are really essential to help loosen the soil. If you’re planting transplants, you can use a hand trowel for digging the holes. Also, a pair of gloves is going to be important to keep the soil off your fingers. I like putting my hands in the soil because it gives me a good feel for what’s going on, but some people don’t like to have the dirt under their fingernails. If you’re planting right into the ground, you may want to have a small cultivator or a tiller, something powerful that’s going to loosen that soil up so you’re not spending a lot of time digging with a shovel. For big areas like that, you may want to have a rake as well to help smooth things out. And something to kneel or sit on while you’re working.
David Williams: If you choose to do a no-till garden, I think a nice broadfork. You could use a regular fork with the two handles, or you could get a more elaborate broadfork. I’d also suggest nice rakes to rake out your beds, as well as shovels, pruners, and hand trowels for planting. And then any cultivation tool you want to use to keep weeds at bay.
Where is the best place to plant?
Shawn Banks: Plant your tallest growing crops on the north side of the garden and the shortest stuff on the south side. In our area, I would also recommend that if you’re going to plant something on a trellis, make sure that the trellis runs from north to south and plant something like garden peas. That way, the sun can hit the east side in the morning and the west side in the afternoon. Gardens that do the best are in areas that receive full sun — at least eight hours during the course of the day. They’re also close to a water source, whether that’s a spigot or a garden hose that’s there on a permanent basis. Also, plant in a place where people can see the veggies every day. If it’s in the backyard and you go in the backyard every day to let the dogs run, that’s a good spot. But if it’s in the backyard and you never go in the backyard, you’re going to forget about it and you’re not going to take care of it. I’ve learned that if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. If it’s close and it’s somewhere you can see it, it’s going to be taken care of a lot better and you’ll get much better production out of it than if it’s hidden.
How exactly should we prepare our soil?
Shawn Banks: I would recommend taking a soil sample and sending that off to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture agronomy lab in Raleigh. Most county extension offices have the forms and the boxes that you would need to take the soil sample. If you’re growing in containers, most of the time you don’t need to do a soil sample, because the crop will adjust to the potting mix that you put in there. But for raised beds and in-ground beds, I would suggest doing a soil test to find out what the pH is and what the nutrient levels are so that if you do need to adjust, that can be done before you start gardening. The plants will be happier through the summer because the pH and nutrient levels will be where they need to be.
Let’s talk safety: What can we do to keep pests and animals from eating our beloved veggies?
Lucy Bradley: Prevention is the most effective, least expensive, and most environmentally-friendly solution. Healthy plants are resilient: Plant well-adapted plants at the right time of year, spaced appropriately, and in a well-prepared garden bed. Water and fertilize effectively. Be vigilant by spending time in your garden and discovering what is normal for your plants. With that, learn to recognize beneficial organisms as well as pests: Look at the tops of leaves and the bottoms, intervene early by removing a leaf with pest eggs, and keep records of planting dates, varieties, purchase location, dates of problem onset, weather conditions, management strategies and their effectiveness, and other kinds of information that help you to recognize relationships and form gardening strategies.
David Williams: If you have enough space, the best thing would be to invest in fencing. A fence needs to be eight feet tall. A deer could possibly jump that fence if it wanted to, but eight feet is typical for deterring a deer. And what happens is that the fence, as it goes lower to the ground, has mesh holes that can keep smaller animals, like squirrels or rabbits out down low.
Shawn Banks: There are, of course, pesticides that can be used. But a lot of times, if you have diversity in the garden — you don’t have a lot of just one thing, like an acre of corn or an acre of tomatoes — the predatory insects will feed on the pests, and you won’t have a large problem. If you do start having a problem with, say, tomato hornworms on your tomato plants, handpicking them is going to be the quickest and easiest way of getting rid of them.
How can we protect our plants from sweltering Southern heat?
Shawn Banks: The best thing to do for extreme heat is to make sure there’s water in the soil. If you keep the soil evenly moist so that the plant doesn’t dry out, it might start to wilt during the day, but at night, when the sun goes down, the leaf will get refilled back up with water because there’s moisture in the soil. For tomatoes, you want to select a heat-tolerant variety. For most of the other crops — like cabbage, collards, and broccoli — by the time it gets that hot, most of those crops are going to shut down anyway, so they’re going to be out of the ground. But for summer crops like corn, squash, cucumber, tomatoes, and peppers, if the soil has moisture in it, those crops will do OK with the heat.
Are there any common mistakes we should avoid?
Shawn Banks: I think the most common mistake that people make in their vegetable gardens is planting too close. And what happens there is that they plant them so close that, as they get bigger, they start competing for the water and the nutrients, and then they don’t produce as well as they would if they were spaced out properly. Also, if they’re not spaced out properly, the wind can’t blow through and dry the leaves out, and you end up getting a lot of leaf spots; and fungal leaf spots can cause the crop not to perform as well.
Lucy Bradley: Starting with too large of a plot and taking all the fun out of the experience by becoming overwhelmed by insects, diseases, and weeds. Not spending enough time in the garden to know what is normal and recognize problems as they are just showing up. And buying stressed transplants on super sale.
David Williams: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start small, take your time, and educate and prepare yourself for what’s to come.
OK, so patience is key! Any other tips for growing a thriving veggie garden?
Shawn Banks: Grow what you enjoy. If you enjoy eating romaine lettuce, plant romaine lettuce instead of iceberg lettuce. If you like growing the big tomatoes, find one that is heat-tolerant and grow the big tomatoes instead of the little cherry tomatoes.
Lucy Bradley: Plant flowers to add beauty and attract beneficial insects. And recognize that it is all good: If you have a huge harvest, wonderful! If you have a pest problem, what a great learning opportunity! Invite the neighborhood kids over to marvel. Get lots of pictures and identify what you can do differently next time.
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