Grow Great Vegetables in North Carolina


By Ira Wallace

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Get the inside dirt, North Carolina!

This ultimate local guide to growing vegetables and other edibles provides you with insider advice on climate zones, average frost dates, and growing season details across North Carolina. Information includes details on sun, soil, fertilizer, mulch, water, and the best varieties for your region. A garden planning section helps with design and crop rotation, and monthly lists explain what to do from January through December. In-depth profiles of nearly 50 edibles round out the information and help ensure a can’t-miss harvest.


Few things are more rewarding than harvesting homegrown vegetables from one’s own garden.


I have been giving talks on gardening, writing articles, and contributing to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog for many years. But it took surviving a life-threatening operation for me to finally agree to write an actual book. For this second foray it was Timber Press again who got me to consider offering specific advice for North Carolina gardeners. This volume would not be possible without the help and support of the team at Timber Press, as well as the generously shared knowledge from our many knowledgeable agricultural extension agents, organic farmers, and gardeners throughout North Carolina.

Thanks also to my gardening friends Pam Dawling, Cindy Conner, and Ken Bezilla, who shared their experience and their years of gardening records, and answered so many of my questions along the way.

I am especially grateful to Lisa Dermer, organizer par excellence, and Gordon Sproule, who both worked with me from the beginning, helping whenever I asked—editing and offering insightful suggestions and personal encouragement whenever I needed them.

Thank you to all my friends and fellow worker/owners at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Acorn Community Farm for supporting me in writing this book by taking on a lot of my usual work in our gardens and in the office.


Vine-ripened tomatoes, succulent figs, crisp winter salads, corn on the cob, and sweet braised greens are just a few of the fresh-from-the-garden delights awaiting gardeners in North Carolina. Working with long, hot summers and mild, uneven winters, southern gardeners from Thomas Jefferson to Barbara Kingsolver have feasted abundantly in every season. Every year at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, a celebration of heirloom varieties, local food, and sustainable agriculture at Jefferson’s mountaintop home, I have the privilege of meeting hundreds of eager gardeners. The bountiful harvest on display at the festival is an inspiration to new gardeners. With a little planning and knowing how to make the right choices for a southeastern garden, even beginning gardeners can have that abundance throughout the year.

I often run workshops on year-round gardening and growing garlic and perennial onions at the Monticello and Mother Earth News fairs, and afterward, eager participants frequently ask if I have a new book. This is my newest offering, a more localized book, sharing what I have learned about year-round food growing in over 40 years as an organic gardener and over 20 years as an advocate and producer of heirloom organic seeds at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE). Our motto at SESE is “Saving the past for the future”; we strive to preserve the knowledge that lets farmers enjoy abundant harvests without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Our farm is certified organic and I am committed to keeping our spot of earth healthy and productive. Throughout this book, I have shared the information you’ll need to make your own garden equally rich.

My gardening roots trace back to my grandmother’s backyard in Florida, where I grew up. We had something growing every month, although all I remember growing in late summer were black-eyed peas, okra, and sweet potatoes. That was the slow time, but it didn’t last long. As soon as the weather started cooling off a little, we went all-out with greens, squash, peppers, tomatoes, and beans. Winter brought on lettuce, celery, and even more greens. I don’t think I grew broccoli and other, more refined members of the cabbage family until after I went off to college. But, boy, did we have some fine cabbages, collards, turnips, and mustards. These memories make fall and winter gardening special for me. Fall harvests provide fresh organic food just when it is most expensive in the markets and less available from local farms. And growing a fall garden is actually easier than summer gardening, once you get the timing down. In the July and August chapters, I’ll go through the basics of summer planting for an abundant fall and winter harvest. I share the techniques and timing that work for us to start seeds in the heat.

In these hectic, modern times, many of you might feel that it is hard to find the time you need to produce your own food. Well, let me tell you that I struggle with having enough time myself. It’s one reason that I am always looking for new ways—like creating no-dig “lasagna beds”—to make gardening easier. Gardening is still a lot of fun for me. I always make time to try out something new in the garden each year. This is how I find new and exotic tastes like Thai Red roselle for jams and refreshing drinks or delicious new-to-me heirlooms like Shronce’s Deep Black peanut. I have tried to share many of my favorite heirloom varieties for those of you who want to be able to save seeds as well as enjoy fine flavors. I have included basic seed-saving instructions for each of the vegetables in the Edibles A to Z section.

There are almost as many reasons for gardening as there are gardeners. But whatever the reasons, in the last five years we have seen the number of new gardeners buying our seeds increase by 10 to 20 percent every year and the attendance at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello has quadrupled. The question of what is going into our food and where it comes from has led many of us toward local and organic food, and that excitement is only growing. And what food is more local than the food from your own backyard? Whether you are new to gardening or an old hand looking for tips, I hope this book will give you the tools and motivation you need to get gardening straight away.

Get Started

A backyard vegetable garden in Chapel Hill locates plantings with colorful homemade markers.

This rural North Carolina garden produces a bounty of corn and beans.


North Carolina

North Carolina is a lovely river-riddled state with a varied gardening history starting before the arrival of European settlers, with the Hatteras tribe of the coastal areas, the Cherokee in the mountainous regions, and three groups (the Catawba, Chowanog, and Tuscarora) in the Piedmont to the coast. The gardens at Old Salem recreate and teach about the gardening practices of the very successful Moravian settlers who left detailed records. Perhaps due to the rivers and mountains, small self-sufficient farms were the most common type of farm in North Carolina well into the twentieth century. The geography is varied from the barrier islands, sandy soils, and pine barrens along the coast through the richer soils and rolling hills of the Piedmont, to the rugged and majestic mountains where fall is a glorious blaze of color.

Defining our Climate

The climate in North Carolina is wet and warm with long, hot summers, high humidity, and mild winters. It’s wonderfully suited for year-round gardening when microclimates are used to stretch the seasons and attention is given to temperatures that can change quickly. While the Cecil soils in the Piedmont may be richer than others, gardeners all over the state can have success building their own rich garden plots with the addition of ample compost and organic matter to their sandy coastal or thin mountain soils.

Looking at differences in the regions of the state will help frame your garden season. First, let’s define the climate zones used throughout this book in the To Do This Month lists. In 1960, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Plant Hardiness Zone Map defining ten climate zones. Each zone represented a 10°F difference in the lowest reported winter temperature. In 2012, the map was updated, adding two zones at the warmer end using the average low temperature and other scientific data for thirty years that gave a more accurate picture of the weather. The number of freezing days in various areas of North Carolina has declined by four to seven days since 1970, bumping up the rating for many in zones 6, 7 and 8.

Knowing the average first and last frost dates helps us decide when to plant, but these dates alone are not enough. Local features such as mountains, lakes, buildings, hedges, walls, and windbreaks all affect the hardiness of plants, and can help us decide when stretching beyond recommended dates is worth the risk. Other factors such as soil type and drainage are also important for getting abundant harvests of greens and root crops during North Carolina’s wet winter months. The accompanying maps and chart will give a picture of the zones in North Carolina and show the average first and last frost dates for some major cities.


Asheville 21–31 Oct 1–10 May
Boone 1–10 Oct 21–31 May
Chapel Hill 21–31 Oct 1–10 May
Charlotte 1–10 Nov 21–30 April
Elizabeth City 1–10 Nov 21–30 April
Fayetteville 1–10 Nov 21–30 April
Greensboro 21–31 Oct 21–30 April
Greenville 21–31 Oct 21–30 April
Raleigh 1–10 Nov 21–30 April
Wilmington 11–20 Nov 11–20 April

Growing Season in North Carolina

The length of the growing season is the time between your area’s average last spring frost date and average first fall frost date.

Zones 6, 7, and 8. These growing zones encompass North Carolina.

Average minimum winter temperatures:

Zone 6: -10 to 0°F

Zone 7: 0 to 10°F

Zone 8: 10 to 20°F

Average days above 86°F:

Zone 6: 46 to 60

Zone 7: 61 to 90

Zone 8: 91 to 125


The North Carolina Coastal Plain (zones 7 and 8). This is the state’s largest region, comprising a long, low, flat area along the state’s Atlantic coast. It includes the often beautiful but low-fertility white sands of the Outer Banks and its islands; the Tidewater, including sections of the Great Dismal Swamp; and as the elevation rises going west toward the Fall Line, some of the best farmland in North Carolina. As in many acidic, sandy areas, the secret to success as a gardener here lies with generous applications of compost and other organic matter, as well as the judicious application of lime. These amendments will take you from pine barren to abundant harvest. A long growing season and ample rainfall puts a four-season harvest in easy reach here.

The Piedmont (zone 7). Gently rolling hills and rocky rivers make up the Piedmont, which is bounded by the Southern Appalachian’s Blue Ridge Mountains on the west and the Atlantic Fall Line cities of Raleigh, Fayetteville, Columbia, and Raleigh-Durham on the east. The area extends in the south from the Virginia line to Charlotte. The soil here is mostly mineral-rich clay that without amendment is good for growing research parks but not much else. However, with the generous addition of organic matter and lime to adjust acidity, Piedmont soils can produce beautiful and productive gardens.

The North Carolina Mountains (zone 6). Running along the western section of the state is the mountain region, starting with the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east but also including other parts of the Appalachians, including the Great Smoky Mountains, the Pisgahs, the Brushys, the Black Mountains, and Mount Mitchell. These are some of the highest elevations east of the Mississippi. They moderate the climate, stopping cold winds from the north and west as well as creating a drying rain shadow. The rain shadow is cast by the mountains catching moisture from systems traveling east. The soils along these mountains produce breathtakingly beautiful mixed hardwood forests in the fall—but they are also thin and require work for good gardening results.

In addition to the zone 6 mountainous regions of North Carolina, there are a few very small areas in the highest parts of the state that qualify as zone 5. However, these regions are so limited in size that they are not visible on our hardiness zone map and are not covered in this book. For more information on gardening in these lofty elevations, consult your local extension agent or extension Master Gardener volunteers.


Climate and weather are distinguished from each other by time. Climate describes weather conditions over a long period of time. Weather is what’s happening right now: short-term variations tied to individual weather systems (for example, fronts, hurricanes, and air masses).

Altitude is perhaps the largest influence on North Carolina weather. The 6700-foot range in elevation from sea level to the mountains—with some valleys dipping almost another 1000 feet below sea level—leads to a potential 20°F temperature variation from lowest ground to highest in all seasons.

Another strong influence on weather in the state is warm, moist air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico meeting cold fronts heading south from Canada. Where the two meet, there are thunderstorms, heavy rains or snow, and sometimes hail or tornadoes. The gulf stream also has some warming effect especially on the outer banks. The southern tip of the Labrador Current just reaches North Carolina, off-setting the warming effect. In late summer and fall, tropical storms and hurricanes can move up the Atlantic coast or careen across the Gulf of Mexico bringing high winds and even more water to the region. This convergence zone makes for 90 inches of rainfall in southwest North Carolina, the rainiest region in the eastern United States. Less than 50 miles north, in the shelering rain shadows of the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains, the French Broad Valley has only 37 inches of rain annually, the driest point in North Carolina.

According to the National Weather Service, another important factor in forecasting seasonal weather in North Carolina is the El Niño/La Niña Southern Oscillation (ENSO). It describes the variable surface temperature and atmospheric conditions far away in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. The strongest impacts are during the winter months. Usually, El Niño means a cool, wet spring and La Niña results in a warmer, drier winter and spring. However, La Niña winters can sometimes lead to drought the following summer, and El Niño may delay spring planting dates due to excess soil moisture.


While climate describes the weather over time in our region, microclimates are those small areas that are different than the larger general region. Microclimates bring us home to our yard and garden. They may be created by a number of things: buildings, extra-windy areas, topography, or large bodies of water. In urban areas, buildings can have a huge effect on the climate nearby and paved areas may act as heat sinks, keeping city gardens a few degrees warmer. Buildings and fences may act as wind barriers or create wind tunnels. If there’s a large body of water nearby such as a lake or the ocean, this tends to moderate the air temperatures of nearby areas.

Living on top of a hill or deep in a valley plays a major role in microclimates. Warm air is lighter than cold air, so if a gardener lives in a valley, they may have more frost problems than someone living higher up. In windy areas, the top of the hill can be several degrees colder than a spot along the slope. Other microclimate factors are soil types, mulching practices, paved surfaces, fences, walls, raised beds, cold frames, row cover, balconies, and rooftops. A smart gardener will observe their microclimate and use it to their advantage when locating crops or making modifications. Adding a brick wall or a living windbreak of trees can help trap heat or provide shade where needed.

A community plot in Asheville encourages gardeners to grow their own vegetables and herbs.


In these times of climate change and erratic, unpredictable weather, many scientists and gardeners are returning to the observation of nature as a guide to planting times and predicting insect and disease problems. Phenology is the study of recurring plant and animal life cycles and their relationship to weather. Many historical figures, including Thomas Jefferson, recorded phenological observations that are being resurrected and used to understand changes in climate and weather.

Plant and insect development are temperature dependent, not calendar dependent. After the winter dormancy period, temperatures rise and plants and insects develop. Growing Degree Days (GDDs) are a scientific measure of accumulated heat. Farmers and gardeners with a scientific inclination are using the GDD measurement of heat to predict which insects will be active at which point. Calculating GDD is a bit complicated, but fortunately for us, recent research at the University of Ohio has confirmed the relationship between GDD and traditional phenological observations. Currently in the North Carolina Appalachian region, numerous organizations and schools perform small-scale phenological studies. The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob each have independent phenology monitoring programs that are coordinating efforts in the region. These efforts and the National Phenological Network allow you to contribute your own observations and draw from the information being gathered by fellow citizen scientists in your region.

So—gardeners who record bloom times, insect occurrences, and bird migrations and use the concept of phenology have another important tool for success at their disposal. For example, if you plant your peas when the forsythia blooms you risk losing a few plants to late frost but you will be in the right ballpark.


dandelions begin to bloom sow beets and carrots
daffodils begin to bloom plant potatoes
forsythia begins to bloom sow peas
redbuds begin to bloom expect flea beetles
lilacs in full bloom sow beans, squash, and cucumbers
oak leaves the size of “squirrel ears” sow corn
foxgloves begin to bloom bean beetle eggs hatch
fall dead nettle shoots emerge sow spinach

Source: Acorn and Twin Oaks Communities Garden Phenology Calendars and Records

Get Planting

Beets, peas, and other vegetables grow behind a house in Old Salem.

Savoy cabbage can take an overnight frost, making it a good winter vegetable.


Planning for Fresh Food All Year

Even in the sunniest parts of North Carolina, January brings some rainy days well suited to sitting in a cozy chair, planning for the year ahead. The preparation work you do now—garden maps, a planting schedule, testing seeds left over from last year and ordering any you’ll need for this one, and setting up a spot to start your own plants from seed indoors—ensures a bountiful garden for the year to come. There’s plenty to do outside as well, from pruning perennials to taking soil samples for testing, to preparing beds (if the soil dries out enough). If you are new to growing your own food, the Get Started section of this book will help you learn about the climate and soils in our region, pick a good location for your garden, and get started growing healthy, fresh, delicious food for a twelve-month harvest. Let’s start planning!!

Garden Maps and Planting Schedules

There are many joys to vegetable gardening, but there are also a few predictable and avoidable frustrations. One of these is having everything ripen at once. Planning for a continuous harvest of fresh, tasty, homegrown produce is one of the major challenges for a beginning vegetable gardener.

In the previous chapters, we discussed locating your garden, succession planting, types of planting systems, and other things that will help you with your garden planning. Take some time to review those chapters and think about how much time you have, what you want to grow, how big you want your garden to be, where it will be located, and what type of planting system you prefer. A smaller, well-maintained garden is often more productive and a better situation for gaining experience than a larger garden that is a bit out of control. Once you make these decisions about the size, type, and location of your garden, it’s time to make a map and create a planting schedule to keep your garden producing all year.

Winter is the perfect time to plan your dream vegetable garden.

Measure your garden plot and plan the spacing of paths, rows, and beds. Note the location of any buildings, large trees, or shrubs that will shade your garden in the coming months. Include the north-south orientation on your map. Show sources of water and any areas with obvious drainage problems.


  • “A must-have resource for spring vegetable gardening.” —Triangle Gardener

  • “A must-have resource for spring vegetable gardening.” —Triangle Gardener

On Sale
Mar 31, 2020
Page Count
252 pages
Timber Press

Ira Wallace

Ira Wallace

About the Author

Ira Wallace serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance and is a worker/owner of the cooperatively managed Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which offers over 700 varieties of open-pollinated heirloom and organic seeds selected for flavor and regional adaptability. She is also an organizer of the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, a fun, family-friendly event featuring an old-time seed swap, local food, hands-on workshops, demos, and more. She currently writes about heirloom vegetable varieties for magazines and blogs including Mother Earth News, Fine Gardening, and Southern Exposure.

Learn more about this author