June 13, 2024
Tips on how to start a backyard garden in North Carolina

We’re here with expert advice on getting the warm-weather gardens up and running.

Whether you have a well-oiled backyard garden sprouting collard greens, kale and other cool-weather crops or an empty patch in your backyard that’s ready to become a tomato haven, we talked with a longtime central North Carolina planting expert to learn how we can get our backyards — ranging from a sliver of space on an outdoor patio to a wide-reaching yard — ready for spring planting.

The News & Observer spoke with a gardening pro at NC State Cooperative Extension, a state-specific resource that connects experts to community members.

Rich Woynicz, an NC State Extension Master Gardener who leads the Wake County Master Gardeners Community Garden, spoke about how we can all prepare our backyard gardens for spring.

Jaehoon Lim, correct, and Yong Choi, appropriate, volunteer their time on a Thursday afternoon to assistance plant lettuce for Friendship Yard on March 15, 2012. Charlotte Observer workers file image

When should I start preparing my summer garden?

You can start right now! Map out your space and start thinking about your favorite warm-weather vegetables. You can even start your seeds indoors. Here’s what to know:

Aim for April 15: Warm-weather plants can get in the ground April 15, though anyone can plant warm-weather crops between April and August, Woynicz said.

If you want to maximize your growing season, start building your beds and dreaming about the hot peppers you’ll grind into homemade salsa all summer long.

Spend some time planning: Find your ideal garden space, get your soil in good condition and think about what you want to grow. This will save you from headaches down the road.

Grow your favorites: Look at the NC State Extension’s Common Crop Chart to figure out how to best grow the plants you want to eat. Find this by visiting wake.ces.ncsu.edu and searching “Common Crop Chart.”

Beginner gardeners should start slow with only a few plants at a time, but that doesn’t mean you’ll only get a few tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers. When done well, vegetable gardens produce a lot of vegetables. Grow the ones you want to eat all season.

Start from seeds: With a grow light and a heating pad, you can start planting your favorite vegetables today.

Garden beds vs. container gardens

Your backyard garden can be a raised bed, an in-ground bed or a container garden. There are a few factors to take into consideration when deciding which kind of garden you’ll have in your yard, Woynicz said:

Raised bed: These are more expensive, since you need to build (or buy) a large bed and fill it with soil and organic matter. They’re better for disabled or elderly people, since you can build it with sitting in mind.

The plants you grow will be limited to the space of the garden, and physical limitations may limit the kinds of plants you want as well. (Some tomato plants, for example, can get to six feet tall, which aren’t ideal for those in wheelchairs.)

In-ground bed: These may require more physical labor, as you’ll need to dig out a section of your yard or repair your yard’s soil so it’s ideal for growing. (You can mix your Central NC clay with topsoil, compost and organic matter for a good combo.)

You can determine the size of your garden, as long as the whole space gets full sun, and as long as a water source can get to all spots of the garden.

Container garden: You don’t have to adjust your yard for a container garden. All you need to do is get pots (or other large containers) big enough for what you want to grow.

Container gardening is a good option for those with balconies or patios, or people whose outdoor spaces only get a bit of sunlight.

Note, these get hotter in summer and colder in winter, and they need to be given extra water.

Clean mustard greens are completely ready to be harvested at the Childcare Network in Raleigh in 2016. Juli Leonard [email protected]

How to plant a warm-weather garden

Get your three necessities: Soil, compost and mulch.

If you’re buying soil, you can get 50/50 blends that include both topsoil and compost. Or you can buy them separately and mix them together, Woynicz said.

Prioritize soil health: The NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services offers free soil tests from April to November.

An analogy to think about: Adjusting your soil without knowing what’s wrong with it is like going to the pharmacy without having visited your doctor first. Learn what your soil needs for ideal growing before adjusting with fertilizer.

Loosen the soil: You might want to till the soil, bringing the soil laying at the bottom to the top, but this may disrupt the soil’s microbes and bring extra weeds to the surface.

As long as the soil is loose and not compacted, you’ll give your new plants room to grow and get their roots in the soil quickly.

Plant differently: If you had a warm-weather garden last year, arrange your plants differently this time around.

If you kept tomatoes on the right side last summer, for example, try planting them leftward this time.

Give your plants space: Even seasoned gardeners want to maximize their space and plant their crops a couple inches closer together than they know they should.

But space instructions are given for a reason — your tiny seedlings are going to get humongous, and they need proper spacing to reach their potential and prevent disease.

Mulch everywhere: Covering your soil is important. If you don’t want to buy your mulch, you can use wood chips, leaves or other protective materials.

How to get gardening practice

Take advantage of community gardens: Woynicz runs Wake County’s community gardens and can see just how well they work at teaching both novice and longtime gardeners how to manage their plants at home.

Start small: As small as you can. Since you can plant summer crops anywhere from April to August, start with one or two plants in April, and when you get the hang of it, plant more in June.

“Every community garden I’ve started has started really small. Only two to three beds, which we’ll grow to six, then 12, then 20, then 30,” Woynicz he said. “You’ll feel excited to do everything at once, but even the experts know there are benefits to starting small.”

Expert gardening advice for beginners in NC

Need help? NC State Extension’s Garden Help Directory can help you contact the best person for your needs. For more information, visit emgv.ces.ncsu.edu/need-gardening-help.

To find your local program, visit emgv.ces.ncsu.edu/find-your-local-program.

Almost all of your initial gardening questions can be answered via the NC Extension Gardener Handbook. Find the handbook at content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook.

Here are some NC State Extension guides that can be especially helpful at the beginning:

If you’re interested in connecting with gardeners local to your area, you can visit the NC Community Garden Partners’ Garden Directory at nccgp.org/garden-directory.

The Extension office holds intro to gardening classes, called Ready Garden Grow, at Wake Public Libraries. To find a program near you, visit wake.gov/events and search “Ready Garden Grow.”

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This story was at first posted March 3, 2023, 9:08 AM.

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Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is a provider journalism reporter for The Information & Observer.