by Amy Daniels

Is it ACTUALLY spring yet? The highly variable weather patterns experienced in eastern North Carolina make it a challenge to for both seasoned and amateur gardeners. Seasoned gardeners start itching to dig in the dirt at the first sign of spring and waiting for the appropriate time to plant outdoors is a practice in patience. For amateur gardeners, it makes it can be difficult to know what can be planted early and when it is “safe” to plant things for a full garden.


The 2020 last frost date for our area is April 3. This date is an average based on the weather from previous years which suggests that there is a lower probability of frost beyond the date. The final frost date is typically considered the “safe” time to plant summer veggies and herbs. 

Because there is no guarantee when it comes to weather in ENC, continue to keep an eye on the weather for frost warnings so you can protect plants should the need arise. If a late frost is expected, cover your tender plants with cloth to insulate them. Support the cloth with sticks or containers to keep it from crushing plants. You can also use large plastic storage bins flipped upside-down and plastic jugs with the bottoms cut out to cover plants—just make sure that no part of the plant is touching plastic, or it will freeze along with the plastic.

Eastern North Carolina is in agricultural zone 8. We have a growing season of over 200 days, so even if you err on the side of waiting an extra week or two, there is still plenty of time to grow an abundant crop.


If you are anxious to start planting, there are a variety of vegetables that can be planted before the final frost date, some as early as mid-February. For easy growing, purchase plants that are garden ready from a local plant nursery. Local nurseries are more likely to carry varieties of plants that do well in the area and the plants will be hardened off (ready to plant without risk of going into shock from exposure to the cold). 

Most lettuces, greens, and cruciferous vegetables are happy to grow through cold weather and regular frost. For a longer salad season, plant greens in a spot which receives shade during the summer. Lettuces tend to turn bitter during extremely hot weather.

What to plant:
• Cabbage
• Lettuce
• Broccoli
• Cauliflower
• Kale
• Brussels Sprouts
• Lettuce & Salad Greens
• Mustard
• Collards
• Spinach
• Bok Choy
• Peas (plant seeds directly into garden as peas do not like to be transplanted)


If you are new(ish) to gardening, wait to plant most of your garden vegetables until after the final frost date.  You’re less likely to deal with weather extremes that will thwart your efforts and curb your excitement about gardening. Summer garden vegetables will grow until the first frost in November in the right conditions. 

The most important factors for planting summer vegetables are sunlight and watering. Tomatoes require AT LEAST 8 hours of sunlight to produce tomatoes. Plant your summer garden vegetables in a sunny location that drains well. Vegetable plants do not do well in standing water, so pick a location where water doesn’t typically pool during rain.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, watermelon, and pole bean varieties are vines. To make the most of your garden space, go vertical by planting at the base of a trellis.

Whether you plant in the ground, raised beds, or pots, always check the soil before watering. Poke a finger into the dirt—if it’s moist, it doesn’t need water. Some plants, such as tomatoes and peppers actually do better in drier conditions. Once your plants are established (about a week or two after planting), you should not have to water your garden every day. Check around the base of each variety and water only the plants that truly need a drink.

What to plant:
• Tomatoes
• Okra
• Peppers
• Squash
• Cucumbers
• Eggplant
• Green beans
• Watermelon
• Corn
• Herbs

If you’re new to gardening or haven’t had much success in the past, the best thing is to start small. It’s too easy to over-plant. Spending a small fortune on plants only to have them wither is frustrating and wasteful. Pick a few things to grow this year and focus on finding the right location for those plants to grow successfully. You’re more likely to continue gardening and enjoy the process if you see success. 

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