How to plant / transplant summer vegetables in North Carolina

By May, the threat of overnight frosts should be clear, and it's safe to start planting vegetables outside.

By May, the threat of overnight frosts should be clear, and it’s safe to start planting vegetables outside.

jleonard@newsobserver.com

The yellow pollen has cleared and the smell of sunscreen is starting to fill the air. Summer is on its way!

To prepare for the summer gardening season, you may have already gathered your garden materials, got your soil tested and checked out your local gardening store for their offerings. Maybe you’ve been growing your seeds indoors for the past few weeks.

No matter your level of prep, central North Carolinians can start putting their summer plants in the ground.

The News & Observer talked with Kyle Parker (the North Carolina Botanical Garden Edible Campus Coordinator) and Claire Lorch (who manages the NC Botanical Garden’s Carolina Community Garden) for expert tips on transplanting your seedlings into your summer garden.

How to plant summer crops in your garden

Now that we’re into May, nighttime frosts shouldn’t be a concern anymore. This means that now’s a great time to start planting for the summer season.

In North Carolina, summer planting can look like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, eggplant and sweet potatoes. Root vegetables, like onions, garlic and some types of carrots, love cooler weather, so waiting until fall’s cool temperatures might be better for those, Parker said.

Here are Parker and Lorch’s step by step instructions for transplanting your summer crops into your garden:

Choose a sunny spot: Planting in a location with insufficient sunlight is a common mistake, Lorch said. For edible plants, we’re talking full sun — that’s (at least) six hours per day.

Prepare your soil: Knowing the makeup of your soil will help you understand the ways you can improve the soil and make it the most habitable environment for your summer garden. Good news: North Carolina has free soil testing eight months out of the year.

You can get your soil tested for free by the NC Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Services. For more information, visit ncagr.gov.

The N&O previously wrote a full guide to soil health. To learn more, visit newsobserver.com/living.

Harden off your plants: “Always harden your transplants off for a week or so before planting in the ground. It’s essentially acclimating the plants to their new environment,” Parker said.

This is the process of getting your plants acclimated to your outdoor garden, where temperatures are colder, wind gusts shake the plants and the sun shines brightly. Transferring immediately from inside all the time to outdoors all the time will shock the plants, making them vulnerable to disease and other hardship. To harden off the plants, start by keeping them outside for a few hours every day in the shade.

For more details about hardening off plants, check out our previous story on seedling health: newsobserver.com/living.

Separate roots: “Breaking up the roots is recommended if the plant has become pot bound,” Parker said. “Do so gently. I just use my fingers.”

Watch the depth: Some plants need more soil depth than others.

“Most things can be transplanted at the same depth as they were in their previous containers. Tomatoes, however, can be planted deeper,” Parker said. “Tomatoes will grow roots from buried stems. This means that if you have a 12-inch tomato seedling, you can bury that bottom four to five inches.”

Doing so makes your soil less likely to dry out throughout the season.

Be careful with your tomatoes: “When it comes to transplanting tomatoes, carefully remove any lower leaves that are touching the soil to decrease chances of any soil-borne diseases,” Lorch said.

Without proper spacing and aeration, tomatoes can easily develop diseases. We’ll devote a story to tomato health later, but for now, know that spacing and aeration are key. (This is true for all plants, but tomato plants especially.)

Water!: “New transplants do not have deep intricate root systems, so keep them well watered for the first couple of weeks to reduce plant stress,” Parker said.

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A horticultural therapy intern at the NC Botanical Garden helped UNC-CH employee Claire Lorch, right, dig out the small weeds from between growing tomato plants and their companion nasturtiums. Harry Lynch hlynch@newsobserver.com

5 things to do when transplanting summer plants

Make sure you do these things when moving your seedlings into your summer soil:

1. Space appropriately: The plants normally come with spacing instructions, but there are tons of online resources for getting that info.

2. Prepare for pests: Bugs and critters are going to love your delicious foods, so start thinking of ways to deter them from your harvest. If you’re hoping to garden organically, this can look like making a homemade concoction of soap and garlic, or you can try planting a trap crop that’ll attract the pests.

“In my garden, I know squash bugs are coming, so I like to plant a trap crop,” Parker said. “That’ll be destroyed, but the main crop will last a little longer.”

For example, nasturtium works very well as a trap crop, Parker says, but it grows vigorously so it’s important to have a plan in place and plant it somewhere where you don’t mind it taking over.

3. Remember the pollinators: Plants that will attract pollinators (the birds and the bees) are incredibly important, and you can plant annual native plants in your garden itself. The Carolina Community Garden has French marigolds, calendula, alyssum, zinnias and sunflowers to attract pollinators and beneficial insects this season, Lorch said.

To figure out which native annual plants are best for your space, you can contact native plant experts through the NC Botanical Garden’s Green Gardener Clinic (ncbg.unc.edu/plants/green-gardener).

NC State Extension Sustainable Agriculture Agent Debbie Roos has a well-known Top 25 Pollinators list. For the full list, visit growingsmallfarms.ces.ncsu.edu.

In cooler months, like spring and fall, you can plant perennials that will be perfect for next summer’s garden.

4. Support: You won’t need to worry about propping up tall, skinny plants (like beans or tomatoes) as you’re transplanting, but choose the best location for plants like these. You’ll need to provide trellises, cages or other kinds of structures for the plants to climb as they grow, otherwise the plants will fall on top of themselves, creating spacing issues and becoming more disease-prone.

5. Know mistakes happen: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes — that is how we all learn. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are tons of people (like Parker and Lorch) who really want to talk shop and help you out.

You can use the NC Botanical Garden Green Gardener Clinic, or you can use the NC State Extension Garden Help Directory to contact the best person for your needs: emgv.ces.ncsu.edu/need-gardening-help.

3 common summer planting mistakes

Avoid doing these three things when transplanting your summer crops, Parker said:

1. Remember to water: The plants need water immediately and they can’t be neglected as summer moves forward.

2. Mulch: Mulch is important for keeping moisture inside and preventing a lot of weeds.

3. Stick to spacing: Spacing seems easy now when plants are so small, but with potential spacing, they aren’t going to reach their full. Plus, inadequate spacing makes plants disease-prone, since aeration is key.

Questions about backyard gardening?

Do you have questions about your backyard garden? Any stories you’d like to see about gardening topics? Tell us here. Or email kcataudella@newsobserver.com.

This story was originally published May 10, 2022 9:15 AM.

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

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