Fay Mitchell

The last frost should be history across North Carolina. If you are of an all-natural bent, or just want to save money on groceries, you may be celebrating having planted your vegetable garden. You would part of a long tradition in North Carolina. Early in the 1700s, John Lawson explored North Carolina, and in 1709 published “A New Voyage to Carolina” revealing that he was enamored with the area’s richly varied plant life. He came to love gardening and settled in Bath in 1705.

His garden may bear little resemblance to yours, as he raised foxgrapes, peaches, raspberries, strawberries and damsons – a kind of plum. Fruits were a favorite because desserts were rare. Jams and jellies also were favored in days long before refrigeration.  

Hundreds of years before Europeans arrived on these shores, American Indians were cultivating the “Three Sisters”— crops of corn, beans and squash. They were raised together in a process called “companion planting.” Corn supported pole beans, beans provided nutrients to the soil, and squash – particularly pumpkins – controlled weeds and kept the soil moist.

Some North Carolina State Historic Sites continue the gardening tradition with period appropriate gardens. The colonial Roanoke Island Festival Park cultivates a Three Sisters garden  in its American Indian Town area. Gourds and other vegetables also are raised there.

Historic Bath has a vegetable garden, which includes squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon and peppers, with green beans and lettuce to come. The colonial Tryon Palace has seven flower gardens, a medicinal garden and a varied Kitchen Garden that includes tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. The garden at Historic Edenton will include geraniums and perennials and will add a vegetable garden in the future. Historic Halifax will include in its garden corn, cucumbers and collards.

A Civil War-era garden at Bennett Place includes the medicinal plants of horehound, tansy, catnip, bee balm, hyssop, yarrow, comfrey and St. John’s Wort. Presently the vegetables growing are peas, radishes and collards, as the early spring crops. Summer crops of green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and squash soon will be planted.

Historic Stagville has planted one garden reflective of what the plantation owners would grow, and is planning another reflective of what the enslaved families would cultivate. The historic sites of House in the Horseshoe, Horne Creek, President Polk, Alamance Battleground and Fort Dobbs also will have gardens.

The Three Sisters have remained popular over the years, and have been joined by cabbage, tomatoes, onions, collards, peas, carrots and cucumbers. Of late, new favorites include varieties of lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, arugula and eggplants. I have told myself for a couple of years that I would start a little garden. I’m still telling myself that. If you have such a notion, a good place for guidance might be the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which I sought out. It offers a few tips: 

  • Think of the crops you want and the need of each for space, shade, water and nutrients.
  • Consider the length of the growing season and the first and last frost dates prior to planting.
  • Be real about how much time you will have to devote to planting, pruning, hoeing and all the other aspects of garden maintenance.
  • Understand harvest times, for example, warm-season crops such as peppers compared to cool season crops such as lettuce.
  • Sample a free trial of the Almanac Garden Planner software, which calculates how many vegetables will fit in a space and the planting and harvesting dates for vegetables.

Remember most vegetables need at least six hours of sunlight daily, although broccoli, lettuce and other greens will grow with less light. Avoid planting near large trees which will compete for nutrients and sunlight. Good airflow will discourage fungal diseases and make the garden less hospitable to insects that prefer a stagnant, humid environment. Make sure water is readily available so you don’t have to lug buckets of water to thirsty plants.

Happy Gardening!