Looking for the best things to plant in fall in North Carolina? Enhance your North Carolina garden’s productivity this autumn by discovering the ideal crops for the season. With its cool temperatures and vibrant landscape colors, fall in North Carolina is a gardener’s delight.
However, it’s essential to recognize that not every plant is suitable for fall planting, regardless of location. Here’s a guide to what you should be adding to your Tar Heel state garden this upcoming season.
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North Carolina is among the few states in the US to offer excellent weather with more than 200 sunny days on average. Moreover, temperatures in North Carolina tend to be nearly 10 degrees higher than the natural average, making it a relatively warm state with temperate winters. However, ultra warmth and sunny conditions don’t exactly do great for cold hardy, and cool weather plants.
Fortunately, North Carolina lives up to its reputation for offering great fall conditions to plant cool weather-loving plants. Areas, such as Piedmont, for example, offer mild fall and winter, allowing residents to enjoy outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, and picnicking for longer. These same conditions make gardening during these seasons more favorable.
Since these seasons aren’t too hot or dry, you get the perfect conditions for sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings. Moreover, you get more time to continue growing your favorite fall plants for much longer than in other states since it takes a little longer for frost, ice, and snow to appear.
There are many reasons why you should plant some plants in North Carolina. Many plants recommended for fall planting thrive better since they are cool weather-loving. For example, leafy greens, such as lettuce, would otherwise fail to flower, bolt, and develop a bitter taste when grown in warmer seasons. But, this is not all fall planting helps to prevent.
Here are other reasons why fall planting in North Carolina is a good idea;
Planting in the fall can help reduce strenuous gardening work while mother nature becomes more forgiving on the plants. The summer season is usually swarmed with hot and dry days. These conditions make it a little more difficult for seeds to germinate and continue to absorb water for root development due to the limited water availability.
This means that you have to frequently water plants and protect them (provide shade) on extremely sunny days. A few days of neglect can easily lead to the death of the plant. As you deal with these demanding gardening conditions, you expose yourself to the harsh outdoor conditions for longer, making gardening a not-so-pleasant activity.
On the other hand, the fall season is more forgiving on both you and the plants. As fall sets in, temperatures cool and it begins to gradually shower. This, in turn, increases moisture availability in the ground and reduces moisture loss as the environment isn’t as dry or hot. Fall nights are also cooling making it easier for soil to retain moisture.
These conditions allow for easier seed germination and seedling/plant root growth and development. Your plants grow faster and healthier. Plus, you don’t have to spend hours outdoors watering and protecting plants- even the fewer hours you spend aren’t so bad, either.
Unlike the warmer seasons, the cooler fall season comes with minimal to no risks of pests, diseases, or weeds. Without weeds competing for space, moisture, and nutrients, your plants enjoy sufficient resources to grow to their potential while remaining strong and healthy.
The fall season allows plants to grow with less stress. Moreover, the cool conditions foster more strategic growth. While the roots continue to grow and develop, the shoot system stops growing during this time due to the cool weather above ground. Whether it’s transplanted trees, shrubs, or perennials, this period offers sufficient time for stranger and healthier root development and growth.
This allows the plant to preserve as much energy and use it on flowering and fruit development during spring. A good example is when you plant spring blooming flowerings in fall, you get a more bountiful blossom in spring. Moreover, having enough time to grow and develop roots during the cold season allows perennials to emerge stronger during the fall season.
Fall-tolerant food crops are also better off planted during this cool season. Root vegetables, like carrots and radishes, get enough time to grow their roots during the cold season and to convert their sugars. This explains why they develop better taste when planted at the right time in the fall.
We’ve already emphasized that the fall season comes with the likelihood of more water and cooler weather. This means that your plants enjoy better moisture retention and require less watering. But, this is not a one-time, one single-season benefit. Planting during the fall season sets the plant for life when it comes to water needs.
Here’s how it works – Naturally, plants require less water during fall due to the cool conditions and shorter days. Moreover, when you first sow seeds or transplant seedlings, you will regularly water them during the first few weeks and reduce the water frequency as weeks pass.
You can then leave most of the watering for nature to do its cause, thanks to the rain showers during this season. This should be the end of it for plants, such as root vegetables and leafy greens you intend on harvesting within a couple of weeks. Plants, such as trees, shrubs, and perennials continue to benefit from this fall perks.
Since the fall season gives the plants adequate water, they, in turn, grow stronger and more established routes. Ultimately, these plants develop deeper roots, making it easier for them to uptake water and even survive through the hot and dry summer seasons to come.
On the other hand, since the cooler seasons allow for root development, more energy is preserved for shoot system development during spring. As these plants grow bountiful and expansive foliage during spring, their deeper roots use this time to absorb as much water reservoir from the soil, further reducing the need for watering.
- If you plan on fall planting in North Carolina, August and September are your garden’s friends. The majority of the best fall plants produce better results when sown or transplanted into the garden bed during this time. The actual planting date varies from plant to plant due to their maturity period.
- When deciding on the planting date, figure out the plant’s duration (number of days) to maturity from the seedling nursery or seed packet. Then, subtract this number from the first average frost date of where you are to get the best planting time. For instance, kale seeds are generally sown at least 6 to 8 weeks before the first frost date.
- August and September are the ideal playing dates for most fall plants. However, you may experience some hiccups, depending on where you are in the state. August may still be too dry and warm for seed germination for some leafy greens, while September becomes too cool (well over 85 degrees Fahrenheit).
- You can mitigate extreme temperature issues for leafy greens. Sowing the seeds in August instead of September, slightly deeper into the soil (not too deep that the weight damages the seeds). You can also mulch the area where you sow seeds to help keep the temperature cooler and retain more moisture.
- When mulching for seeds or seedlings, avoid heavy or large pieces that can damage the plant. Continue to closely monitor the seeds until germination happens to ensure your efforts aren’t in vain.
- When choosing between weeds or transplants for vegetables, seeds are a better option. However, if you have minimal irrigation infrastructure, transplants are better.
- Different plants will handle frost differently. For example, vegetables may require more protection from frost. In this case, you can protect them using material, such as clear plastic, in raised beds. Protection from frost and strong winds also extends the fall growing season for the plants. Keep in mind that while frost and wind protection are important, always remove the protection on sunny and warm days.
The fall season in North Carolina accommodates a variety of plantings. These include cover crops, leafy greens and vegetables, root vegetables, flowering perennials, shrubs, and trees. Interestingly, the North Carolina climate also accommodates the planting of summer crops in fall.
Here’s a more detailed list of the 10 best plants for fall in North Carolina;
1. Cover Crops
You can plant cover crops, such as beans in your garden in the fall. These cold-tolerant plants don’t just give you a supply of nutritious food crops. They also offer immense benefits for other plants growing in the garden.
Cover crops, like beans, clover, and peas are soil-fixing, meaning they transform the nutrients in the soil into nitrates. Nitrates come in handy as a source of nitrogen, aiding in bountiful foliage growth. So, leafy greens and brassicas would really love this environment!
Moreover, as their name suggests, cover crops are space-filling plants. Adding them to the garden helps to fill out the space that would otherwise be taken by weeds. With reduced weed growth, your plants enjoy less competition for resources, like nutrients, water, and sunlight.
In addition to outgrowing weeds, cover crops prevent soil erosion and valuable topsoil loss that may be caused by rain and storing winds. They also help to trap and retain moisture and nutrients in the soil.
But, if you go for food cover crops, you have to exercise extra care and attention. Crops, like beans, are barely frost tolerant, so you have to protect them from frost, shade, and excess water and mulch them as the cool seasons progress.
Here are examples of cover crops and recommended planting periods;
- Beans (Early August to mid-October as seeds)
- Peas ( Mid-August to late November as seeds)
- Clover (Mid-August to mid-September as seeds)
- Rye ( Mid-September to Mid-December as seeds)
- Oat ( Mid-September to Mid-December as seeds)
2. Leafy Greens
Most leafy greens were made for the fall season. When planted from late summer through mid-fall, leafy greens achieve the best flavors and taste during harvest. This is because the cold season triggers them to produce and convert sugars that boost their taste.
In fact, planting leafy greens, such as lettuce in the warm season results in bolting and a bitter taste. The best part of planting leafy greens is that they are fast-growing. You don’t need to weigh more than 100 days to enjoy the fruits of your labor – some will even grow within 40 days!
In addition to giving you a generous supply of nutritious and delicious greens, leafy greens can also benefit the garden. When dug into the ground, leafy greens offer enough organic matter to replenish the soil with rich nutrients. Moreover, they aid in microbial and earthworm activity near the soil surface, making the ground fertile and healthy.
Leafy green seeds are usually sown right after the last summer plant harvest, ground clearing, and tilling. Unlike some parts of the country, even late North Carolina summers can be dry and warm with crusty topsoil. When leafy greens are planted around early August to early September, the surface can sometimes still be too warm and dry.
If this is the case, try to sow the seeds slightly deeper into the ground. This ensures that the seed germination isn’t stunted by the dry, warm, and crusty top North Carolina soils. The deeper into the ground it gets, the cooler and more moist it becomes.
You will also need sufficient irrigation setup to break through the topsoil surface and adequately hydrate the ground underneath. As a general rule of thumb, water the seeds with at least an inch of water weekly until the seed germinates and forms a seedling.
Here are examples of leafy greens and recommended planting periods;
- Spinach (Late August to mid-September as seeds)
- Lettuce (Early mid-September as seeds)
- Kale (Mid- August to mid-September as seeds)
- Arugula (Mid-September to late October as seeds)
- Collards (Late August to mid-September as seeds)
- Mustard greens (Late August to mid-September as seeds)
Like leafy greens, brassicas prefer to grow in cool conditions. The longer cool season provided the perfect environment and time for members of this plant group to grow and develop the best flavors. However, to get the best results, you want to sow brassica seeds in mid-summer to late summer or early fall.
Late summer to early fall planting gives brassicas enough time to sprout before they get cold and develop their sweet flavors during the slower cold growing season. When planted during this time, you can harvest a fully matured (at the right size) and delicious-tasting brassica well before the warmer spring season.
On the other hand, planting them in the late fall or winter period affects their growth cycle. Planting brassicas late slows their growth rate (the colder it gets, the slower they grow). This, in turn, causes the plant to fail to grow to its mature size before the flowering and seeding period in spring.
Brassicas follow a biennial life cycle, completing most of their growth in the first year. During the second year, the plant seeds and gradually dies. So, the best harvest period for brassicas is before they have flowered (e.g. Cabbage and Brussels sprouts) or seeded (e.g. broccoli and cauliflower).
But, what about just planting them during spring or summer to guarantee adequate warmth for sprouting? Warm weather is not the ideal environment for producing brassicas. These crops require perfectly tuned conditions for the best results.
They need a few weeks for the transitioning summer to early fall warmth followed by the cool fall-to-winter climate. This is because the cold weather is essential for developing the sweetness that offsets the plant’s natural bitterness. Planting brassicas in warmer seasons will also end up producing bitter-tasting leafy vegetables.
Since brassicas are planted when it’s still warm, they come with a risk of pest infestation and diseases. However, later on, as it gets cooler, this risk slowly disappears. Nonetheless, employ protective measures during the planting period to ensure there isn’t any contamination.
Additionally, brassicas need a lot of water when first planted so they can sufficiently grow before the cold weather. This protects them from the same problem they may experience when planted late.
Here are examples of brassicas and recommended planting periods;
- Cabbage (Mid to late August as seeds)
- Cauliflower (Mid to late August as seeds)
- Collards (Mid to late August as seeds)
- Broccoli (Mid-August to Mid-September as seeds)
- Kohlrabi (Early to late September as seeds)
- Swiss chard (Mid to late August as seeds)
- Brussels sprouts(Mid to late August as seeds)
You can also cut your growing time by planting brassicas, such as cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, as transplants.
4. Root Vegetables
Root vegetables can handle light frost when insulated properly. Root vegetables usually grow underground while their foliage appears in the warmer spring season. The reason why they continue to grow and thrive underground is that they rarely freeze deep into the ground. Instead, the sufficiently cool underground allows the vegetables to develop a sweet taste.
Now, the science behind this is that these crops produce a compound in their starchy roots that functions as antifreeze in the cold. It just so turns out this compound is starchy sugars slowly converted into simple sugars.
So, the longer the root system develops underground the sweeter the vegetable becomes. Root vegetables are pretty flexible and can actually be planted twice in a successive manner. You can plant them in the fall for winter harvest and in late winter for spring harvest.
Here are examples of root vegetables and recommended planting periods;
- Beets ( Early to mid-August, mid-February – early April as seeds)
- Carrots ( Early to mid-August, mid-February – early April as seeds)
- Parsnips ( Early to mid-August, mid-February – early April as seeds)
- Turnips ( Late August to Mid-September, mid-February – early April as seeds)
- Radishes ( Late August to Mid-September, mid-February – early April as seeds)
- Rutabaga ( Late August to Mid-September, mid-February – early April as seeds)
If you love to use herbs in your cooking, want to naturally fend off bugs, or simply want a natural deodorizer, cold hardy herbs are great for fall planting. You can also grow a variety of herbs in your garden during fall in North Carolina. Herbs, like parsley and basil, thrive in mild cool weather in North Carolina and can be planted during fall.
Cold hardy herbs tend to grow as perennials as they become dormant in winter and regrow in spring. This means that you want to plant them well before the first frost. Plus, since they don’t take up much space, you can fit them in empty spaces within the garden bed or put them in pots.
Note: You can also grow cold hardy herbs in Spring after the last frost.
Here are examples of herbs and recommended planting periods;
- Parsley (Early September as seeds)
- Cilantro (Early September as seeds)
- Thyme (Early August to early September as seeds)
- Oregano (Early August to early September as seeds)
- Sage (Early August to early September as seeds)
- Basil (Early August to early September as seeds)
- Mint (Early August to early September as seeds)
- Lemon balm (Early August to early September as seeds)
- Sorrel (Early August to early September as seeds)
- Catnip (Early August to early September as seeds)
- Caraway (Early August to early September as seeds)
- Tarragon (Early August to early September as seeds)
6. Bulbs & Alliums
Members of the alliums family also do well when planted in the fall. These include everything from onions and ornamental onions to garlic, chives, and spring onions. Alliums are usually grown in early to late fall before hard frost. They go dormant in the extreme cold and appear in spring when it gets warm. Unfortunately, alliums can easily fall victim to overwatering or overwintering, causing their bulbs to rot.
Here are examples of bulbs and alliums and recommended planting periods;
- Onions (Mid-September to October, mid-January to late February as seeds)
- Spring onions (Mid-September to October, mid-January to late February as seeds)
- Chives (Mid-September to October, mid-February to late April as seeds)
- Garlic (Mid-September to late November as seeds)
- Alliums (Ornamental onions) (Mid-September to October as seeds)
7. Summer Vegetables
Some coastal parts of North Carolina can accommodate the fall planting of summer vegetables. These include tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and corn, to name a few. However, to successfully harvest these plants around fall (around early October to early November) before the first frost, you need to transplant them.
This is because transplanting significantly reduces the growing periods. Unfortunately, since the planting is done when the weather is still warm, there’s usually a risk of insects and diseases. So, you have to be more observant of your plants to ensure they are not infested.
Here are examples of summer vegetables and recommended planting periods;
- Tomatoes(Early-September as transplants, late July to early August as seeds)
- Peppers (Early-September as transplants, late July to early August as seeds)
- Cucumbers (Early-September as transplants, late July to early August as seeds)
- Zucchini (Early-September as transplants, late July to early August as seeds)
- Squash (Early-September as transplants, late July to early August as seeds)
- Corn (Early-September as transplants, late July to early August as seeds)
8. Trees and Shrubs
A long line up of shrubs and trees can be planted, whether you want to create a privacy green screen or add shade to your garden. Remember, when planting your shrubs or trees, you need to leave enough space for root growth and canopy expansion. Further, due to their size, most trees are demanding of resources.
So, ensure you enrich the soil with adequate nutrients, create rough drainage, and moisture retention. You can also use root stimulators for trees to stimulate healthier and stronger root development during the cooler seasons.
Here are examples of shrubs and trees and recommended planting periods;
- Leyland cypress(Mid-September as transplant)
- Crape myrtle(Mid-September as transplant)
- Skip laurels (Mid-September as transplant)
- Redbuds(Mid to late October as transplant)
- Flowering dogwood (Late October to early December as transplant)
- Cherry trees (Late October to early November as transplant)
9. Lawn Grass
If you are trying to transform your garden into a greenery landscape by next summer, incorporate fall-tolerant lawn grass. There’s a long list of lawn grass you can add to your yard, depending on your location in North Carolina. For instance, ideal lawn grass varieties for the coastal plains area aren’t the same in Piedmont or the mountains.
Nonetheless, go for cool-season lawn grass for fall planting in North Carolina. Plant lawn grass around mid-September to early October. Doing so allows the grass to seed, germinate, and establish before the winter months.
Cool season lawn grass, such as tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, and Kentucky bluegrass grow exceptionally well in the NC fall and even remain a little green during winter. Either way, when it comes to lawn grass, don’t just focus on its cold hardy properties. In addition to ensuring they grow well in fall, pick a cultivar that matches your surroundings. Think of details, such as your home’s outdoor traffic, soil moisture, color, and texture needs, among others.
10. Flowering Plants
You can plant a variety of flowering perennials and annuals. While gardeners in colder areas do so earlier in fall, you can plant perennials in the early to late fall period in North Carolina. Some of the best flowering perennials to plant in September in North Carolina include shasta daisy, mums, spider lilies, asters, and sedums, to name a few. You can also incorporate summer annuals, such as dahlia, petunias, begonias, and salvia into your garden in September.
When Should You Plant in Fall in North Carolina?
August and September are usually the best months for most fall plantings in North Carolina. However, a few select plants can also be planted as late as October and November. Before you plant, always cross-check to know the actual recommended planting month for the particular plant.
Can You Grow Fruits in Fall in North Carolina?
You can grow fruit trees such as apples, peaches, and plums in North Carolina. However, fall is usually not the ideal time to plant them. Instead, the best time to plant fruit trees in North Carolina is early spring after the last frost through the warm summer period.
Can You Grow Potatoes in Fall in North Carolina?
Unfortunately, fall is the best time to plant potatoes due to its proximity to the frost season. Planting potatoes during fall will interrupt their growth since there isn’t time for them to develop before the frost period halts the growth process. While they are a cool weather crop, potatoes in North Carolina should be planted between March and April right after the last frost.
Fall in North Carolina is a golden opportunity to diversify your garden with a plethora of crops. Whether you’re aiming for a verdant lawn, a privacy screen, a burst of spring colors, or a pantry of fresh produce ranging from leafy greens to root vegetables, the options are vast. As you chart the course for your garden’s evolution, don’t forget the importance of fall prep. Clearing and enriching your soil now can be the difference between a good and a great harvest.
For those looking to optimize their plant pairings, explore our guides on companion planting:
- Companion Plants for Pole Beans
- Companion Plants for Spinach
- Companion Plants for Carrots
- Companion Plants for Tomatoes