Author Interview: A conversation with Lucy K. Bradley, co-editor of the North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook

The North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook

Lucy K. Bradley discusses the publication of the North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook with John McLeod, director of the Office of Scholarly Publishing Services at UNC Press. The book was published by the NC State Extension earlier in April, and is available now in both print and ebook editions.

The North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook was developed especially for Master Gardener volunteers and home gardeners and is a primary source for research-based information on gardening and landscaping successfully in North Carolina and the Southeast.

A fundamental reference for any seasoned gardener, it is also written to appeal to beginners just getting their hands dirty. It explains the “why and how” basics of gardening from soils and composting to vegetable gardening and wildlife management. Advice on garden design, preparation, and maintenance covers all types of plantings including lawns, ornamentals, fruits, trees, and containers.


John McLeod: First of all—congratulations to you and Kathleen Moore on the publication! You mention in the book that the North Carolina Extensions Master Gardener sm Program was started in 1979 and now boasts over 4,500 Master Gardenersm volunteers in the state. Can you explain how this book evolved and how it fits into the state’s Master Gardener sm Program?

Lucy K. Bradley, co-editor of the North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook
Lucy K. Bradley, co-editor of the North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook

Lucy Bradley: The book began as a new edition of the NC Extension Master Gardenersm (NC EMG) program training text. The previous version was a loose leaf binder with black and white text and line drawings that had not been updated for twenty years. Our first goals were to update and expand the content; add color images; and make it available online as a searchable tool. Since our IT department was not prepared to manage password access for 4,500 volunteers we decided to make it available to the public. We changed the name to the North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook to reflect its wider distribution and to protect the NC EMG brand. In its new form, in addition to being the primary text for the NC EMGV program, it will be used in a variety of other programs including school, professional, and prison training programs. The online version was created to automatically resize to fit phone, tablet and computer screens and is great for quickly finding answers to specific questions, however, it is not as beautiful, or user-friendly for reading entire chapters at a time. Our next step was to convert the online document in to a hardback book. Graphic designer John Buettner was the mastermind behind the transformation. The final step was creating a digital copy of the print version of the book which retains the beauty of the hardback book, but has the easy search features and portability that come with being digital. So the handbook is available in three different formats to meet the varied needs of our clients.

JM: People seem to really love Extension Master Gardener programs, but they are also known for being very rigorous and scientifically comprehensive. Who takes these courses? Do people have different goals for taking them?

LB: The NC EMGV program attracts people who are interested in learning and then putting that knowledge to work to provide practical gardening solutions to help people grow functional, attractive, environmentally responsible gardens and landscapes. NC EMG volunteers empower people to make informed decisions to:

  • Enhance local food security
  • Connect children and families with nature
  • Cultivate environmental stewardship
  • Promote health and well-being through gardening, better nutrition and increased physical activity

There are a variety of ways to contribute. Some volunteers answer plant problem questions from phone, by email, or for walk-in clients. Others participate in the speaker’s bureau, write articles, manage demonstration gardens, coordinate youth learning opportunities, participate in public events, and much more. Some are drawn to the opportunity to learn, others are motivated to address environmental issues, some thrive on the leadership opportunities, most enjoy connecting with other individuals with shared interests and passions.

JM: I think it’s fair to say at 728 pages with over 1,000 color images and 109 tables that this book is comprehensive. But with years of research behind it from the NC State Extension and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State University, it’s also authoritative. Can you tell us a little bit about the team of scientists and experts who contributed to this project?

LB: NC State Extension faculty and staff, county agents and EMG volunteers all contributed expertise and experience throughout the handbook. Lead authors were NC State experts from the Departments of Horticulture, Entomology and Plant Pathology, Crop and Soil Science, Forestry and Environmental Resources, and Plant Biology. Twenty-seven Extension Specialists, forty Extension Agents, and fifty-five EMG volunteers worked on the project.

JM: More people than ever are engaged with issues surrounding sustainable and ethical environmental practices, perhaps most notably in the area of food. Master gardening programs were really ahead of their time and have been teaching these practices for decades. It must be gratifying to see these ideas catching on more widely. Do you think this trend will continue? What ideas haven’t caught on yet that you hope are poised for wider awareness and acceptance?

LB: It is an exciting time to garden. Edible landscapes are becoming common and community gardens are popping up all over. There are more pollinator gardens and urban wildlife habitats. People are interested in storm water management, composting, and green waste management.  I am excited to see gardeners making decisions based on a systems approach—identifying the connections, cycles, and impacts rather than simply adding more inputs. Small space gardening is rapidly growing with more and more urban dwellers taking interest in gardening and seeing that it is possible to create a successful garden on small urban lots, patios, decks, or rooftops. With that, I think vertical gardening is going to become a less expensive and more readily available option.

JM: This book was written with a focus on North Carolina. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges of covering a geography as diverse as ours that includes the coast, piedmont, and mountains? What regions outside of North Carolina can this book serve?

LB: North Carolina stretches from the mountains to the coast with wide variation in soils, temperatures, and elevation, as well in timing, duration, and intensity of the seasons. Some plants, insects, and diseases thrive in one part of the state and not in others. Therefore, in creating this handbook to be broad enough to work for the entire state of North Carolina, it is also useful in many other places. While some of the chapters include specific varietal recommendations for growing in North Carolina, most of the book would be useful to gardeners in the Southeast and far beyond. However, while the chapters on Native Plants and Wildlife both have information for a broader audience, they also have details specific to North Carolina ecoregions and laws.

JM: We had what seemed like a long winter, but it seems like we are fully into spring now. What are you working on in your own garden right now?

LB: My pears and plums and blueberries have all bloomed and set fruit, but my pomegranates and persimmons are just waking up and putting out leaves. They are good indicators that it is safe to start planting my vegetables. I have stacks of seed stalks from perennials cut late winter (after the songbirds feasted) that need to be broken up to fit in the compost pile and lots of spring weeds to pull for my hens. I love spring!


Want to learn more?

* Visit to view information contained in this book in an open access format

* Access free gardening resources from NC State Extension by visiting

* Find the Extension center in your county to speak with local experts by visiting

* Become a Master Gardener volunteer and join an outstanding group of life-long learners working together to change the world. Learn how at