The oligotrophic regions of the subtropical gyres cover a significant portion of the global ocean, and exhibit considerable but poorly understood intraseasonal, interannual, and longer-term variations in spatial extent. Here using historical observations of surface ocean nitrate, wind, and currents, we have investigated how horizontal and vertical supplies of nitrate control seasonal changes in the size and shape of oligotrophic regions of the subtropical North Atlantic. In general, the oligotrophic region of the subtropical North Atlantic is associated with the region of weak vertical supply of nitrate. Though the total vertical supply of nitrate here is generally greater than the total horizontal supply, we find that seasonal expansion and contraction of the oligotrophic region is consistent with changes in horizontal supply of nitrate. In this dynamic periphery of the subtropical gyre, the seasonal variations in chlorophyll are linked to variations in horizontal nitrate supply that facilitate changes in intracellular pigment concentrations, and to a lesser extent, phytoplankton biomass. Our results suggest that horizontal transports of nutrient are crucial in setting seasonal cycles of chlorophyll in large expanses of the subtropical North Atlantic, and may play a key and underappreciated role in regulating interannual variations in these globally important marine ecosystems.