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Expert Tips

As the cost of living rises, so does backyard gardening.  More homeowners are choosing to grow their own food for numerous reasons.  Backyard gardens can slash your grocery bill, give you more control over the types of fertilizers that come into contact with your food and make for a great hobby!  A recent study by the National Gardening Association found that one in three households now grow their own fruits and vegetables.  The top three reasons given for planting a garden were to produce better tasting food, lower grocery bills and grow higher quality food. Whatever your reasons are for planting a garden, don’t reach for the shovel just yet! Consider the following tips for planting a successful garden:

1. CHOOSE THE PERFECT LOCATION.   
When choosing a place for your garden to grow, conduct as much research as possible before committing to a plot and tilling up the ground.  Soil conditions, amount of sunlight and exposure to the elements should not be overlooked.

Soil Composition - Soil that is porous and loose will provide the best growing conditions. Clay, gritty sand and soil abundant in rocks are areas to avoid when   planting a garden.  Make sure to also test the pH level of your soil, so you know what type of plants will grow best in your local soil.  If the soil pH level is above 7.0, you can attempt to lower it by adding organic materials or select plants that grow in those conditions; however, fewer plants grow in pH levels over 7.0.  A pH level around 6.0 is ideal.  If you discover that your soil pH level is below 5.5, you can also add organic   material to raise the levels.  Adding pine needles will lower soil pH and adding agricultural lime will raise soil pH levels.  Soil test kits can be purchased online or at a garden center. 

Sun Exposure - Gardens need eight hours of mostly direct sunlight to grow successfully. Choosing a location shrouded in shade will result in lower yielding plants that will be more susceptible to pests.  Observe the amount of sunlight your yard receives and take note.

Water Source - Your garden will need to be consistently watered.  Consider having your garden within hose distance or close to another water source, so you can water more efficiently.

Mother Nature - High winds and flooding can definitely spell disaster for your garden. Are there creek beds within close proximity?  Is a wind break necessary? Do your research and plan accordingly.

Utility Lines - Remember, utility lines can potentially be buried in an area you wish to dig.  It is important to premark your project with white paint and flags before notifying JULIE. Every digging project requires a call to JULIE.  You should call JULIE at 811 or 1-800-892-0123 before you dig and have your lines located for free by our members.  A “locate request” can also be completed via E-Request by visiting illinois1call.com or you can contact a call center agent at any time.  Call center agents are available 24/7 to process requests.

2. KNOW WHEN TO TILL.
It is best to till in the spring right before you plant.  Why, you ask?  Soil compaction      occurs during the winter months.  Plants grow best in fluffy, porous soil and tilling is the easiest when the ground isn’t dripping in moisture.  Soil is also best tilled when it has reached a temperature above 60 F.  If you can pick up a handful of soil, squeeze it and it disintegrates, the soil is dry enough to begin the tilling process. Rototillers are quite the investment and best suited for large gardens.  As a novice gardner, it is best to start small and grow larger as you gain experience each year.  A shovel, spade and simple garden claw will work well for a backyard garden.   

3. USE COMPOST OR GARDEN MIX.
Using a good compost or garden mix is the key to a successful and bountiful garden. Both options contain nutrients and organic matter that will boost plant growth and       reduce the need for fertilizer.  Compost and garden mixes can now be purchased at most garden centers, some recycling centers and from local farms in your area.  If you are feeling extra ambitious, you can begin your own compost pile to stow away for future planting projects.  Plant trimmings, grass trimmings, and decaying leaves are a good start to a healthy compost pile.  Just remember to turn the pile once a week and let mother nature do the rest.  The following year you will be ready to use your very own compost. No purchase necessary.

4. SPACE SEEDS AND PLANTS EVENLY.   
Even spacing and consistent depths are critical when burying seeds or established plants, so be careful not to over crowd each row.  Also, don't forget to place a tag or marker on each row, so each plant is easily identifiable! If you choose to plant seeds, be sure to plant the same fruit or vegetable in two to three week intervals.  Small interval sowings will ensure a steady supply of food rather than having an oversupply of a particular item all at once.  You should always strive for minimal food waste. 

5. WATER PROPERLY AND CONSISTENTLY.
Know when and how to water your plants.  Avoid moisture stress by watering the ground around the plant, not the leaves of the plant.  You should also water earlier in the day and not after sundown.  Blossom-end rot is one of the most common problems gardeners face when watering their plants.  Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are at high risk for blossom-end rot, so be sure to use a soaker hose, watering wand, watering cone and/or mulch to combat this disorder.

By following these tips you’re sure to set up your backyard garden for success.  If you’re not sure what to plant in your garden, here are a few fail-safe picks:

Tomatoes - An ideal choice for beginners, tomatoes come in a number of different varieties. They are best sown after the ground is above 60F, but develop quickly and produce all season long until the first frost. 

Chili Peppers - Give your garden a kick!  Like bell peppers, chili peppers are fairly hardy and continually produce throughout the growing season. 

Radishes - Hardy in even the most undesirable soil conditions, radishes are easy to maintain, produce quickly and are best purchased as seeds.

Carrots - They grow best in deep soil and need minimal attention.

Lettuce - Lettuce grows best starting as a seed. It can grow quickly, easily and be harvested as needed.

Don’t make dangerous assumptions.  Before any dig, call JULIE at 811 or 1-800-892-0123. You can also submit a “locate request” via E-Request by visiting illinois1call.com or contact a call center agent at any time.  If you choose to begin your project over the weekend, remember to notify JULIE by Wednesday at 4 p.m. All projects must begin within 14 days from your notification to JULIE.  For additional information please reference our Homeowner’s Guide.