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Recently, we were lucky to have Jerry and Cathy visit us again here in Chicagoland. We had a great time eating (of course!), drinking wine, hanging out and sharing our daily life/routines. While they visited (and in between snacks, kid activities and the Olympics), I had the chance to sit down with Jerry (our garden expert and a former farmer) about how he’s used these wintery months to plan for the coming year’s Cabin Garden. If I learned one thing from our talks (and I learned a lot!), it’s that for gardeners, winter is the time to reflect, learn and plan. tomoil (1 of 4)

Being that we're all about sharing here at The Cabin Garden and want you to experience the most out of your own gardens, I'm happy to share Jerry's top 5 ways to prep your garden during the cold months...

1) Review last year’s plantings Jerry spends considerable time evaluating the plants of previous years. He looks at and analyzes his plants’ production, past disease/pest susceptibilities and the overall desirability of the harvest. As an example, last year we grew flax. While beautiful and a healthy addition to the plot, it was a nightmare to harvest (click here for the full story). Since its harvest wasn’t a success for us, not as much space will be devoted to it this year. Also, any bug issues are reviewed/troubleshooted and potential mitigations are evaluated. Finally, if any seeds were saved, an inventory is taken and plans for their use (or not) is made.

2) Research new plants and techniques Jerry is a bit of a data hound... If there is data that can be put in a spreadsheet and analyzed, Jer is a happy man. He scours books, magazines and the internet for useful tidbits to apply to the garden. One of his great interests is companion gardening (for those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s all about putting plants together that benefit from each other). One of his favorites, is the basil plant. Not only is it a natural bug repellant (natural mosquito repellant, anyone?), but it also is known to enhance the taste of tomato plants. Look for some other great companion planting tips in the coming weeks...

3) Draft potential garden designs Graph paper is Jerry’s friend. Some of the drafts he shared with me featured ways to improve past space issues. His layouts included plans for walkways (for easier navigation) and wider row spacing to allow the tiller to fit (greatly reducing the weeding effort). Other drafts featured ways to optimize his companion gardening techniques - it’s quite the puzzle to ensure the plants are situated near other “friendly” plants and vice versa.

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4) Finalize your final garden design - and stick with it! After settling upon your ultimate garden design - stick with it and buy appropriately. Jerry admits this is sometimes hard - he loves his plants and sometimes it is hard to exhibit self control when planting. :)

5) Evaluate your soil and plan for mulching materials Being a former farmer, Jerry is a huge believer in getting your soil “right”. Not all earth is created equal... and soil is what ultimately feeds plants. If your soil is missing key elements and nutrients, you should plan to ammend it. As an example, my soil in Chicago is predominantly clay, which is suffocating to most plants. To improve the soil, much of the clay had to be removed from the beds (backache, anyone!?) and various types of compost and manure were worked into the soil. I was also instructed to add a layer of compost every year to continue building up the bed. Makes a lot of sense!

While the soil at the Cabin Garden is already packed with nutrients from our lake, Jerry still religiously works old leaves, compost and turkey manure (he loves this stuff) into the earth in the Spring. While turkey manure isn’t the most desirable substance to most, the prolific results of Jerry’s soil-building cocktail are hard to protest (though it does tend to prompt an extra wash after harvesting our vegetables!).

So, there you have it. Some great ideas from a farmer to get you started on your next harvest - even if your ground is a bit more frozen than you’d like...

And, before I close with a snazzy infographic outlining the above tips, I leave you with a photo of our garden planning guru, Jer Ber.  Look how happy he is getting our garden off to a great start! Thinking about Spring makes me happy, too. It's just around the corner - right??  Errrr...Right!!

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