This post was most recently updated on January 12th, 2021
Back to Eden gardening method has totally revolutionize my gardening practices. This is how we grew all our family’s vegetables without weeding or watering at all! These days I barely weed the garden, I pretty much never water the garden either, and it is more productive now then it has ever been.
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What is Back to Eden Gardening?
Back to Eden gardening is an idea thought up by Paul Gautschi, and it just makes so much biological sense.
Using natures own methods, we can quickly rebuild topsoil, grow healthy plants and support all the natural bugs and insects as well as the microbiota that keep our soil healthy and alive.
The secret to the BTE gardening method is the wood mulch that it uses.
Wood mulch that you get from an arborist (often for free!) is a mixture between shredded sticks and leaves. It works out at almost exactly the 30/70 ratio of greens to browns that makes perfect compost.
This wood mulch sits on the top of the soil and breaks down slowly. All the while it feeds the plants and retains moisture perfectly – just like a forest floor.
Is Eden Gardening just Mulching with Woodchips?
No, it isn’t that simple sadly. There are different types of wood chips, and for Eden Gardening, you want to be using what is called wood mulch – where the leaves, twiges, bark and wood are all chopped together in different sizes. You do not want to use saw dust, wood shavings or just bark chips as these are all too high in carbon with no nitrogen.
It’s all about keeping moisture in the soil and the hot sun and winds out. Some great covering options if wood mulch chips aren’t available include grass clippings, leaves, animal manures, straw or spent hay.
Benefits of a Back to Eden Garden
The aim of a BTE garden is to be no-till, no-watering and minimal maintenance.
Back to Eden gardening method is all about recreating the environment in which plants already thrive in nature.
Plants grow beautifully in an established Back to Eden garden, many of mine grow so much better now then they ever have.
I get tomatoes so big, both hands can’t hold them! Now that is abundance.
To achieve this you need plenty of wood mulch, with a new layer each year for a first few years.
Nitrogen in Back to Eden Gardens
One complaint many have with the concept of Eden Gardens is that too much carbon matter will rob the soil of nitrogen.
This is not the case when BTE gardens are done correctly.
- You need to use mulching material that contains some nitrogen
- You lay the material on top of the surface, not mix it in to the soil
- You plant and sow into the soil below the mulch.
These three steps will ensure that your nitrogen stays in the soil where it belongs. As the mulch breaks down it will also slowly add more nitrogen to the soil.
If you mix wood chips into your soil, it certainly will lock up the nitrogen in the soil.
Downside to Back to Eden Gardening
The first year of swapping to a BTE garden, you may find that your plants do slightly worse than normal if you set it up too late in the season.
This is because as wood breaks down, it absorbs nitrogen from the air and soil around it for the decomposition. Once the decomposition is complete, it will release the borrowed nitrogen plus so much more back to the soil.
There are a couple of ways of mitigating this effect.
- Put a layer of compost or manure down first
- DO NOT mix the wood mulch in to the soil, only leave it on the surface
Both of these steps will minimize the nitrogen loss in the first year.
Also, there are a few trees that you DO NOT want to use – eucalyptus (we found that out the hard way!) and walnut will both hinder the growth of anything you mulch with them for the first year. After a year or so, they will have released the chemicals that stop other plants growing and you will be fine.
When is the Best Time to Start a Back to Eden Garden?
The ideal answer is last Fall, this would have given the mulch some time to start breaking down and start building your soil food web.
However, all is not lost. You can start your BTE garden whenever you like.
If you are starting in the Spring, be sure to add a layer of compost under the wood mulch to feed your soil, and this will kickstart the breakdown of the wood chips as well.
Always be sure to plant in to the compost or soil rather than in to the wood chips.
How to start a Back to Eden Garden in your backyard
Ideally, your new garden will be in full sun, or at least get 8 hours of sun per day.
Choose a spot that is easy to get to from the house, as well as easy to either bring a dump truck to, or at least wheelbarrow access.
Shelter from the prevailing wind is also a bonus.
Because you build this garden upwards, it doesn’t matter so much what the soil underneath currently looks like.
2. Create a base layer
If you have weeds where you want to put your garden bed, I suggest that you cover the ground in a very thick layer of news paper (non shiny stuff) or cardboard from boxes.
Mark out the edges of the garden with a string or a hose or something, so you know where you are aiming to fill.
Flatten out corrugated cardboard boxes, removing all the tape as you go. Make the layer at least 2 layers of cardboard thick. This will stop the weeds growing through.
Now comes a thick layer of well rotted compost, and/or manure and bedding. You want at least 4 inches (10cm) of compost over the whole bed.
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It will compact quite a lot (down to about 1/3 of what you started with), so do more rather than less.
4. Wood mulch
Now comes the magic layer. If you ring your local council, you may be able to get their wood mulch from caring for the city’s trees for free. You will need somewhere that they can back up and drop off a whole truck load at once.
Otherwise try arborists in your neighbourhood – here they sell it, but it is pretty cheap when you buy it by the truckload.
What you DON’T want is lumber yard sawdust from treated wood. It needs to have the bark, wood and leaves all shredded together.
Put your wood mulch in a layer that is 6-8 inches thick for the first year. After that you will need to add 4 inches a year for the next few years, then you can go down to 2-3 inches a year as maintenance.
The good thing is though, that you will not need to buy compost or add manure to this garden again, the wood mulch does it all.
Tips for starting your Back to Eden garden
- Don’t let your new bed dry out during construction, try and get it finished within one or two days. Once compost is dry it is very hard to get wet again without using a huge amount of water.
- Ideally build your bed when you are expecting some rain. Rain will soak in to your beds and the moisture will give it a head start.
- Hunt around for your resources, I found one place selling mulch for THREE TIMES the amount we ended up paying for it.
- Build your beds in Autumn/Fall and let them settle and soak over the Winter if you can. While Spring beds will totally work, I have had better success the first season if the beds have had the Winter to break in first.
How to plant in a Back to Eden garden
Once your garden is set up, it is best to plant out seedlings rather than sow from seed for the first year, with the exception of big seeds like peas and beans.
To plant a seedling, you need to part the mulch and plant the transplant right down in the compost below. As the plant gets bigger you can push the pulled back mulch back in to place.
How to sow seeds in BTE gardening
A study in Florida directly compared the ability of different wood mulches to suppress lettuce seed germination.
Surprisingly, the scientists found that all the fresh mulches suppressed seed germination; however, after six to nine months, all of the suppressive properties were gone.
After the first year, you will have an amazing layer of soil forming under the top layer of mulch. To sow fine seeds, you will need to pull the mulch back to expose the lovely soil underneath.
This is where you need to plant your seeds. As the plants grow, you can push the mulch back around the plants.
Seeds sown in to the top layer of wood mulch only will not germinate, and those that do will wilt when their roots cannot reach the moist compost layer underneath.
Maintenance of a Back to Eden garden
There is very little that needs to be done. If you find stray weeds, pull them out and leave them on the surface, they will quickly dry out and die. Then nature will add it to your garden’s compost as it decomposes.
Seeds or seedlings may need watered when they first go in, but generally gardens that are this well mulched and with so much organic matter will seldom need real watering.
Once a year you will need to top up your mulch layer with more wood mulch. But there is no tilling and very minimal weeking involved.
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For further reading, I also recommend all of these books. I own every one of them and they are amazing resources!