I watch it happen every spring.
Everywhere I go, I see families out in their gardens, filled with optimism and enthusiasm!
I watch them labor and toil, rototilling the soil, raking, hoeing, digging, turning over earth until they have a nice, beautiful patch of bare soil.
I watch them lovingly and tenderly place their garden plants in the ground. I watch them carefully placing seeds in tidy furrows. I watch them water the plants and seeds, filled with dreams about their future harvest. I watch them out there faithfully watering the bare ground, encouraging their plants to grow and prosper.
Then, I watch it all fall apart.
It happens every year. By late June/early July, the nice beautiful bare patch of soil is a tangled mass of knee-high weeds. The lovingly, carefully placed plants and seeds are choked out by the aggressive and vigorously growing weeds.
The families give up. The battle has been lost. They might be able to rescue a stray tomato or zucchini here and there, but most often the entire vegetable patch is abandoned. The family complains about how hard gardening is and wonders why they keep trying it, why they keep losing the battle.
It’s depressing indeed.
Does this story sound familiar? Is this YOUR experience with gardening? Has this very scenario forced you to give up your dreams of having a vegetable garden?
What if I told you…
- …it doesn’t have to be this way?
- …that it’s possible to have a garden with virtually NO WEEDS?
- … you could have a garden that rarely needs to be watered?
- …that you never have to rototill or turn over the ground ever again?
- …your plants could be healthier, more vigorous and pest free than ever before?
Would it make a difference to hear that a few hours of work NOW (in the fall!) could completely transform your garden so that in the spring you can simply put in your plants and walk away?
Sound to good to be true? It’s not, my friend.
Let’s Take a Little Field Trip
I want you to imagine we are going on a Field Trip together. We are going to go for a stroll through the woods and a meadow, to observe and ponder what we see.
When we get to the woods, we stop and examine the forest floor. Besides the trees and shrubs, there are a few plants shooting up here and there, but for the most part, it’s a lovely ground cover of leaves, pine needles and small twigs. No one comes in the woods to rake, hoe or rototill. No one comes into the forest to water the trees.
No one comes into the forest to fertilize the plants. No one comes into the forest to weed around the trees and bushes.
The leaves and pine needles do all the work – they suppress weeds, trap needed moisture at the roots of the trees and fertilize as they breakdown and disintegrate. We dig under the layer of leaves and find an active and thriving ecosystem underneath, helping to create rich, productive soil – worms, beetles and all kinds of insects.
We leave the woods and head to the meadow.
We pull back some of the plants/grasses and observe that in the meadow, there is also a thick ground cover – dead plants and grasses from the previous year create a healthy layer of mulch, protecting the soil from drying out and eventually breaking to down to fertilize the new growth.
I ask you to look around, to tell me if you see any bare patches of soil. Of course, there are none. It is rare to find bare patches of soil in nature. Nature abhors bare soil. Bare soil is dangerous – it is susceptible to erosion (think about the Dust Bowl, an incredible man-made disaster that resulted from removing grass and trees and creating huge fields of bare soil that quite literally all blew away).
So who does nature employ to prevent bare soil?
Weeds are specially designed to quickly and completely invade areas of bare soil and protect the precious soil from erosion by wind and water.
When you think about it this way, weeds are really quite amazing and valuable in many circumstances. They have a distinct purpose and they do their job incredibly well!
Mimicking Nature in Your Garden
So now let’s conclude our Field Trip and see if we can take the lessons we learned and apply them to your garden.
We learned two main ideas:
- Ground Cover – It holds moisture, fertilizes the plants and provides a home for beneficial creatures.
- Nature Abhors Bare Soil – Bare soil is an invitation for weeds.
Creating a garden with no ground cover and bare soil is simply asking for trouble. It goes against all the laws of nature.
Why keep fighting nature? Why not mimic nature instead?
Gardening doesn’t have to be endless drudgery of tilling, weeding, watering and fertilizing. Instead, let’s observe nature, mimic its patterns and let nature do the work for us!
Back to Eden Gardening
I wish I could tell you I was smart enough to come up with all these ideas and observations on my own… but I’m not. I have to give all the credit to someone else! His name is Paul Gautschi.
Years ago, a friend from church casually mentioned “Hey, have you ever heard of Back to Eden Gardening?” Intrigued, I went home and Google searched it. The rest is history!
The Back to Eden website was a revelation for me. As I read the information and watched the highly informative documentary film, my jaw dropped. It all made SO MUCH SENSE. I was so excited about it that I made my husband watch the film too! Even he, who does not share my intense enthusiasm for gardening, found it be to be eye-opening and inspiring.
Paul Gautschi, the founder of Back to Eden, has a lovely way of incorporating his faith life with his gardening. The connections are truly beautiful and astounding. For many of us, gardening can be an act of worship and Paul helps to guide us on that path. Even if you are not a person of faith, I hope you will be able to appreciate his philosophy.
Paul’s film and growing philosophy are incredibly helpful on a spiritual AND practical level. Under the tab “How to Grow an Organic Garden,” Paul lays out all the steps in a logical, easy to read format.
The main concept of Back to Eden Gardening is “The Covering“. If you remember our little imaginary Field Trip, we saw that the ground covering (leaves, mulch, whatever you want to call it) is the foundation of growing.
Without The Covering, we will be endlessly battling weeds, drought, poor soil nutrition and erosion.
The garden must have a covering.
It really got me thinking. Most people understand that to keep their landscaping and flower gardens weed free and sufficiently moist, they need to put down a layer of mulch. Why are we not doing the same for our vegetable gardens?
Perhaps it’s because we are stuck in the idea that we must turn over the earth (with a rototiller, tractor, spade, etc). Sometimes we keep doing things because “that’s just the way it’s done”, and we don’t stop to think WHY we do it that way. I think most of us are under the impression that tilling is beneficial because it removes weeds and creates loose, airy soil.
In fact, it does the opposite. Tilling actually “wakes up” dormant weed seeds that are better left undisturbed. It also destroys and disrupts earth worms and beneficial insects that improve soil quality and structure. Worst of all, soil that is tilled repeatedly becomes compacted – the top inches may seem loose and airy, but the layer underneath where the tines can’t reach develops into a “hard pan,” a nearly rock-hard layer which makes it virtually impossible for plants to develop strong, deep roots.
There is a better way.
Put away the noisy, gas-guzzling unnecessary rototiller/tractor and get ready to create a garden that is low maintenance, environmentally responsible and unbelievably productive!
How Back to Eden Gardening Works
I highly encourage you to check out the Back to Eden website and even watch the documentary… but if that is not possible, let me give you a quick overview of the Back to Eden style gardening.
It’s all about The Covering.
Instead of tilling or turning over the earth, you simply cover it – with layers of newspaper, cardboard, wood chips, pine needles, leaves, grass clippings (as long as the lawn is not treated), straw, compost, whatever you have available and whatever grows well in your region (for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to call it “mulch”). As Paul says ,”Resist the temptation to to till your soil!”
The simple act of covering the soil has multiple benefits:
- Mulch suppresses weed activity. Whatever weeds do manage to grow though the heavy mulch will be easy to remove.
- Mulch helps soil retain moisture, vastly reducing the need to water/irrigate the garden.
- Mulch creates an hospitable environment for earthworms, who are your number one allies in creating productive soil.
- Mulch eventually breaks down and in the process, provides much needed nutrients for your plants.
The heavily mulched “covered” garden makes an ideal growing environment for plants to thrive. After the initial work of laying down the covering and planting your veggies and seeds, you can quite literally sit back and watch nature take over…until harvest time, that is!
But here is a secret: Instead of waiting until spring, DO IT NOW.
That’s right, Back to Eden Gardening works even better if you prepare your garden in the fall instead of spring. Again, you will be mimicking nature – fall is the time when the leaves/needles drop and create a covering. Take a cue from nature and do the same with your garden! Come spring time, the garden will be ready for you, eager to get to work.
Starting a Back To Eden Garden in the Fall
Whether you are starting a brand new garden or have an existing garden plot, the steps are nearly the same. It doesn’t matter if you have bare soil, lawn or a weedy meadow. You can also use this method for installing landscape beds, like we did this summer!
1. Gather “The Covering.”
What you use will depend on where you live and what is available. You will need newspaper or cardboard for the base layer. This is key for suppressing and smothering existing grass/weeds.
On top of this base layer, you will add a thick layer of covering. Be creative and see what you can find for free! We contacted a neighbor who runs a tree service and asked if he would drop off a load or two of wood chips from his wood chippers. In return, he gets all the free produce and flowers he wants from our farm stand. Everyone was happy with the deal!
The “wood chips” we get from him are tree limbs that are run through a chipper, leaves/needles and all (be sure that there are ABSOLUTELY no Black Walnut branches/leaves in the mix – they are toxic to most plants). The older the wood chips are, the better – “old” means they have begun to compost and break down. If you can’t get wood chips, you could try:
- Grass clippings (from an unsprayed, untreated lawn)
- Leaves (no Black Walnut leaves! They are toxic to plants! If you can find a way to shred the leaves, even better)
- Pine needles
2. Cover the garden.
Before you begin, dig out any persistent, deep rooted weeds. If you are turning a grassy meadow area into the garden, it might be helpful to mow it first. Otherwise, begin by laying down a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard, being sure to overlap edges well so grass can’t sneak between.
Next, if you have garden compost or composted animal manure (not fresh!), you can add a layer of that (bags of compost are available at garden centers, if you don’t have any). Finally, add a thick layer of your “covering” – wood chips, straw, grass clippings, etc.
3. That’s it!
Your garden is ready for spring planting. By the time spring rolls around, the grass/weeds will be smothered and dead, the newspaper/cardboard will be in the process of breaking down and the compost/covering will be disintegrating and trickling down their nutrients to the soil.
When you are ready to plant in the spring, you simply dig a hole through the layers to insert your plant, or in the case of planting seeds, you pull back the covering a bit until you reach the compost layer and plant in that. As the plant grows taller, you can push back the covering layer.
At the end of the growing season, apply more covering. Add more each year or as needed to keep a thick layer of covering. (Thanks to my faithful friend for helping me spread wood chips this year!)
Unlike traditional garden methods that suck the nutrients out of the soil and leave it in a deteriorating condition each year, with Back to Eden Gardening, your soil will become more rich and nutrient dense each year.
My Back to Eden Garden
In our garden, we use Back to Eden Gardening methods in raised beds (click here to see a video tour of our garden!). I prefer the raised bed method primarily for aesthetic purposes, but it also has practical purposes.
Having dedicated beds reminds us that our feet belong in the paths, not in the beds. Walking in the beds is a big no-no. Footsteps compact soil and we want light, airy soil that plants can sink their roots into.
The covering/mulch is essential in our garden, as we don’t have the capability to water the garden much at all. On a good year with decent rainfall, I can get away with no watering at all, since the covering retains so much moisture in the soil.
During dry years, I might have to water 5-6 times over the whole summer. Of course, all plants and seeds should be watered immediately after planting, but we do very little watering otherwise.
Our garden is quite large, with 26 beds, each measuring roughly 4 x 16 feet.
Since the beds are enclosed, I can plant right up the edge and use every inch of soil. This, combined with the Back to Eden covering, means we can grow huge amounts of produce.
We keep goats on our farm, mainly for their manure! Composted goat manure is fabulous and really helps the plants that need an extra boost of fertilizer (like tomatoes and corn). We spread composted manure on half the beds, alternating each year, so each bed gets manure every 2 years.
The garden is also full of flowers. The flowers attract honeybees and other other pollinators, which means my garden plants have better pollination success rates. It’s really something to walk into the garden on a sunny day and hear the whole garden quite literally abuzz!
Birds are also attracted to the flowers when they go to seed. Pests are rarely an issue in the garden, since there are so many eager birds flitting about eating up the insects.
As a bonus, having a “no till” garden means the plants can reseed themselves.
Each spring, I let my spinach, lettuce and cilantro go to seed in the garden. The seeds fall and germinate on their own, leaving me to harvest a crop in the fall that I didn’t even have to plant!
After the heavy frosts, when the garden is mostly empty, we allow the chickens in the garden to do their fall clean up.
They eagerly gobble up bugs and rotten produce than may have fallen, helping to control pest and disease problems.
Sometimes, our garden even feels a bit like Eden. It’s a place full of abundance and beauty, a place where we can walk with God and talk with Him in the cool of the day. Everyday, it’s growing and changing, never quite the same.
I revel in the wonder of the growth cycles, watching each spring as the garden comes alive and conquers the icy grip of winter. There truly is no other place I would rather be (and the state of my home reflects this! Ha! Who wants to stay inside and wash dishes when there is a garden beckoning you outside?!?).
It’s my wish that all gardeners would be able to experience this, the joy of being in tune with God’s creation, working with it instead of against it, and reaping the bounty of a productive garden.
Spreading the Word
Since learning about Back to Eden Gardening, I’ve been sharing the concepts with anyone who will listen. Every time I drive past of those sad abandoned gardens, I’m tempted to stop and knock on their door and tell them to watch the Back to Eden documentary. Not sure how that would go over… 🙂
We keep spreading the word among friends and folks who visit our farm. It’s exciting to see the realization dawn on them that THEY could do this too! The method is easy, inexpensive, environmentally responsible and doesn’t require any special equipment. Gardening this way can help to heal our world, by reducing water use, reducing food miles, reducing fossil fuel use…and heal our families with nourishing, healthy food!
Whether you are a wanna-be gardener or a seasoned gardener, I encourage you to try the Back to Eden Gardening method. Hopefully, word will spread and those poor abandoned gardens will be a thing of the past, replaced with lush, verdant gardens full of once again optimistic and enthusiastic families!
Check out all of our gardening tips here!
We also had a wonderful guest post last spring about a similar idea, permaculture gardening.