- Let's Take a Little Field Trip
- Mimicking Nature in Your Garden
- Back to Eden Gardening
- How Back to Eden Gardening Works
- Starting a Back To Eden Garden in the Fall
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 Producers of Back to Eden Film are allowing us to stream the full film for FREE. As an added bonus you can learn more and purchase the film by CLICKING HERE.
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!“
Want to Dig into Gardening?
I want you to imagine increasing your harvest with proven techniques that won’t consume your time.
I also want you to imagine decreasing disease and pests with time-honored crop rotation and companion planting.
Check out my dear friend Melissa’s Organic Gardening Workshop. Melissa is a 5th generation homesteader with 20 years of experience growing her own food. In fact, she raises more than half of her family’s fruits and vegetables with a day job and on only a half-acre.
She has got an amazing special going on to help you learn:
- how to naturally build healthy and organic soil at home with composting and/or cover crops
- vertical gardening to grow MORE in the same amount of space
- natural pest and disease treatment options that WORK
- how to easily work permaculture techniques into your property to take advantage of nature’s design for your food
- how to use cold frames in the spring and fall to increase your ability to grow food longer & extend your growing season (if not all year long)
- easy seed starting with vigorous seedlings that not only sprout but thrive when you plant them outdoors
- how to evaluate YOUR property and growing space to its best advantage so you don’t waste precious time, resources, and energy having to replant or move beds
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!
Ready to get your hands dirty? Here are some more Gardening Posts from KS:
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35 thoughts on “Make Effortless Gardening a Reality”
I love the idea of Back to Eden gardens and would love to make it my reality! I live in New Mexico where we don’t get a whole lot of water and my soil is sand and clay. Is this a possibility for me?
Question: I have a (slightly) raised bed garden that I’ve been doing each year since 2013. Should I still do the cardboard/newspaper layer? Or do you think I could get away with just a thick layer of wood chips?
If your beds are already weed free, I would just go with the thick layer of chips! However, if weeds are an issue, newspaper/cardboard really helps to suppress the weeds.
Super great!!! I’ve heard of this way of gardening but it was so nice to hear about your personal experience.
What are the sticks of rebar for in the photo of the chickens in the garden?
Katie, the rebar is to hold up my tomato cages. Since using the Back to Eden system, my tomatoes grow so massive the wire cages were bending under the weight! It’s not unheard of for the tomatoes to grow 6-7 feet high. Now we plant the tomatoes, place a cage around it (the biggest we can find) and drive the rebar stake into the ground (at least 12 inches) inside the tomato cage. No more toppling tomato cages. We tried using wooden stakes, but those just broke.
YEEEES!!!!!!!!!!!! Someone mentioned the film on wellnessmama.com and it took me forever to look at it but once I did I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of it before! I’m SOOO glad you posted about this!!! It makes so much sense and brings the joy back to gardening for all ages! Not to mention nutrients back into the soil, food that tastes amazing and food that gets bigger and tastier the longer you follow his system!
The film is free to watch at back to Eden garden film.com (I think that’s it) and thecCombers have a post on the Facebook group of their produce being twice the size you usually find at the store now growing in their garden 6 years later. And they have been following the system, nothing more!
It’s truly mind blowing what God created and that restoring the nutrients doesn’t take generations!
Thanks for sharing Leigh! Yes, we just love this system and you are right that it brings the joy back into gardening!
Great article guys! Nice summation of the concept and everything you’re doing looks great! I’m in my second year with my BTE garden now and hoping for another bountiful harvest! All the best ????
Thanks Jared! Best wishes to you for the harvest season. Keep spreading the word!
Cool idea, thanks for sharing about this! I was also wondering why no fresh manure? Wood chips from the chicken coop sound perfect for this!
Rebecca – as far as I know it has to do with disease. Composted manure doesn’t carry bacteria that could be unsafe or undesirable for food! 🙂 Katie
Yes, like Katie said composted manure doesn’t carry risk of unsafe bacteria. I would allow manure to compost about a year before putting it in my garden, especially chicken manure – it’s potent stuff that can actually damage plants if it’s too fresh.
Do I need to use plain brown cardboard or can I use some with stuff printed on it? Also why can’t it be fresh manure?
I’ve seen people use both for cardboard. Although plain brown would be best, I assume. Paul doesn’t cover that. Also, depending on where you live, cardboard boxes might be the easiest to find.
For newspaper though I think the paper without the filmy, glossy stuff is best.
Elizabeth, I’d be cautious using fresh manure, as there is a risk of pathogens. We compost goat/chicken manure for a year before putting it on the garden. For crops like lettuce or other low growing crops that are contact with the ground, we are careful to make sure the compost doesn’t actually touch the leaves we would eat.
I mentioned that we add composted manure to the beds every other year. On a year that I’m adding compost, I would grow a crop like tomatoes, peppers or corn – something where the part we consume is not in contact with the ground.
Thanks! That is helpful to know!! Another question… How big are your beds? I like the idea of raised beds but don’t know how much of the borders I need to get. Is there a reason you chose the cement blocks over wood?
Elizabeth, our beds are roughly 4 foot x 12 foot. When we started, we actually used trees that we had cut down as the borders for the beds, knowing they would eventually rot (they lasted 2-3 years), but we couldn’t afford anything else at the time. Then a few years ago, my husband knocked down our old, crumbling silo (all by himself – with a hammer. It was spectacular and terrifying at the same time, and yes, we caught it on video 🙂 Ha!). We looked at all the old silo blocks and wondered how we were going to get rid of them. Then one of us suggested we could use them to make raised beds! We had enough to enclose 26 raised beds. It was a TON of work to haul all the blocks over and set them in place, but it’s so nice to know they are permanent and we will never have to replace them again. You can certainly use wood – just be aware the sides will need to be replaced every 5-8 years or so. Be careful about using treated wood – the toxic chemicals used to treat the wood will leach into your soil and into your vegetables. Some people recommend using cedar wood, as it is more rot resistant.
I’m from the midwest but I’m not a gardener. I have been living in the Los Angeles area (Pasadena, near San Gabriel Mountains) and my husband and I are trying to garden. Tomatoes are easiest, but we need other crops. Problem is, we live in a desert! We have built 6 garden boxes in our back yard, we have a compost box, we water by hand. The sun is still quite hot during the day and we haven’t had rain for many many months. So- now we have hard, grey dirt in many places, not too many weeds. To put down ground cover now, both in and around the garden boxes, in preparation for the winter rain, would I simply lay it over the hard dirt? Also, we have an abundance of California Oak leaves all year long which would seem like good ground cover/mulch, but I thought I heard that they are acidic for the soil. Do you know about this? Thank you all for your inspiration and information. I’m going to get there, slowly but surely.
Chris, I’ll admit I’m totally unfamiliar with gardening in the desert! I guess if it were me, I would be filling those boxes with whatever I could find – shredded newspaper, straw, leaves and a healthy dose of compost (your own or from a bag purchased at a garden center). Anything that will rot and break down. Just build up on whatever soil you have in the bottom on the boxes.
If all else fails, maybe consider container gardening? That is a little easier to control the growing environment and you can grow a surprising amount in a small spaces.
There is information in the film on gardening in desert CA!
Should we pull out the dead plants and weeds leftover from this summer’s garden before putting down the covering this fall?
You don’t have too! Just now or weed eat over them and put the cardboard or 4 layer thick newspaper over them. The dead stuff will fertilize the ground but nothing will grow from it because of your cardboard layer! Your old plants put nutrients back into the soil.
Mow over them** not “now”
ok thank you!
What do you do with perennials like strawberries where it is hard to get to the soil underneath? I don’t see each ton of weeds in them but a few do pop up. I try to add in compost at the soil level in the spring. Should I be doing this in the fall also?
There are numerous YouTube videos by Paul created by Thatnub. They might help you but honestly I’d leave the strawberries and put at least 4 inches or more of mulch around the established plants and let it be. Weeds will come and go, but because of the mulch be much easier to pull out of the soil. Several videos on YouTube show people pulling weeds out and being so surprised at how easy it is!
I’ve also heard some people shredding newspaper and putting that around the base of the plants before putting mulch on top. It works the same. Just make sure the ground is covered well!
Nature sheds leaves during the fall in preparation for the winter. Paul suggests doing this in the fall but to start the garden, do it when it convenient for you. Now is always the best time to start, especially if you are planting a tree (said someon, I forget who at the moment).
Great advice, Leigh!
And yes, fall is a good time to plant trees. The trees will be putting their energy into root growth, instead of leaf/fruit growth, so now is a great time to plant and establish strong roots.
This all makes so much sense. Thanks for sharing this. It came days before we were planning on rotatilling the ground to get it ready for spring. I am wondering where do you get your seeds?
All different places! I save lots of my own seeds because my seed purchasing was getting out of control – I’m addicted to buying seeds! Ha! But my favorite place to buy is High Mowing Organic Seeds. Territorial Seeds and Botainical Interests are great too. I’m not sure where you live, but I generally try to purchase seeds from a company that has a similar climate to mine – that way I know the seeds that work for them will probably thrive in my garden too.
Also, you could see if there is a Seed Library in your area. You “check out” the seeds, grow them and then save some new seeds from the crop you grew, and return them back to the Seed Library. My local library operates a Seed Library.
I’m curious how you deal with animals that like to eat garden plants/produce. I didnt see a critter fence. We have an abundance of hungry rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels.
Great question, Jodi!
We do have a very secure fence around our garden. Our chickens are actually our biggest threat! They love nothing more than to peck a hole in my perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes. Gah!
We used chicken wire at first, but it rusted and broke after about 3 years. Now were are using rabbit fence from the farm store. It’s pricey, but sturdy. Our garden is about a 1/4 acre, so it was a lot of fence!
In addition, we have several barn cats and a terrier prowling our property, so they do a great job of keeping the critter population down. I’ve never had issues with critters in the garden, except the woodchuck that wandered in when I accidentally left one of the gates open!
This is excellent – I always love to see some good Permaculture information on more…mainstream?…blogs. I’m so glad Back to Eden gardening has worked for you! My good friend has watched their videos and uses their method with great success. We follow permaculture techniques, but we have been transitioning to more perennials, kind of at the expense of our annuals.
I wish every mom with a garden knew about Back to Eden and sheet mulching though – it seems like a lot of people give up after trying a few years, when it could be so much easier with a little mulch and knowledge.
Danielle, have you read the book “Restoration Agriculture” by Mark Shepard? He shares lots of great theory regarding Permaculture and offers practical ideas of how to incorporate more perennials in agriculture. I really enjoyed the book!
And yes, I wish more people knew about Back to Eden gardening… which is why I wrote this. Gardening doesn’t have to be so hard!