The Back to Eden Gardening Method crossed my path a few years ago. I was immediately interested because I live in Tennessee where we have clay soil that likes to suffocate plant roots. I made the switch for my vegetable garden and I don’t think I will ever look back. Today I want to discuss the benefits, issues, and misconceptions of Back to Eden Gardening and teach you how to start your own.
What is the Back to Eden Gardening Method?
Back to Eden is a no-till gardening method made famous by Paul Gautschi that uses sheet mulch to build up the soil and improve it over time. It requires you to lay a decomposable weed barrier, quality compost, and a composted mulch.
BTE was created to mimic how plants grow on the forest floor with ground cover. This method is best for a homestead or backyard garden that feeds a family or small community. Large market gardens grown using this method may be difficult to maintain and to wait for, but it is definitely still possible.
Benefits of a Back to Eden Garden
The wood chip mulch is the star of this gardening method. Mulching is actually excellent for any garden, Back to Eden or not. All of the benefits that I am going to mention are because of this mulch covering.
1. Moisture Retention
The wood chip mulch layer slows the evaporation of water out of the garden soil. This helps to retain moisture at the roots longer. This means that you don’t have to water as often. Yay!
2. Soil Temperature Regulation
The mulch layer holds in heat during the cold months and it helps the soil to stay cool in the heat of the summer.
3. Reduced Soil Erosion
The wood chips serve as a protective layer between the soil and the elements. They slow erosion of the soil during high wind, rain, and hail.
4. Less Weed Growth
Can we stop and cheer for a second??? This benefit was the deciding factor for me to switch to a Back to Eden Garden. There is hardly any weeding! The weeds that do grow through have loose roots so they are easy to pull. This is because of the compostable barrier that you lay down under the soil AND because of the protective mulch layer on top of the garden.
5. Soil Health Improvement
Every layer in a Back to Eden garden will break down and become soil over time. It will transform the soil underneath the garden as well. More microorganisms, worms, and beneficial insects will be attracted to the soil which will improve the soil, deter destructive pests, and produce healthier fruits, veggies, and herbs.
6. Disease Prevention
The mulch layer on top of the soil helps to reduce mud splashback on the plants during watering and rain. Splashback has been known to spread fungal and bacterial diseases.
Common Issues with Back to Eden Gardening
Many people have tried and given up on this gardening method within the first year because they didn’t understand how this method is meant to work.
There are a few issues that gardeners can run into when using the Back to Eden method… but these issues are typically easy fixes. Let’s go through those so you know what to expect from year 1-3.
1. Nitrogen Depletion
When you lay wood chip mulch (a carbon rich material) on a garden it can tie up some of the nitrogen in the soil. It isn’t technically nitrogen depletion, because the nitrogen does get released back into the soil within 3-6 months.
You can avoid this by using composted wood chips that include leaf material (carbon and nitrogen rich) or by adding a nitrogen supplement.
How to Identify a Nitrogen deficiency
You can identify a nitrogen deficiency in your plants by yellowing leaves and stunted growth.
Watch the video below to see what my N deficient plants looked like and how I fixed the issue.
2. Slow Process
The Back to Eden method is absolutely wonderful, but it does take time to get to an efficient and productive soil. Many people quit because the first year’s garden isn’t extremely productive.
Soil isn’t built in a day, yall.
Year 3 is where you will start to see significant improvement in growth and in soil quality. Years 1-2 will still provide a good harvest, but when you get to year 3 you will see the difference.
3. Poor Germination
If you plant directly into the wood chips then your seeds will not germinate well. You have to push the chips to the side and plant directly into the soil below.
4. Increased Slug Activity
Some gardeners see an increase in slugs when using wood chips as mulch. This is an issue, but the benefits far outweigh the damage from slugs.
You may need to be a little more vigilant about picking off the slugs or deterring them from your garden. This year, I am testing out ducks in the garden to control the slug population.
Choosing the Right Type of Wood Chips
It is so important that you understand what you are putting on your garden. Composted arborist wood chips with leaves included are the best to use, but not always available.
Different wood chips provide different nutrients so you will need to take notice of a few things:
Size: Fine vs. Coarse
You can use fine or coarse wood chips, but you need to be aware of the differences. Fine mulch (saw dust and small wood chips) will decompose faster and may require adding an additional layer during the growing season.
Coarse mulch (large wood chips) are great to use on top of an existing garden with a deep mulch bed, but they aren’t great as a starter mulch because they take much longer to break down.
I use fine wood chips (almost sawdust) with no leaf matter because that’s what is available to me and it works just fine as long as I add more throughout the season and add a nitrogen supplement.
Age: Fresh vs. composted
Wood chips for a Back to Eden garden work best when composted.
The reasoning for this is different depending on the content of the chips. If you are using wood chips with no leaves included, then they can tie up your plants’ nitrogen. If you are using fresh wood chips with leaves, the nitrogen in the leaves could potentially burn your plants if used before composting.
Compost your wood chips for 3-6 months before adding to the garden (or at least before planting). If you add them to the top of the garden in the fall (with nothing planted), then they should be ready to go for spring planting.
Wood Type: Hardwood vs. Softwood
Both hardwood and softwood are fine to use in a Back to Eden garden, but softwood chips will decompose more quickly.
Nutrient Content: Carbon vs. Nitrogen
If possible, choose wood chips that have the leaf material mixed in as a nitrogen source. These wood chips need to compost before you add them to the garden or the excess nitrogen could potentially burn your plants (carbon and nitrogen is a delicate balance in the garden).
Wood chips with no green materials will be carbon rich and they can tie up the nitrogen in the soil. They release the nitrogen as they decompose, but your plants will suffer.
The photo below shows a nitrogen deficient tomato plant.
What Wood Chips to Avoid
Don’t use Black Walnut, Eucalyptus, Pepper Trees, or Tree of Heaven because they can stop your seeds from germinating.
Bark mulch, treated wood chips, dyed landscaping mulch should also be avoided because they do not provide the proper nutrients for the garden.
How to Start a Back to Eden Garden
Now we are getting to the information that you can run with! Consider all of the background information given above and then use these steps to get started building your soil with the Back to Eden gardening method.
Step 1: Choose Your Garden Location
The first step is to choose a location that is in the sun most of the time. You also want a spot that doesn’t flood easily and has decent drainage.
If you have the time (about half a year), sun map your potential location to see how much sun it receives at different times of the day and in different times of the year.
Step 2: Kill the Weeds
There are a couple of ways to do this. You can lay down a tarp or another solid material down over your garden plot. Leave it there for a month or so to kill the weeds underneath.
Another option is to pull the weeds OR you can do what I do and place the decomposable weed barrier right on top of the weeds and say a prayer.
Step 3: Place a Weed Barrier
Now you can lay down your compostable weed barrier. Cardboard boxes and newspapers are excellent for this. You just want to be sure whatever you use can be broken down easily and turned back into healthy soil.
Lay down 3-4 layers of newspaper or 1-2 layers of thick cardboard. Wet the weed barrier to keep it in place and to jump start the decomposition process.
Newspaper can be sourced at your local printing press for free or cheap (I get mine for $1/stack). Cardboard can be sourced from your online orders or from local stores who toss their boxes out back.
Step 4: Add 3-4 inches of compost
Add compost on top of the weed barrier. This can be compost from your homestead, from a local farmer, or from the local feed or hardware store.
I had to use compost bags from Lowe’s this year because mine wasn’t ready and the local stores were completely sold out :/ Not my ideal source, but it is working out just fine!
Step 5: Add 3-6 inches of mulch
Now it is time to add the backbone of your Back to Eden garden, the wood chips.
Be sure that you know what kind of wood chips you have and if you will need any amendments. Add 3 inches of wood chips if you are using a fine mulch and 4-6 if a coarse mulch. This is because the fine mulch will mat together when it gets wet and air won’t be able to flow through if it is too thick.
As I mentioned earlier, it is recommended to start with a fine or medium mulch and add coarse mulch later.
Step 6: Fertilize if needed
If your wood chips lack nitrogen content, go ahead and add some nitrogen to the soil. This could be composted chicken manure, a pre-made fertilizer with nitrogen, rabbit manure, grass clippings (with no seed heads), or any other nitrogen rich material.
Step 7: Start Planting
If your wood chips are already composted then you are ready to plant! If not, wait 3-6 months for the wood chips to begin breaking down and then pull them back to plant your seeds or plant starts.
DO NOT plant directly into the wood chips. Move the chips in the spot you are planting and place the seed or start directly into the soil.
Prepare Your Back to Eden Garden for Next Season
After the growing season is over, you can do a few things to layer and prep for the next season:
Add extra compost
Put an additional layer of compost on top of your garden (rabbit, cow, and composted chicken bedding are great for this). This is the next step in building your soil up.
Add Extra Mulch
Spread an additional layer of fine or coarse mulch over your garden to begin breaking down between seasons.
Sprinkle diatomaceous earth over the garden area.