The Theory Behind Back to Eden Gardening

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Back to Eden invites you to take a walk with Paul as he teaches you sustainable organic growing methods that are capable of being implemented in diverse climates around the world.We have so many exciting things happening on The 104 Homestead this 2014 season. We’re increasing our duck flock to keep up with egg demand, we’re adding quail to our homestead, but most exciting is that we are changing the way we garden. Wait… there’s more than one way to garden? Why yes, my friends, there are many ways to garden.

The concept behind Back to Eden gardening is to cover the soil in the same way nature does so that the soil is not exposed to the harsh elements of sun and wind.

  • The Traditional Method: A single plot of garden where plants are tended (weeded, watered, amended) on a regular basis.
  • No-Dig Method: Narrow rows of plants that are composted from the top and not turned. A common term for this style is lasagna gardening.
  • Raised Bed Method: Framed mini-gardens where the soil is specially made or purchased.
  • Square Footage/Intensive Planting Method: Planting in a grid to maximize the use of space in the garden.

Of course, each of these methods can utilize even more gardening methods such as permaculture concepts like swales and hugelkultur, as well as companion planting, deep mulching, etc.

The gardening method I’m going to introduce you to today is Back to Eden gardening. It incorporates several of the common planting methods, but with a twist. This is going to be an honest review of the method as it applies to where I live. I’m going to share our experience throughout the 2015 growing season and beyond. The good, the bad, and the just plain ugly.

What is Back to Eden Gardening?

You can see the official Back to Eden documentary here. I’m not big on sitting and watching documentaries (especially those with a strong religious tone), but this one is worth watching. The creator, Paul Gautschi, explains the idea in depth far better than I could.

So I throw out some wood chips and I’m good?

Well, not exactly. That seems to be the take-away that many people get from the film. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. First, although Paul prefers wood chips, he mentions that you should use whatever natural materials you have in your area. It’s all about keeping moisture in the soil and the harsh elements of blazing sun and winds out. Some great covering options if wood chips aren’t available include grass clippings, leaves, animal manures, straw, and even rocks. For my case study I’m using wood chips because I was able to get some from my tree guy, Eli of Hutch’s Property & Tree.

You may also enjoy  Leaf Mold as a Compost & Free Mulch

What about nitrogen?

Now, it’s not just about covering the soil. Again, that’s what people seem to take from the film and nothing more. There are two things you need to know that address the nitrogen aspects of Back to Eden gardening.

First, you need to layer with the covering, not mix the covering. If you mix wood chips into your soil, it certainly will lock up the nitrogen in the soil. This is part of the reason why I stopped using wood shavings in my chicken coop. It drastically reduced the quality of my compost.

Second, you need to spread compost in your garden regularly. Cue the chickens! Paul mentions in the film how chickens are a great companion to the Back to Eden gardening method. They have wonderful high-nitrogen manure and they love to break down compost. I am lucky enough to have a whole flock of hard workers, ready and willing to put their time into my gardens. Much like Paul does, all yard and kitchen waste goes right in with the chickens. They do all the hard work for me (I’m a firm believer in work smarter, not harder).

The concept behind Back to Eden gardening is to cover the soil in the same way nature does so that the soil is not exposed to the harsh elements of sun and wind.Throughout the growing season I can access the wonderful compost my chickens have provided me and spread it in the gardens as I see fit. With Back to Eden, you can’t over compost. The covering acts as a filter of sorts, creating marvelous compost tea every time it rains.

So when can I start Back to Eden gardening?

Last fall. Oops! Did you, like myself, get bit with the Back to Eden bug over the winter or spring? Not all hope is lost. Starting a Back to Eden garden in the spring has its challenges, but it can be done. The reason why most people start in the fall is so that your covering has a chance to break down before planting season. Our goal with spring starting is that we want to accelerate that breakdown so that our covering doesn’t lock up the nutrients in the soil. The best way to do this is to add high-nitrogen elements such as chicken manure and even urine, and keep the garden moist (not drenched or you’ll be opening a whole new can of worms – or slugs).

You may also enjoy  3 Tips for Awesome Tomatoes

Another consideration when starting a Back to Eden garden in the spring is how you plant. Regardless of when you began your garden, you always need to be sure you are planting in the soil and not in the wood chips. This is even more important in a spring-started garden. When planting, push the wood chips or other covering back away from the planting area until the plant is well-established. Once the plant is established, you can push the covering back in place.

This Month in Our Back to Eden Garden:

The concept behind Back to Eden gardening is to cover the soil in the same way nature does so that the soil is not exposed to the harsh elements of sun and wind.

This month in our experimental garden, we are putting the “you can use any type of wood chips except Eucalyptus” theory to the test. I’ll be honest, it was not my intent to check the validity of this statement. My friendly neighborhood tree guy, Eli, gave me a call saying he had a truck load of chips and I was so eager to get that first layer down that I sort of tuned out the word Walnut.

Eli mentioned something about the trees containing juglone, a growth inhibitor, but I kept thinking to myself “but Paul said…” After receiving the chips I did my homework and thought “oh crap.” I am still standing by my belief of what Paul said, but bet your bum I’m working extra hard to encourage those juglone toxins to dissipate quickly. I also made sure not to spread the walnut chips anywhere near the future planting sites of potatoes, peppers and tomatoes since those seemed to be the most susceptible to juglone toxicity. Time will tell and I promise to share the good, bad, and just plain ugly.

You may also enjoy  How Easily to Make a Harvest Apron

The concept behind Back to Eden gardening is to cover the soil in the same way nature does so that the soil is not exposed to the harsh elements of sun and wind.

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I am a non-traditional homesteader. What is a non-traditional homesteader? I'd like to think we are the people who don't fit the mold. I am a busy mom on a small bit of property with not a lot of financial resources, but I am figuring out how to live the life I want. A homesteader's life.

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About Jessica Lane

I am a non-traditional homesteader. What is a non-traditional homesteader? I'd like to think we are the people who don't fit the mold. I am a busy mom on a small bit of property with not a lot of financial resources, but I am figuring out how to live the life I want. A homesteader's life.


The Theory Behind Back to Eden Gardening — 22 Comments

  1. What’s wrong with a strong, religious tone? Just curious? God gave us this earth to garden in, right. I love the Lord and all provides!

  2. Wow, this is all so exciting. I first saw BTE about 3 years ago, and decided then I was going to buy a piece of property, and try my hand in farming. Well, I just purchased 4 acres in Northern Ca, for me, it wont be hard, this is farming county, but all the old ways. I am looking forward to using BTE…

  3. The research shows not only that you don’t need compost, but just woodchips works even better

    “This study confirms the fact that wood chip mulch is the best mulch for the garden. Over time it loosens compacted soil, adds organic matter, keeps moisture levels up and slowly adds nutrients to the soil.

    Compost works too, but it can add too many nutrients to soil. This problem is being seen by more and more organic gardeners who are experiencing very high nutrient levels, even to the point of becoming toxic. You can have too much organic matter.”

  4. I live way across the country in NM. In watching some of the other videos with Paul he said that given enough time he could turn the desert green. We had just started using the BTE garden method in Indy when we moved to NM. We had lived here before-many years ago. We live just on the NW corner of Albuquerque in a village called Corrales. 9000 people, 2000 horses. There are 3 sets of acequias (water ditches) coming from the Rio Grande that run N and S. There are men who open and close the water gates so everyone–in the lower parts of Corrales can have access to flood irrigate their land. I happen to live about 200 ft above the valley floor along with 1/2 the population of Corrales. We do not have access to these waters. But we all have wells. Mine is almost 300 ft deep and tastes so good! It comes from a mt range 50 miles away. We can use all the water we want. When we came we were excited to try out the BTE method here, in the high desert. We live in sand with some clay-but not much. (Unlike those on the valley floor) We had a tough time at first getting someone to give us their chips. We have alot of trees along the Rio Grands and in Corrales. You could almost think you were out east! We had to use alot of mushroom compost, potting soil, and alpaca poop in order to have something to plant in. It was a miserable failure, except for spaghetti squash and finally carrots. The alpaca poop, which is not hot, unfortunately gave our tomatoes alfalfa mosaic virus. Alpacas here eat nothing but alfalfa-which is all GMO. During the fall we got a lot of chips that we spread after laying several layers of paper down. Toward winter we dug down to look–full of grubs!!!!! Found out that grubs will only eat plant roots when there is no dead matter to eat. They were breaking down the chips! We don’t have worms here. We would spread chips 6 inches deep. Now, for the lessons. Chips need water to break down. We never got rain and only a few inches of fast disappearing snow last winter. We never thought about having to water the chips. If they don’t get water-alot of water-they will just sit there and bleach in the sun. So now, we water the ground heavily before laying the paper, water the paper, put an inch or 2 of chips, water heavily, and lay more chips that we then water. Once a week I water my whole 1/8 acre garden heavily in the hopes that they will break down. I still can not go more than 2 days without watering everything as the air temp sucks the leaves dry and they use everything under the chips. Oh yeah, I did what Paul suggested for strawberries:cover with 6 inches of chips and the following year the mothers will die off and you will have a ton of daughter plants that come up the following spring. NOT EVEN. Less than 1/4 of my strawberries regrew and have produced nothing. I was so disappointed. They are our favorites. I also had leaves die on everything whenever they would touch the chips. We carry on in the hopes of making some soil. We have a very large 3 compartment compost, 8 laying chickens, and a co-op which gives us their overripe vegetable and fruit trimmings, and coffee grounds. The chickens get what they can eat, we cull what is still usable for us, and the compost gets the rest! We also found a source for worm castings by the 5 gal bucket! Hopefully within a few years (before I die) we will have a great market garden!

  5. Thanks for this post! We just moved into our own house about a month ago, so I’m definitely on the spring-starting end of Back to Eden Gardening. I just put a thick layer of oldish horse manure from the farm down the road on a layer of cardboard right on top of the grass… I guess my uneducated combo of lasagna and BTE methods? I’m planning on planting beans right into the manure because they put nitrogen in the soil, and maybe some simple things like zucchini too. Does that sound like a good idea, from your experience?

  6. Hi, love your blog and this article has interested me for a while and I’m trialling a patch here soon. How do you know when to stop watering the seedlings and when to water later? Thankyou

    • Just watch your plants and they will let you know. With seedlings, I like the soil to stay damp. You will see them really take off and that’s when you can cut back on watering.

  7. The thing that confuses me, is using from the chicken area without a composting period. I understand that the chickens do the work. Yet the chickens are still pooping on everything until right when he puts it on. What about ecoli?
    We do the same with our hens here, but I have always felt the need to compost it six months away from the animals for safety. It would be so nice to just use it straight from the coop.

    • Often people “compost” the manures for 6 months because chicken manure is hot and you risk burning tender plants. Having said that, we free range often and since my chickens aren’t diapered, there are obviously many fresh droppings throughout the garden. We’ve never become ill from food consumed from the garden and our plants have never suffered (at least not due to hot manure – more often it’s crops wiped out from overzealous scratching). As far as e coli, I don’t worry too much. Healthy hens have a very low incidence of e coli. Most backyard hens are healthy. It’s the factory hens that often carry e coli.

  8. I’ve met Paul (I live in Washington and he lives in Squim…he has a tour you can take on Sundays at his house… we did the method and the first year it produced like CRAZY…but I think your having chickens (and the poop) helps a lot. He just takes a wheelbarrow and dumps the poop on his garden, orchard, etc…it looks great… helps tremendously…We didn’t put manure or compost on the wood chips over the winter and after 3 years it hasn’t produced as well so I would use the manure and compost maybe after the season is over and let it cook over the winter…I was also told by a nursery to plant beans and peas in Sept and let it go into the soil over the winter and that should help the soil with nutrigen… I also have the wood around my trees… had TONS of peaches, pears, cherries, but this year, NO apples… strange. With that said my strawberries have gone all over the place! Paul also doesn’t give his chickens any bedding…less mess he sais…even in winter~ He is quite a character!

  9. Everyone misses this. Not just wood chips. Branchs with leaves. The minerals are in the leaves. If your using straight chips add leaf mulch, needles. Plus wood ash in the chicken pen, yard waste, egg and kitchen waste, and the chicken beding is chips.

  10. Paul does use his chicken soil on his vegetable garden, but it is not absolutely necessary. It will encourage more production and sooner, especially if you are just starting out. But keep in mind he has never used any fertilizer on his orchard. We have a back-to-eden garden at our church and in three years we’ve never used fertilizer (or water, except to start seed if the ground is dry) We started with a layer of compost beneath the chips as the film recommends from the garden started in Pennsylvania. But once the chips are breaking down, there is no need to fertilize.

    Look up Emilia Hazelip’s film about synergistic gardening. Plants synthesize most of what they need from the atmosphere as long as the soil is healthy and remains uncompacted. The woodchips provide protection for the soil life as well as prevent compaction, which is why you can walk all over Paul’s garden without compacting the soil. The b-t-e method takes time to establish and I think most people are in a hurry to see a result. Using a little manure to feed the soil is fine, but the principle operating in the method is one of creating healthy soil using a covering. It will work without manure.

    Thanks for promoting this transformational method of gardening! Blessings on your blog and all your gardening!

  11. Great post! We’ve been meaning to get this started this year but time gets away from us lol. Luckily we aren’t doing any gardening this year so it’ll have lots of time to decompose once it gets done, Thanks for the info!

  12. You’ve touched on one of the questions I had after watching the documentary. The ongoing addition of manure or compost. I’m very curious where you found the answer. He never actually says that he puts manure or compost on top of the wood chips, does he? Or did I miss it??? Your comments about the tea make sense, but I wonder about burying the wood chips.


    • He mentions it briefly when he talks about how all plant scraps and kitchen scraps go to the chickens. There are YouTube videos that go a bit more in depth with interviews with Paul. As soon as I remember the name of the guy that does interviews with him, I’ll send you a link to the guy’s page.

  13. I’m excited for your experiment. I had not heard of Back to Eden until a couple of years ago but we have been using some of his ideas for years. It gets so hot here that we have always put a layer of leaves on our garden.

  14. Sounds awesome! Excited to hear your results, we have started a similar method with year old leaf mulch, chicken manure, and chips on top. Weeds are easy to pop out of the mulch.

    Still not exactly sure how to add more chicken manure and compost, Are you going to pull the chips back, then add compost them cover back up? Or place it on top of the chips?

    Thanks for the info, and Cheers!

    • I’ll add compost as I plant, but the rest of the season you just add it on top. It will filter through the chips every time it rains, creating wonderful compost tea. The best part about layering on top is if you have weed seeds that didn’t heat up enough during composting, the seeds will sprout on top of the chips for easy removal.

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