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 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.
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.
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).
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).
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:
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.