Growing and working in a garden can be a rewarding experience. Especially when you enjoy the bounty of your own harvests. But with a productive vegetable garden will come the chores: weeding and watering. But using the Back to Eden method can reduce how much you have to manually water your plants as well as prevent weeds from sprouting.
Back to Eden was first coined by Paul Gautschi, who developed the Back to Eden gardening method according to a natural growing environment.
What is Back to Eden Gardening?
Back to Eden gardening is a method for growing fruits, vegetables and herbs that is based on the way nature intended plants to grow. If you observe fruits, vegetables and herbs that grow in the wild, you will see that in their natural environment they don’t need to be watered or weeded by us. These wild plants still grow and produce every year – even with no help from humans.
Back to Eden gardening encompasses this concept by using natural and raw materials to build up your garden in layers. These layers then form a mound, which is your garden bed. Your fruit plants (like blueberries, apples and citrus) and veggies are planted in the mounds. The formed mounds will retain moisture and keep weeds at bay.
The Back to Eden gardening method also provides a weeds-free garden.
How Does the Back to Eden Method Work?
Back to Eden gardening works by mimicking the natural environment of wild fruits, vegetables and herbs. This method utilizes a few different growing mediums that are placed in layers in your garden bed. These layered materials then support your planted seeds or sprouts by eliminating the need to water frequently — if at all.
Because of the layered design of Back to Eden, the Back to Eden gardening method helps prevent weeds from sprouting, too. Starting with your very first layer, any developing weeds are covered and smothered, inhibiting their growth up into your garden layer. The layers of medium also break down slowly over time, giving nutrients to your plants, so you can consider the Back to Eden method a form of self-sustaining soil.
Pros and Cons of Using the Back to Eden Gardening Method
There are pros and cons of using this gardening method, and knowing both of them is essential so you can decide if this is the method you want to use or not in your own garden.
Pros of the Back to Eden Method:
- Little to no weeding is needed on your part
- Once you establish your garden, it’s ready to go each year after you amend the soil
- Once you finish the principal work, the hard part is over. Moving forward, all you do is care for an maintain the garden
- Over time, the soil’s fertility will increase will no additional effort from you
- There is no tilling needed for this method
- This is simple to maintain year in and year out
- You can use a host of items for your ground covering, and it doesn’t have to be mulch
- Your top layer of mulch will help to keep the soil moist, and this reduces your need to water
Cons of the Back to Eden Method:
- As your mulch starts to break down and turn into compost, you’ll need to add more to the top layer. You’ll do this each subsequent year
- For the most rich and best soil possible, you’ll most likely have to wait until the next gardening season
- In the first year, you’ll have to add some type of fertilizer to help kickstart the growth and establishment process
- The initial creation of the garden ill require hard work and time on your part
What Materials are Needed to Design a Back to Eden Garden?
There are three main materials you will need to begin your Back to Eden garden. Newspaper or light cardboard will be your first layered material and acts as a barrier between the ground and the rest of your layers. This is where the weed prevention starts. You will need enough of this material to create a layer two to three inches thick.
Your second layer material is compost. Rich mushroom compost, homemade compost or store-bought compost are all great options. You will need enough compost to spread a layer that is three to four inches thick.
Organic compost works well for the second layer of the Back to Eden garden.
Wood chips will make up the final layer material. You will need at least six inches for this layer. You can use less, but I have found that by using at least six inches of wood chips, weeds are completely blocked, and I really don’t need to water, even during the hottest months.
When sourcing these chips make sure they are not chipped from woods that have been treated with chemicals or sealers. Tree services use wood chippers to finish off the job when they cut and trim trees, and you can sometimes get these for free or at least pretty cheap. Tree services are usually happy to give away their job waste.
Wood chips that are no bigger than 3″ chunks will work perfectly for your Back to Eden garden.
How to Design Your Back to Eden Garden
Designing your garden for the Back to Eden method is a simple four-step process that you can likely complete in two to three hours, depending on how big you want your garden to be. It’s important to finish your set up the same day you start so any materials you put down do not get blown or washed away from the weather. You can plant your seeds or sprouts as soon as your garden bed is finished, or you can wait two or three days to let it settle. Simply follow these steps to create your Back to Eden garden.
1. Start with Your Back to Eden Garden Design
Get your area ready and prepared by designing your garden shape. Make sure your garden area gets plenty of sunlight. The ground on which you start your Back to Eden garden does not have to be cleared or tilled. You can start right on top of grass or rocky ground. Since Back to Eden gardening uses layers to build the garden bed, the ground you start on is not a factor.
2. Place Your First Layer of Newspaper
Once you’ve designed and shaped your garden area, you’re going to put down the newspaper for your first layer. Newspaper is a preferable material for your starting layer, but you can use light cardboard pieces here, too. Lay down the medium so it creates a layer that is about one to two inches thick. Overlap your pieces so there are no gaps for weeds to poke through. Lightly wet this layer.
3. Spread Compost Over the Newspaper
Top your newspaper layer — or cardboard if you used that — with your compost. Spread the compost so the layer is about three to four inches thick. If the compost is dried out, wet it lightly before putting down your final layer.
4. Top your Compost with Wood Chips
Cover your compost layer with the wood chips. Spread them so that they cover the previous two layers thickly. This will take about 5”-6” of wood chips. Wet everything down with your garden hose, so that the new garden mound is damp.
At this point you can go ahead and plant your seeds or juvenile plants right into your top-most layer, or you can let it sit for a few days. Whichever you decide to do you should see the benefits of this gardening method as you work with it over time. After watering in new plants or seeds, you shouldn’t have to water again — if at all — for a very long time.
It’s critical that you remember to put your plants or seeds below the upper mulch layer. If you just put them into the topmost layer, they won’t germinate and grow properly. You have to ensure that you’re appropriately planting them into the next layer of soil to give them a strong start.
For planting your items, you can do this by pulling the upper layer of wood chips back. Doing this will expose the compost or soil underneath, and you can then dig down one to two inches to plant your seedlings or juvenile plants. If you want very fertile soil, take steps to prep your garden bed in advance. You can do this as soon as the growing season in the year before.
If you’re not someone who wants to wait an entire season to plant, it’s possible to plant as soon as you finish prepping the beds.
Maintaining Your Back To Eden Garden in the Following Years
When you start using this garden method for your vegetables or herbs, how do you maintain it? There are few things you can do to maintain it and keep it going for years after you establish it.
Weeding is extremely simple with this gardening style because the weed seeds land in your mulch layer. So, they won’t have the benefit of being in the soil layer below the mulch. As long as you make a point to keep the mulch at least three-inches deep around your plants, the weed roots will stay shallow and easy to pull out.
In most instances, you can grab the weed by the base and pull upwards lightly. It should slide right out of your mulch layer. In rare cases where the weeds developed a deep taproot, you still shouldn’t have a hard time removing them. The soil below the mulch should be moist enough to allow you to free the weed with a small tug.
There isn’t a gardening method that is 100% weed-free, no matter how nice it’d be. You’ll have your share of weeding with this method, but it should be a lot less than what you’d have with bare soil. Also, removing them is much easier.
The mulch covering will break down over time, and this is a good thing because it means that it’s doing exactly what you want it to do. But, you’ll need to add more mulch when this happens. Using more of the same type of mulch can work well over time, especially if it’s fresh wood chips. The fresh wood chips will have plenty of green and brown waste in them, and it gives you an almost perfect compost material. Even then, larger chunks of the brown waste tend to linger for longer.
Look at the layer you already put down and see what’s left. There should be a lot of bigger chunks because those are going to take time and more nitrogen to decay. If all you see is small particulates, you may need to put in a whole new mulch layer like you did in the first year. Personally, we recommend using a range of lasagna gardening techniques where you don’t mix your new material into your old. Instead, place a fresh layer on top of whatever you currently have.
One option you have is to add composted chicken manure over your mulch layer. If you mix the chicken manure with broken-down yard waste, you’re injecting a nice source of nitrogen into the soil. This will keep the decomposition active and ensure that the bigger bits break down well.
If you’re not using wood chips for whatever reason, it’s more difficult. If you’re choosing to use straw instead, it has a small amount of green waste and nitrogen in it. But, roughly 70% of straw is brown waste. You’ll want to add a layer of grass clippings or manure to add green waste. It’s also important that you avoid making a very dense mat. Things like grass clippings, straw, and pine needles mat together. This is great when it comes to soil erosion, but it slows down the decomposition process. If the mat absorbs water for too long, it can rot and turn slimy and moldy.
It’s important that you vary your treatment to match your location’s needs. This will be a trial and error process at first until you find what works for you. However, it’ll pay off in time as you’ll develop a fertile, rich soil.
It may be necessary to apply fertilizer during the first couple of years with this method. Fertilizer will be necessary to encourage healthy plant growth, and there’s nothing wrong with this. If you had a traditional garden, you’d use it anyway. But, there’s a reason why fertilizer is necessary at this stage.
This is a form of sheet composting, as we’ve mentioned earlier. You’re trying to break down material directly into the soil you want to plant into. Composting also requires a specific amount of nutrients to work correctly. In the first few years, any nutrients you need can get pulled straight from the soil. This can quickly lead to a nitrogen deficiency, and your plants can look stunted.
Fertilizing during these first few years to ensure you can get healthy growth throughout the garden plot. At the same time, you’re creating an organic-packed soil that will hold in moisture. As time goes on, it’ll start holding in additional nutrients at the same time, and this means you fertilize less.
After many years of maintaining this garden, you’ll have to water very seldom. You’ll also rarely have to apply any form of commercial fertilizer, either solid or liquid. But, you’re also going to be using a natural product like compost, and this is a form of fertilizer. You’re also rarely using a single material for your mulch to get the perfect soil. Once you find the best pairing for your garden beds, it’ll take care of itself. Getting there will be trial and error.
Challenges Surrounding the Back to Eden Gardening Method
As we already touched on, one of the most crucial steps of this planting method is the type of wood chips you pick out. However, wood chips aren’t the only challenge you face when you use this gardening method. There are a few other challenges you need to be aware of before you tackle this project.
On challenge is your soil quality. In any situation, including gardening, adding mulch as a cover gives you a huge natural resource. So, it makes sense that if you cover a good soil with a high-quality mulch, you’ll create an even better soil for growing your vegetables, herbs, or plants. So, it makes sense that if you cover a very poor soil with a layer of mulch, you’re going to take several steps in the right direction on improving your soil quality. However, you have to remember that this isn’t a magic fix, and it won’t turn a poor soil into a high-quality one overnight.
It’s also worth noting that if your soil is extremely poor, adding a decent amount of compost will go a long way in improving the soil’s nature too. For the first few years after you establish your garden, you should make a point to spread a decent layer of mulch over the top of your soil. If you only put mulch down once, you’ll find out that around three growing seasons in, that you won’t get a thriving garden with full harvests.
If the soil is poor, it’s critical that you lay down mulch. However, you’ll also have to lay down a thick layer of nutrient-dense compost on a regular basis to help fix the soil quality. As time goes on and you do this more and more, you’ll need to slowly add less of each component. In turn, you’ll get rich and fertile soil.
Garden by Drew Folta / CC BY 2.0 Getting a rich garden soil will take time, but it can pay for itself when you establish it because it requires very little care and will feed your plants to ensure you get a high yield when it comes time to harvest them.
Germination And Planting
When you use the mulching method in Back to Eden gardening, you’ll notice that you have little to no weeds. This is due to the fact that when the weed seeds land in your mulch, they can’t take hold easily, germinate, or grow well. This is the biggest point to using mulch, no weeds. However, you will pay a price for not having weeds. If the weeds won’t grow, neither will any of the seeds you’re going to plant if you don’t put them into the soil layer under the mulch.
You can resolve this by performing one crucial step. You have to move the layer of wood chips back and directly plant the plants or seedlings into the underlying soil. Make sure they’re not on top of this wood chip layer. The biggest thing you have to remember is that the plant or seeds themselves have to be planted in the soil. However, you then have to cover them up by filling in the layer of wood chips around them.
There can be times though heavy rain, harsh winds, or other naturally-occurring circumstances where the seeds work out of the soil and end up in the mulch layer. If this happens, you’ll notice very little growth or germination from this particular plant. To successfully avoid having poor growth, you want to plant your seeds slightly deeper and earlier in the season. Deeper planted seeds will take longer to break through the ground, they’ll give you healthier and sturdier plants in the long run with a more productive harvest.
If you want to plant smaller seeds, you should take full advantage of fertile, good soil. You could even use compost as a cover to protect and nurture the seeds. Make sure that you keep your soil around your seedlings moist and watered. Once the seeds break ground and start to grow, even if there are small gaps in your planting, you’ll get a nice yield.
It’s worth keeping in mind that many people have said that they chose to use compost as a means to mulch parts of their garden that have smaller seeds, and they feel like it helped them achieve a better harvest.
You should face it that no matter how good one particular gardening method is, there is always going to be a big sticking point that you have to contend with. This is pests. In the case of this gardening method, since you’re going to use mulch as your garden’s foundation, you’re going to have a problem with pests.
Mulch or wood chips is known to invite slugs to the garden, so it makes sense that they’d invade your Back to Eden Garden since mulch and wood chips are such huge components. If you live in an area that naturally gets a lot of rain, the challenge of dealing with slugs and pests will be substantially larger.
Although slugs can be an ongoing issue, many gardeners say that the benefits of this gardening method will significantly outweigh the possibility of dealing with slugs. One thing you can do to help lower the numbers and deter them is to make sure that you compost your wood chips.
You want them to look less like actual wood chips and more like compost when you finish with them. You could also try another avenue and use compost in all of your layers while leaving out any actual wood. This can eliminate the possibility of the slugs being attracted to the area in the first place. After all, your main goal is to have your soil sufficiently and significantly covered by a material.
Generally speaking, using wood chips or mulch isn’t only to cover the ground in most cases. It also provides your garden with a valuable benefit because they’re great at retaining moisture right at the soil level underneath your top coat.
Wood Chip Type and Quality
If you have a chipper shredder, you can make your own wood chips. The founder of this gardening method points out that any covering for your garden is better than none, and he has a point. However, using the wrong wood chips might not be the best choice. You could be better off with straw or grass clippings instead of wood shavings or a bark-based mulch.
You’ll have to do a good amount of digging when you tell people that you want wood chips for your garden. It may not be easy because a lot of people won’t understand exactly what you want. Most people use wood chips to get a nice look in their flower beds or gardens, so many suppliers offer wood chips that have a nice appearance, like woody mulch or bark. While we agree that these do look nice laid in the flower bed, they’re not good for gardening purposes.
High-quality wood chips for a mulched-style garden come straight from thin tree branches with the leaves still attached that get shredded and composted. It will take on the appearance of wood chips and compost combined because you want composted wood chips.
Fresh wood chips that you just shredded are ones that you can use. You should try to make sure that they come from branches with the leaves still attached. This will allow them to decompose in your garden over time. It also works well to use fresh wood chips under shrubs and trees. For gardening, you just have to be aware that they will eventually turn into great composted wood chips.
If you look at your wood chips and you see shredded wood or chunks of wood, this isn’t what you want to use in your garden. Also, it’s not a good idea to add bark mulch that looks nice in ornamental settings like flower beds to your garden. Ask around at local tree care services and explain what you want. They’ll most likely have a load of the type of wood chips you want, and you could get them at a deep discount or even free.
When used for growing food, Back to Eden gardening is a successful method. Keeping weeds out of the garden while keeping optimum moisture means less work doing chores and more work enjoying your harvests with the Back to Eden gardening method.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.