I have always liked to learn new ways to garden and have experimented with a number of them over the years. I tried a couple of times over the years to use straw as a mulch but always ended up pulling it off due to the weeds that would inevitably come around. It seemed like more work than just simply hoeing and hand picking. But over the last number of years I have dived into learning about Permaculture. One of the action items within the Permaculture design principles is to cover your soil One way to accomplish this while keeping within the Permaculture Design Principles is with a gardening method called Back to Eden gardening.
I have always been a believer in raising food without having to rely on chemical sprays and commercial fertilizers. Although I have only used commercial fertilizers maybe once or twice in the 30 years I have lived here, it was many years ago. I have dumped the cow manure from the neighbor on the garden and ended up with a great crop of weeds albeit a good garden as well. But as of late, I have used my own ample supply of horse and chicken manure. In both cases, weeds are inevitable, but I choose to look at it that the weed crop is accomplishing one of the Permaculture design action steps of Covering the soil.
But unfortunately with the annual weeds came the quack grass AKA cooch grass AKA crabgrass (Elymus repens). I dug it out, I pulled it out and finally resorted to spraying it out with a glyphosate, branded as Roundup. Although I did not like to do it, Roundup was toted as being a safe chemical that went inert when it hit the ground and being the quack grass had become so overbearing, I thought I would minimally use it on the garden. But since that time, studies have shown that Roundup type products are not as safe as one first thought and because of their wide spread use are being shown to be harmful to biodiversity. In an March 2020 article from McGill University, Widely used weed killer harming biodiversity , the researchers are quoted as saying that "One of the world’s most widely used glyphosate-based herbicides, Roundup, can trigger loss of biodiversity, making ecosystems more vulnerable to pollution and climate change". The researchers through the duration of the study "observed significant loss of biodiversity in communities contaminated with glyphosate". Scary stuff!
Although I had been thinking similarly to this study for many years previous, the "convenience" of using Roundup was important at the time. But despite its very limited use, I just felt that there had to be a better way to ensure that the food I was growing was the safest, healthy produce that I could manage and would not harm the environment. So I dug out a couple books I had purchased when I first moved here, Your Organic Garden with Jeff Cox and Landscaping with Nature by Jeff Cox, and gave them a read again. In addition to further cementing in my mind that the food production methods being used on a commercial scale and in my own garden were not the best for humans and for nature, it had me longing to learn more. So, I also started researching and reading on line about Permaculture. Learning about it's principles and the application of different gardening techniques that help you to achieve those principles, like lasagna gardening and no till gardening, to name a few. But the application and implementation of it seemed out of reach and overwhelming. But then I came across an online course in October, 2021 with Josh Thomas of Homesteading Family. In addition to practicing Permaculture Design Principles, Josh is a Certified Permaculture Designer and consultant who finally helped to clarify for me what Permaculture actually was in his Permaculture for your Homestead Workshop with the following statement. Namely, "Permaculture is a way of working with nature rather than against it.".
After taking the course I started looking around at how I was managing my own property and gardens and although I wasn't doing a horrible job, there were areas that I needed to improve on to be certain. I had made many mistakes and repairing those mistakes and moving forward would take some time. Some would be relatively easy to fix and some of those items would require more long term plans as I outlined in my blog post On the farm - Planning out the 80 acres. For the first time in a good long while, I had the thought that I could do this. This feeling of empowerment was magnified when I witnessed first hand how nature was repairing the damage I had done. I explore some of that natural repairing in my blog post Rainwater collection - essential water for use on the homestead.
However, trying to do it all at once is an impossible task and can result in planning paralysis for me, so I needed to break it down so that I at least start. After all, enough small drops can eventually fill a bucket. My gardens and flower beds were the perfect place to start.
The journey to Back to Eden Gardening
One of the action items within Permaculture design is to cover your soil. As Josh Thomas puts it, "If you have any bare dirt on your property, you are losing an opportunity to create abundance. Bare dirt is also a problem because it gets washed away when it rains. You need to get that area covered up.". There are many ways to do that through things like cover crops, close plant spacing and mulch, to name a few. But their application will be dependent on your own personal circumstances.
Cover crops come in many forms and one typically thinks of things like clovers, legumes and grasses as a beneficial crop to have. But weeds can also be a very effective cover crop. Their deep roots mine the minerals from deep within the soil and by chopping them off or working them into the soil, you are adding those minerals and nitrogen rich green materials to your soil. The trick is to not let them go to seed.
You can also plant bare soil to grass type plants and legumes, intensively mow it and leave the clippings in place to feed the soil and build soil. I watch Stoney Ridge Farmer on YouTube and have seen his place go from a barren, overgrown briar patch where there was no soil due to years of tobacco farming, to a lush, productive landscape. He achieved this with some land clearing, seeding grass and then intensively mowing grass, lots of mowing grass, and leaving it lay where it lands. Since he started it has been 3 years and now that he has some pastures established he is mowing less because he now practices regenerative agriculture in addition to mowing grass. In his vlog, The Science of grass...Learn something today...real world..real grass..no chemicals! the Stoney Ridge Farmer does a good job of explaining the science behind using grass to build soil. It is worth the watch.
Close Plant spacing
Although I want to be able to build the soil, using these types of cover crops is not an effective way to have your garden produce the quantity of food you want and/or need. I do know from personal experience that the garden will produce something even with excess weeds in place but it is not great. So to avoid the weed issue, I plant my rows close together. You do have to weed the garden at first, and you can't go down the rows with a roto tiller, but once the plants get to size, weeding effectively goes down to a dull roar because you are not bring up new weed seeds and the plants shade the ground therefore not allowing weed seeds to germinate.
But sometimes weeding is over rated and so other methods of soil improvement and weed suppression need to be explored to be able to follow the Permaculture Design Principle of covering your soil. Which led me to Back to Eden gardening.
Back to Eden Gardening
Back to Eden gardening in its simplest form is a no-till, regenerative gardening method that mimics nature by covering your soil with an organic mulch that conserves soil moisture and that over time feeds the soil as it rots.
I had tried applying straw mulches over the years and ran into problems with weeds and maintaining the various beds. So, needless to say, my experiences had not been great thus far. So when I read about the Back to Eden Gardening method, I thought that it probably would not happen for me. Not only is finding unsprayed straw almost impossible, the weed seeds that organic straw brings in makes more work for me rather than saving me work. But I did not dismiss it totally and when I saw in How to Keep Weeds Out of the Garden – Managing Weeds that Josh Thomas was using wood chips and no till to raise his families produce needs I decided to explore Back To Eden gardening method some more.
This research took me in many directions and there were many opinions about whether it worked or not. I read articles and watched videos about Paul Gautschi, the teacher of this gardening method. They even made a documentary about it called Back To Eden Gardening Documentary Film - How to Grow a Regenerative Organic Garden. I watched people like Living Traditions Homestead who had successfully done Back to Eden Gardening in their own homestead but were no longer going to use it as they documented in Why Back to Eden Gardening Isn't for Us . I watched Justin Rhodes vlogging of a Back to Eden Gardening tour with the “Back To Eden” Garden - FULL TOUR. And most recently, a one on one interview with Paul Gautschi and subsequent blog post by Josh Thomas titled Back to Eden Gardening with Paul Gautschi. There are many opinions about whether it works, especially with things like quack grass, and as was documented in PLEASE DO NOT do a Back to Eden wood chip garden until you watch this!, it may not work for my applications. But as Kevin Espiritu with Epic Gardening pointed out in his blog post Back To Eden Gardening: Rich Soil Done Nature’s Way "In most of those cases, it’s because they don’t understand the principles of composting."
Creating the Back to Eden Garden
So with all the research done, I decided that giving it a try was the best thing for me and decided that over the summer of 2022 I would convert the flower bed on the north side of my garden, the flower bed around the shed and the orchard to a Back to Eden garden.
Due to my previous experiences with straw, I knew that straw or old hay for mulch would not be used. But I also knew that although I could easily get my hands on softwood chips from the local post peeling plant, I did not want to use it because it does not contain enough green leafy material to balance out the carbon nitrogen ratio. Additionally, the research is still undecided as to whether softwood shavings, pine in particular, actually makes the soil more acidic. But perhaps more importantly for me, pine contains Allelopathy chemicals similar to the chemical Thujaplicin in Western Red Cedar that can inhibit growth. And being I wanted it in the garden, this was very much prohibitive.
Although I have many acres of hardwoods that I could conceivably make into a very good hardwood mulch, I was not prepared to spend the thousands of dollars on a wood chipper. Being you can not rent them either due to insurance issues, I decided to call a local tree trimming guy and ask if he would be able to supply me with pure hardwood mulch made from chipping the whole trees. I explained that I wanted the hardwood mulch to be made up of varied size chips made from chipping all parts of the hardwood trees - bark, leaves, branches and trunk. He said there would not be a problem and within a week the first load of perfect hardwood mulch arrived. He has promised to deliver more throughout the summer as pure loads of hardwood mulch are made.
The area I was going to do first was the flower bed on the north side of the garden that had succumbed to quack grass and weeds. It is going to be a job!
This bed contained a couple cherry trees, two grape vines and a couple flowering almond. But the first thing was to mow the grass as low as I could possibly. I then went in and worked it as best as I could with the roto tiller.
Due to other commitments and the rainy weather that we had after initially working this bed up, I did not actually get back to it until about a week later. But that was actually okay as it gave the quack grass a chance to sprout. I went through the entire bed and dug out the growing roots and then gave it another rototilling. It worked up quite nice this time due to being a little more moist. I then raked it level and put some stakes out to identify the boundaries of the flower bed and the path I wanted though it. For the path, I dug it down about 4 inches and used the soil to raise the beds themselves. It already looked so much better.
I wanted to put some of the horse manure I have onto this spot, but because of the rain it was a bit too soupy to handle so decided to add some non composted kitchen scraps. I currently don't have a dedicated compost pile and so in the winter I simply put my raw kitchen scraps on the garden and during the summer, I trench compost my kitchen scraps. Adding the scraps to these Back to Eden gardening beds is simply a variation of these two techniques and will help feed the micro organisms that will compost things and help ensure this works. More would have been better but as they say, some is better than none.
I was then ready to start with layering the non glossy cardboard I had saved up all winter. All tape and sticky address labels is removed prior to laying it down. The cardboard will act as a weed barrier , an organic landscape fabric if you will, and help to retain moisture while the sheet composting that occurs in Back to Eden gardening gets started. The cardboard will break down over time adding to the organic matter of the soil but for now it has a very important job to do. I started in the pathway that will eventually have a trellis on each side of it for the grapes.
Soaking of the cardboard prior to installation can be done, but I chose to water it, multiple times. It was a windy evening when I did this so soaking it down also helped to hold it in place.
I covered the rest of the bed with clean cardboard and then watered it very well. I filled in the bottom corner before adding the hardwood mulch.
I was now ready to start moving the hardwood chips into place, one wheelbarrow at a time. What I found interesting is that the fungus had already started in the short time it had been in the chip pile.
Twenty-eight wheelbarrows later, I was able to smooth out the entire bed making sure to keep the wood chips from resting against the trees and grapes. Overall, I put enough chips on this bed so that the hardwood mulch was four to six inches thick over the entire six foot wide bed..
and then it was time to water it in well.
And the redone flower bed is now ready for me to plant annual flowers, perennials and some herbs.
I am fully aware that this Back to Eden gardening method may not work and that it will take some amending and maintenance as time passes by. I am also aware that the quack grass may take over and I could be back to square one. But I also feel that with the research I have done and keeping the 12 Permaculture Design Principles in mind as this bed matures over the years, I shall see the success of my Back to Eden gardening adventure. I feel that if i am mindful to "Observe and interact" and "Use small, slow systems" to "Creatively respond to change" this bed will ultimately be a welcomed addition to My Boreal Homestead Life.
In the meantime, I plan to do another flower bed around the shed, do some flower and herb beds inside the orchard and make the entire orchard into a Permaculture orchard using the Back to Eden gardening method.
If you enjoy this content, please consider joining the My Boreal Homestead Life community. By supplying your email address at the bottom of the page and hitting "sign up" or by clicking Join, you will ensure you get an email notification when I post new blogs to the My Boreal Homestead Life site.
Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this homegrown, homestead life in a modern world.
- Stoney Ridge Farmer - Small Scale No Till Farming...Building Soil From A to Z!
Justin Rhodes - Going BACK To EDEN (for healing)
- Simple Living Alaska - Turning this Bare Land into a Garden
- Homesteading Family - No-Till Gardening – Is It Right For You?
- Homesteading Family - Preparing the Garden for Winter: No-Till Gardening
- Back to Eden Gardening
- Joel Salatin - Polyface Farms