Back To Eden Gardening: Rich Soil Done Nature’s Way

Ed Wike
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Origins of the Back To Eden Gardening Method

The impetus for the Back To Eden gardening method came from an unlikely source. In 1986, Mel Bartholomew started caring for a friend’s orchid collection. To learn more about it, he joined an orchid society and attended meetings, where he learned about some of the plant’s needs and sensitivities.

He started to compare the orchid’s owner’s expenses, when it was time to replace a plant, to his own expenses from the past when a plant he’d purchased either couldn’t be saved or needed so much care that it didn’t make financial sense to keep it. That comparison led to the question, “What if I could spend less on my garden plants and create less of a maintenance undertaking?”

From that line of thought, the Back To Eden gardening method was born. The idea was to create a system that could create rich soil full of nutrients, yet that was low maintenance, and that was easy to get started.

How To Do Your Own Back To Eden Garden

First, create a list of what you want to grow, then take that list as a reference to create your back to eden garden.

Garden History

You should know the background of the garden. Here’s a brief summary of what we will be doing in this guide. It’s all about building soil and having life in it. There are micro-organisms that help us grow plants and keep them healthy. These microbes also provide food for our soil. Our goal is to create a garden where they can thrive, and thus attract them.

Soil

Before starting your garden, think about what kind of soil you want. Do you want a sandy soil, or a clay soil? According to the manual, sandy soils are easier to work with, while clay soils are better at retaining moisture.

The first step to getting your soil ready will be to prepare the beds. This is the soil where your plants will be growing. If you are starting with a bare patch of ground, you can simply clear the area and start planting. If you already have a patch of garden, we can still use it. But it’s a good idea to till the soil to improve the drainage and the aeration.

Select Your Supplies

If you have access to a tiller, then you should use it only for pre-prep work. If you have a tiller, you might as well get a backhoe. Tilling is too damaging on the soil biome and too much work. Any large machine should be used carefully and sparingly. It’s like using a big hammer at work.

The big key to gardening is using the least amount of work necessary, and letting nature do the work. Nature does a great, organic job at making rich soil and if you don’t hurt it along the way, you won’t need to fix it later.

If you don’t have a tiller, break out the shovel. You do not need to cultivate the soil before you plant in your garden. Get out the shovel and break up the soil with a fork. Vertically till 6-8 inches of topsoil. In other words, use the shovel to dig 6-8 inches deep and then use a garden fork to loosen the soil. You should see mostly brown earth, and a few very large pieces of debris.

Putting It All In Place

You are now (hopefully) convinced that gardening is a worthwhile, even enjoyable, activity that is worthy of your time.

The key to success is to have a clear understanding of what it takes to have a garden that is bountiful and productive. One of the most important things to understand about gardening is that you are mostly planting the seeds for ideal conditions that you will create.

Your goal is to create rich soil that will nourish and support the plants’ roots without creating a salad dressing. You must be mindful of the many factors that are outside of your control and are constantly at work on your garden. This inevitable period of decay and transformation is referred to as the Life Cycle of a Garden or Nature’s Way.

As you have noticed, the general cycle can never be stopped, because if you do nothing to support the plants it will be done for you automatically. If conditions are not right for the microbes, fungi, and other creatures, they can destroy your garden before it even has a chance.

Planting & Reaping The Rewards

There are hundreds of gardeners out there who have mastered “back to Eden” growing. The first chapter of the book features a Q&A with some more experienced gardeners to get their insights and opinions. One reader told me, “I love the way she asked ‘how do you do it?’” making it a book that not only tells how to do these techniques but also gives an insight into how they work together. The author also makes sure to mention that although using these techniques requires extra work, the payoff is in the results. Another technique she discusses in this book is how to trick the plant into thinking that it is getting the kind of conditions that it likes. This will make it thrive rather than staggering on in a half-dead state.

Other methods include how to create compost and where to put it. Also learn how to burn the nutrients off of a plant if you feel it has become to strong. This is a wonderful gardening resource book for any gardener interested in improving the health and the quality of their produced gardening items.

Subsequent Years In The Back To Eden Garden

The amazing results with the first year we had the garden was truly inspiring, and it was a source of great joy and pride to be part of such an amazing experience. But going forward, things get even better. The second year of planting is, perhaps, even more amazing, because the garden environment is continually improving.

This year, the earthworm population is exploding. Their castings add to the organic matter of our rich earth.

The beneficial microbes, that are now prevalent, not only help the plants grow but produce a fruit that is even more tasty.

The myriad of bugs that prey upon the pests, and a much more resistant and hardy plant mix, all have made our Back to Eden Garden effortless to maintain.

We are continually finding new ways that the garden gives back to us.

We see that Planting season is shaping up to be even better than the last one. We will continue to share our successes, to inspire everyone to create their own fruit producing Back to Eden Garden. We hope to encourage everyone with the sheer joy and purpose of gardening, and how it can truly be restorative to the earth, you and your family.

Weeding In The Back To Eden Gardening Method

Although raking is not necessary, you can use a rake to eliminate any trash on the surface.

The Back to Eden gardening method of weeding is similar to conventional gardening. The main difference is that instead of yanking or uprooting each weed, we only pull to the first joints. This means we are leaving the top portion of the roots in the ground so it can regrow.

When pulling a weed, gently put your hands around the base of the plant, about 2" below the soil line. Make sure you can grasp it well and grab the soil to provide support. Pull firmly, but not with a jerky motion. Make sure you remove the whole root ball by pulling straight upward and that you don’t allow the weed to spring back. If you leave any portion of the root, it will regrow. We know this sounds discouraging, but it’s one of the secrets to the Back to Eden gardening method.

Maintaining Your Back To Eden Garden

Gardening is a fun hobby that an entire family can enjoy. It does take time to maintain. In order to have the healthiest lawn for you, you should follow these simple rules.

Mulch

Mulch protects soil from drying out too quickly. Mulch also helps maintain moisture.

To protect your sod, you should spread a layer of mulch over it. This allows it to become established without being harmed.

Mulch also helps grass from turning brown and warm in the sun. This helps your lawn stay nice and green.

Water

Instead of watering in the middle of the lawn during the hot sun, water the grass in early morning or right before sunset. The sun is hottest during the middle of the day. It is also the best time for watering.

Water your lawn regularly, but be sure to wait until the soil is dry before watering again. Water should never sit on the ground longer than an hour. If you fail to water for a long period of time, the lawn will turn yellow and begin to die.

When watering, water directly to the base of the plant. This prevents burning your plants.

Fertilize

Fertilizer allows the grass to produce the nutrients it needs for growth. Apply fertilizer when grass is actively growing. This is typically during the spring and the summer.

What About Fertilizer?

Soil becomes impoverished gradually. Mulch replenishes nitrogen, which dissipates. Organic material that is tilled into soil may decay and disintegrate. Heavy clay soil absorbs nutrients and dries out your soil. That is why, especially if you live in a rainy climate, your soil will need some extra attention.

The good news is, you do not really need fertilizer. The reason you need fertilizer is, you have a poor soil and you are trying to raise crops that are not corn or a grass for hay.

Most vegetables are fine with a high growing green manure crop. Why? They are nitrogen fixers. With a few exceptions like potatoes and tomatoes, most plants become nitrogen deficient at some point. If your soil is actually lacking nutrients, then there is one easy way to tell. If you can grow a little something for your table, then you are fine. If not, then you will need to add organic matter.

What exactly does that mean? Back to Eden gardening is about adding minerals and sources of nutrients and life, not pesticides. Annuals have evolved 2 strategies for survival in poor soil. First, they forage. They send out stems and roots and try to collect as much of what they need from their environment. So if your soil is deficient in one or two nutrients, you can grow the plants you need on the outside. The second strategy is to fix it. Plants use the power of photosynthesis to do something amazing.

Does Back To Eden Gardening Work?

Back to Eden Gardening takes a different approach than most traditional gardening methods. Instead of worrying about how to control the pests, pestilence, and poisons in the garden, Back to Eden turns what would normally be a concern into fertilizer. Back to Eden is an organic gardening method that focuses on making the soil rich and fertile without the use of any chemicals or fertilizers.

The focus of the method is to do as much as you can to maintain the health of your soil and let it take care of the rest.

The most important element is to add as much organic matter to the soil as possible. You can do this by adding mulch, compost, or anything that will add additional organic matter to your existing garden soil. Another element is to keep the garden as healthy and happy as possible by watering it on a regular basis.

This type of gardening is low-maintenance, but it does take some set-up. Not only do you have to figure out how to get the existing soil to be fertile enough to plant, but you need to find other ways to keep your plants growing.

One way to do this is to find ways to make your plants more resistant and resilient so that bug infestations or lack of water will not kill your plants.

Why Sheet Composting Is Slow

Sheet composting is when you heap your pile of compostable material to one side of your garden bed, using lumber to help keep the pile stacked. This technique is an economical way to compost, but it’s slow.

The largest issue is the size of your garden. Because you are essentially creating a small dam in the middle of your bed, sheet composting will fill in your spaces slowly. You will need to tend to sheet composting periodically to keep it aerated, which further decreases the speed at which it will compost.

A great option for speedier composting is to create a raised bed, which can be built quickly and often comes with a built-in frame for additional support. Raised beds are also a great option for full sun plants, as little or no weed barrier is often required. Some gardeners even place chicken wire across the bed to provide support for vegetable plants.

Fortunately, you can get better bang for your buck with a raised bed. As with most gardening tasks, you can save money and time by doing a bit of the work yourself. One DIY option is to create your own raised bed from free pallets. This is a great option for gardeners living in urban areas, as piles of materials are often readily available.

Microbes May Be In Danger

Studies have revealed that most of the microorganisms which inhabit the soil are killed off when a large number of pesticides are applied to the soil. While scientists say that increasing the mammalian population has a negative effect on the micro organism population, scientists also need to study this issue in detail.

The active microbial community is the foundation of the ecological health of soil. So, this issue needs to be studied in detail. Also, it is necessary to analyse microbe biodiversity in soil, as this has a direct relationship with ecosystem resilience and biodiversity. The action of farmed species on the environment should be considered when biodiversity is studied.

We know the fact that soil micro-biota acquire nutrients in many ways from their surroundings. So, to test species variation, scientists need to focus on the microbe community in their locations and on the specific factors that may affect their survival.

Even if species diversity is recorded, it is important for the researchers to take a holistic approach when attempting to understand this diversity. Solely considering various species present may be an inadequate method to understand the relationship between the microbe population in the soil and the chemical make up of the soil.

The soil ecosystem is fascinating and complicated and more research is essential.

Sour Mulch Needs More Time

A “sour” mulch is one that has gone through the process of decomposing and breaking down. In the simplest terms, it is an acidic mixture of decaying plant material that breaks down into a rich, brown, odorless, dark substance.

Not all mulch is sour. You see, when you see light-colored mulch in the store, it’s usually from freshly cut grass and it’s very acidic. Think of the tannin in your tea. The darker the mulch, the more it’s decomposed.

There are many benefits to using a sour mulch. The ones that deserve a big-time shout out are the ability to recycle household waste, the low cost of sour mulch, and the fact that there is no need to turn it over.

Recycle Yard Waste

You can use dead leaves, grass clippings, straw, shavings, sawdust, compost, and more. Just be sure to rake leaves and clippings before adding them to the bin. This makes it easier to remove the decomposed material when you are finished. Plus you’ll be able to provide your soil with more organic matter which makes your plants and vegetables much healthier.

Fungi, Fungi Everywhere

The key to having a flourishing garden is to give it all the right nutrients and a little loving care. Raw materials are brought in to make the compost, and the other essential elements come from mother nature by way of rain, wind, and worms.

As part of mother nature, Fungi is an essential organism imperative to the growth of plants. Fungi is frequently mistranslated as “mold”. Mold is not fungus. Fungal spores are dispersed by air, wind, and water. When they meet a compatible environment they take root, and in the process of spreading out, they thrive on the detritus.

Each year, I accomplish a new cycle of the garden. My goal in this process is to balance the system in a way that the soil continues to be rich as the plants continue to use it. In order to maintain this balance, I begin each year by digging up the garden and starting fresh. I mix rich earth with composted leaves and grass, then select the plants that will make the garden flourish.

To repeat this process, I use natural and organic ways to build the soil, and to attract the insects and animals that are the keepers of the system I implement. The compost I make is an essential element to this process, but it is only one part. I supplement it with the compost made by worms, which is called worm castings.

You Need Fresh Mulch, Not Aged

When you dress up your planting beds with live mulch the way nature does, you’re joining an ancient recycling program that the eco-friendly planet Earth has been doing for millions of years. Mulch made from shed evergreen needles not only adds durable beauty, but it also protects the soil from the drying action of the sun. It also helps regulate soil moisture by keeping the ground under the multi-green shield consistently moist.

Of course, you can buy as much mulch as you need at the big box store. Or you can cut up the clippings you save from pruning your own plants. You can even buy a mulching machine. And the option of buying large quantities of mulch is easy, but it is costing your family a lot of valuable time and energy.

If you choose to be eco-friendly with earth’s resources, mulching the old fashioned way is actually easier and it’s free. It’s just one more way you are keeping a thick layer of nature’s neatest fabric over your annuals and perennials and shrubs. In this way you reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides.

Slugging It Out With Slugs

Common garden problems such as dead seedlings, fungal diseases in the soil and snails or slugs that eat the leaves are due to the mineral content of the soil and most of these can be corrected by adding organic matter such as chicken manure and seaweed.

Add compost to your garden. Even in the city, there will be someone who is composting. One easy way to find a source for compost is to drive around neighborhoods on trash collection day. You will soon realize that many people are using a variety of compost bins. The larger ones should be avoided, as they tend to attract stray dogs, cats and rats. Neighbors should be able to tell you where you might find compost bins that have been put out for trash pickup.

When you have your compost, you can use the rich soil it creates to help amend the soil in your garden. Add compost when you plant root crops, peppers and tomatoes because they are heavy feeders.

Another important thing to think about when you are gardening in the city is the amount of water you use. Soil that is watered every day while plants are growing in the ground tends to get rid of many of its nutrients over time. Only watering once a week is enough to keep the soil healthy.

Matting Can Happen

Every day before their epic battle, Thor would forgo his fashionable shirt and tuck his plump little hammer into his belt. Like any decent clothing accessory, Mjolnir needed to be properly fitted. As Thor put on the belt, the hammer would slide off his body, dangling on the ground to be effortlessly plucked into his hand by the god of thunder. With this method, it took Thor but a second to be ready to dispatch an army of evil doers.

The idea of the hammer being stuck to the belt instantly sticks out to a gardener as the thought of it being “attached” to the body of a plant. Plants can fasten things to themselves as well. There are dozens of ways that plants capture and shelter items. See small, yellow pockets on the underside of a fan leaf? Those are called axillary buds and are just one way a plant can catch something. There is also growth where plants have been enveloped into a single structure. For example, the inside of a pitcher plant is the culmination of hundreds of rootlets fibrously and intricately woven together with other parts of the plant.

Big Idea For A Small Space

A typical apartment does not have a lot of space to grow vegetables. That doesn’t mean that one can’t grow them effectively and with great soil. We use planters to grow vegetables and flowers.

A great planter is one that has organic matter and is porous. To block moisture from escaping, you can place a layer of old newspaper on the bottom and mulch it with grass clippings. It’s a good idea to add a layer of large river rock or gravel on the top layer, which is called the drainage layer. To this you can add soil and compost and soon you have a self-sustaining model of rich soils.

For your organic matter needs, you can use dried leaves, grass clippings, compost, or cardboard. A good plan is to layer your organic matter along with your soil each time you replant.

To ensure better watering, dig out a hole in the middle of the planter to a depth of about one foot. A one-foot hole will ensure that the water goes down to the root structure of your plants, which is important.

Great Sources For Back To Eden Materials

Soil. Get the best quality possible. If you purchase good compost and/or composted manure, you may be surprised at how little of it you need in your beds. This is because if compost is well-made and aged for at least a year, it has the nutrients in it that the plants need, and this saves the need to buy and use so many off-the-shelf fertilizers. I recommend taking a good soil test, regardless. Use this valuable information to develop your own compost and manure recipes, since the mass-marketed stuff may not be ideal.

Yard tools. Buy good tools by reputable companies. It is absolutely worth it to invest a few extra dollars for high quality tools that will last a lifetime and will work well.

Compost. This is essential to all low-till gardening practices, and is a key component to good soil. Compost is a mixture of decomposing organic matter that, when used, continues to decompose and release nutrients to the soil. There are commercial products, but you can also make your own at home either by layering green and/or brown waste, or by using a compost tumbler.

Finding Wood Chips

If you are purchasing wood chips, look for hardwood chips rather than pine, because pine chips can release toxic chemicals when they decompose.

Always make sure that wood chips you purchase have not been chipped from trees treated with chemicals or are made from old landscape timbers treated with preservatives. (Some states have laws prohibiting the use of chemically treated or pressure-treated wood, while others require that these woods be clearly indicated on the packaging.) Some municipalities will only use disease-free wood chips in their compost piles and other wood chips may not be palatable to your earthworm colony.

You can also gather your own wood chips. If you do, make sure they do not contain paint or other material that may be toxic to your earthworms. Roots and other hard parts should be removed before you put the wood chips in the compost pile.

Alternative Mulches

90% or more of all the water that goes into our gardens is from rain or irrigation water. This is a lot of water and depending on the climate where you live, can be a critical resource. Many people have heard that mulch is great for the garden. Gardeners mulch, farmers mulch, and cyclists mulch to avoid sitting on a swampy seat while riding. It is inexpensive to make it from local plants, lawn trimmings, and brush. Or it can be purchased for a pittance. It is also easy to use because it is piled on top of the area to be mulched. It is forgotten about until the next rainfall or irrigation, and then slides off the area to be spread at the side of the garden for the next rainfall.

The only drawback to mulching is that it is a contributor to climate change because of carbon emissions. This is because chopped plants are burned at very high temperatures to turn them into mulch. This is a more serious problem in the eastern USA where there is a greater reliance on coal energy. However, in most areas that use natural gas, the burning of the organic material is a lesser contributor to climate change.

Community Clean-Up

Back to Eden Gardening has the distinct honor of being selected as a featured topic by the folks at Get Rich Slowly. It was a major bonus when this thread on their forum for frugal living led to a community-wide effort to help clean up the Chicago area. I joined in and along with many others, tore out a poisoned tree, removed invasive buckthorn, and helped reclaim a previously vacant grove of urban land. It was a wonderful group effort to help our fellow citizens clean their neighborhood and I got to combine my passions for urban gardening and frugality as part of an important effort.

Urban gardening is an important part of our future. At the same time, many parts of our city are plagued by vacant lots or other issues that are beyond the scope of their owners. If we want to grow a sustainable food supply in our area, we’ll need to both improve our own properties and help reclaim the properties of others.

Here’s a video of the neighborhood we helped. The neighborhood is in great shape and has a strong tradition of inviting their neighbors. Helping them get rid of invasive species was a good deed, but also a really good time to get to know my neighbors.

Manure Happens

In the way that you will always have fires in your home, you will always have composting. You will also have a clean, odor-free, and cost-effective way to keep your garden growing strong. As long as you keep feeding it!

When it comes to your garden, the ongoing conditions are what you should be paying attention to. The “why” of keeping your garden healthy is the key to its ongoing health. The things you do and in which order is the answer, and it all begins with the first step.

You don’t have to do anything to the soil when you add it. Compost will naturally improve soil over time. It will improve its texture, fertility, and water holding capacity. It will also boost the amount of beneficial microorganisms in the soil. The secondary benefits of composting are that it reduces the waste load on landfills; it’s not a disease source for your plants; and, it saves our water supply.

With no investment, a compost pile is easy to maintain. Hedge clippings, weeds, green waste, food scraps, and animal manure can all be added. But composting is more than just a low-cost, easy way to keep your garden abundant and healthy. It also allows you to have rich, nutrient-rich soil right in your garden.

Check Local Businesses

One thing that everyone should do is check all local businesses for plants. If you live in a town like I do and you are in the market for some plants be sure to go to the local nursery. Your local nursery or garden center most likely gets there plants from the same wholesalers.

I have been able to get some nice Raintree perennials the past two years for free. Just ask if they have any plants that need to be dug up for replanting on the property.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are there any materials I shouldn’t use?

A: Yes, there are a few. First, I wouldn’t use straight manure. It’s a bit odorier than composted manure, and fish emulsion, and may encourage plant disease. Also, I wouldn’t use manure that has been treated with herbicides, which is sometimes done to manage alfalfa grass and other invasive plants.

It’s also important to use composted manure based on ingredients other than manure, such as leaves, straw or vegetable waste.

Use only composted manure from a quality source, as its nutrient content can differ greatly from that of manure that’s been mucked out of a barn, for example. Some composted manures will contain much more nitrogen than is needed to grow a vegetable garden.

Q: All I have is rocks. Can I mulch with rocks?

A: Yes. Only two ingredients are necessary to mulch with rocks – big ones and small ones! Whether you create your own mulch or buy it, these are the two ingredients you need.

Big, heavy rocks are the best mulch there is. They are nature’s way of retaining moisture and they also act as an environmental heating pad for all the life lying in the soil below. Any rock works as long as it is the right size. It must be too big for your animals to move and not too heavy for you to lift.

The other type of rock you need to mulch with is a small rock. This is what you put on top of the bigger rocks to help anchor them to the ground. You can use river rock, small pebbles, or any other kind of rock as long as it is small and flat.