The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Back to Eden No-Till Garden, Revisited

2015 Garden

Last year I experimented with a no-till garden plot based on Paul Gautschi’s “Back to Eden” gardening method. This year I decided to go back to the conventional method of tilling, largely because I didn’t have enough wood mulch to cover my entire garden space, nor did I have the energy to put in the work up front. I promised myself I would stay on top of the weeds this year as opposed to letting them get out of control like I did last year.

And I did keep on top of them for awhile. Hoeing pretty much every day in May and June. But a 4-day hiatus in mid-July is all it took for the weeds to become unmanageable. July is probably the worst month for weeds because you’re at your least motivated place to do anything about it. It’s hot. You’ve been carrying on for months. Nothing is ripe yet. I’ll get to it tomorrow! Tomorrow eventually comes and the weeds are taller than you, so you throw in the towel. Weeds: 2, Me: 0.

It was about this time that I started thinking about no-till approach again. Avoiding weeds isn’t the main point of a Back to Eden/No-Till garden—building healthy soils is. Still, it was hard to ignore that the old plot had fewer weeds than any of my fresh garden beds, even a year later after no tending.

I felt like God was trying to teach me something. I had tried the traditional gardening for another year and really gave it my best effort, as much as one could without quitting their day job. But the results were no better. The soil was getting depleted and crop yields were way down. On the other hand, the no-till plot, while it requires more up-front work, requires less work throughout the season and builds my soil over time.

Watch the full documentary here: Back to Eden Film.

So I’m back at it, getting my garden set up for next Spring’s planting already. I’ve done a lot more research to correct things I missed the first time around. Becca has joined my enthusiasm and we’ve spent several days watching Paul Gautschi videos on YouTube and making our plans for next year. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Back to Eden gardening is about building healthy soils. Many people (me included) give it a shot for one season and list off the pros and cons. But it takes years, decades even, for the garden to really shine. Paul has been doing this method for 35 years.
  2. Weeds are reduced, but not eliminated. As long as the mulch is deep enough (at least 4 inches), they should be easy to pull. One great tip to deal with patches of weeds is to throw newspaper on top and shovel another scoop of mulch. Anything that doesn’t get oxygen and light will eventually die off.
  3. Layer compost and new mulch in the Fall. Paul follows the cycles of nature. The Creator fertilizes the earth in the Fall, when trees lose their leaves, so the nutrients have all winter to decompose into the soil. That’s when he adds compost from the chicken pen to the top of his beds. Rains and snow wash the compost below the mulch. No mixing, just layering like in nature.
  4. Nutrient dense soil doesn’t need crop rotation. Paul has been planting his potatoes in the same spot for 26 years. There are no diseases because his soils are healthy and have an abundance of minerals and nutrients.
  5. Wood chips do not need to be brought in every year. After the first year or two, the chips will settle and provide a covering for the next decade or so. Paul has mulched his garden twice in 35 years.

Paul encourages everyone to use what they have. In my case, I didn’t have enough mulch to cover the whole garden. But I felt that I could grow more in a smaller space than I could in a larger, conventional garden. So I built a box, mainly as a border for lawn mowing, and filled it with compost and wood chips.

Small Back to Eden garden plot

Next year I’ll plant and if I come into any more mulch I’ll expand the box. Someday I might cover the whole garden with wood chips, but then again, I may not need to.


Saving heirloom tomato seeds, step-by-step

Saving heirloom tomato seeds

One of the joys of hobby farming is discovering trends that develop over many seasons. A homegrown tomato plant originally inspired me to start my own garden. Five years later I’m still growing them–and just about everything else that will sprout in Minnesota soil. I still feel like a beginner and often chide myself for not putting more effort into the essentials like weeding, pruning, mulching. But looking back over the long haul, it’s fun to see how far we’ve come.

This was the first year I grew some of our garden veggies from saved heirloom seed. Heirloom seeds are from plants that breed true, meaning the children grow up to produce the same edible fruit as the parent. Heirloom seeds are what our great great grandparents relied on when settling the Midwest because you could reliably reproduce the same crop year after year. Hybrid seeds, by contrast, have many advantages such as disease resistance, better flavor, or yield but are usually good only for one season. For that reason, I’ve decided to become proficient at growing–and saving–heirloom seeds. Personally, I’d rather have a locally-adapted, organically grown seed bank of my favorite garden veggies than rely on mass-produced seeds from the garden section of the hardware store.

First heirloom generation

Last year I saved my first batch of several breeds of tomatoes, including cherry (small), rutgers (medium), and the same cherry variety that happened to produce tiny yellow tomatoes. The saved seed all grew exceptionally well, and in fact germinated better than my store-bought seed.

Heirloom tomatoes growing in our garden

Now I’m saving the second generation of seed. Here’s how:

1. Pick good tomatoes.

Cutting the tomatoes to save seed

If you can distinguish one plant as being a better grower (more disease resistant, better flavor, etc) pick tomatoes from that plant.

2. Scoop out the goop.

Scooping out the seeds

Cut down the middle of each tomato and scoop out the gelatinous goop into a plastic or glass bowl. The seeds are embedded inside the goo, so don’t bother trying to separate.

3. Cover and let ferment.

Cover cup and let ferment

Add a little bit of water to the bowl, enough to cover the seeds. Cover the bowl with an air permeable lid like cloth or plastic wrap with a hole poked in the top. Set on a windowsill or someplace warm for a few days to ferment. Stir once a day and recover. If you see foamy suds atop the mixture, its working. The fermentation process separates the goo from the seed and kills off any pathogens which might carry disease into your next crop.

4. Strain and dry.

Use a kitchen sieve to strain seeds

After a few days have passed, use a fine kitchen sieve to strain the mixture and wash off the goop. Spread the seeds out into a coffee filter to let dry for about a week.

That’s all there is to it! Put the seeds in an envelope and store in a cool, dry place until next Spring.


A farm needs a barn, part 2

A barn with a view

Construction is complete!

Today we had our final inspection and we are so pleased with how everything turned out and so grateful for a competent team of builders who were here everyday weather-permitting, paying attention to every smallest detail.

Second floor under construction

Workers building the roof

Barn stairwell with kids

Second floor without walls

My father-in-law gave us the best compliment when he said, “it looks like it’s always been here.” It’s big, but sits on the edge of our woods, framed by much bigger oak trees.

Barn construction is complete

A neighbor came by and asked Ivar what his favorite part was and he answered, “the big sliding doors” then proceeded to give a demonstration.

Inside of the barn

The most common question we get is “what are you going to put in there?” The traditional layout of a barn has space for animals, machines, and a workshop. And that’s pretty much what we’re planning to house. Before we can take the next steps with our farm, we need a place to put bigger animals and equipment.

Checking out the upstairs

The second most common question is about the upstairs loft and what we plan to put up there. I don’t have a good answer for this. It could be storage. It could be for gatherings. It could be a play area for the kids in the dead of winter (Becca refers to this as the “playloft”). The truth is, we built this space and much of the barn for that matter on faith that it one day will make perfect sense.

A view from the outside

As much fun as it was to watch this barn go up, we’re even more excited to see all the ways it will be used.


Garden Update

Garden beds

Tomato starts

Planting tomatoes in late Spring

Garden update 2015

With the new barn construction taking most of our attention this summer, we didn’t have as much time to devote to the garden. But we still managed to get our favorite crops planted: tomatoes, corn, peas, onions, potatoes, beets, cucumber and another testbed of watermelon (we have yet to be successful with watermelon).

Corn and potatoes

By the way, did you know beets make excellent salads? Just chop up the beets and leaves (throw the stems) and add some dressing. We’ve been eating them daily around here. In fact, beet greens are the healthiest part of the plant and are ranked among the world’s top 10 healthiest foods!

Health Beets

The main lesson I learned from last year was that you can’t slack on the weeding and “make it up on volume”. It’s much more productive to plant a smaller garden and keep it well weeded that a huge garden that doesn’t get tended. The harvest of corn, peppers, potatoes and onions last year was pathetic where I let the weeds take over.

Blueberry patch

Another lesson learned is how incredibly “fruitful” our perennial fruit plants are. The blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and apple trees are healthy, abundant, and require almost no work on my part. Minimum input, maximum output.


This has led us to more conversations about what other kinds of fruit we should be planting. Cherry, apricot, peach and plum trees may be in our future.

The only trick is finding ripe fruit before our kids do.

Picking blueberries

A farm needs a barn

Workers place posts in ground

It has been an exciting few weeks here at the Grovestead. We broke ground on our new barn project in mid-May and, weather-permitting, the activity hasn’t stopped since. In a swift two days the ground was leveled and made ready for construction using 80 cubic yards of clay from our own hillside.

Bull dozer prepares the site pad for new barn construction

Bull dozer pushing dirt

Skid loader smoothes out clay pad

The site was built up as much as 5 feet in some places. But the excavators did such a fine job of smoothing out the hillside where they scooped up the dirt, you’d never know they were here.

Dumping sand

Atop the clay pad was dumped 5 truckloads of fill sand.

Happy boy

One boy in particular was happy watching all the real-life “toys” moving about the property.

Boy atop excavated hill of topsoil

After hours Ivar and Elsie played in the dirt berms and clay pits. This became a smooth hillside 12 hours later.

Kids playing in excavated trench

The workers arrived a few days later and began squaring the site for construction.

Squaring the site for new barn construction

Barn materials arrive

Most of the materials arrived the same day on two flatbed trucks. The posts were so long the forklift driver had to raise the skids 7 feet off the ground to avoid hitting the apple trees 30′ apart.

Materials are carried to site from truck

Holes being dug for posts

Holes were dug and posts dropped into place at breakneck speed, considering there were only two workers and 40 posts.

Placing first post in ground

Overall the construction has been going very smoothly. Only a few minor delays, mostly weather-related. We’ve been holding our breath a lot around here, watching to see how our simple plans-on-paper take shape in real life (“…those are really tall poles!”). But mostly we have been thrilled with the progress.

Posts are finished for new barn construction


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