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Category: Soil

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.

 


Planting a No-Till Garden, Step-by-Step

No-till garden planted

A few years ago I watched the documentary Back to Eden, which describes how master gardener Paul Gautschi uses a revolutionary but forgotten method to suppress weeds and rebuild soil fertility. If you do any gardening at all it’s a must-see (the whole video is free on the website).

This past season I finally got a chance to test out the method, which has come to be known as “no-till” gardening. Unlike traditional gardening where the soil is tilled under every season, with no-till gardening the soil is always covered and therefore never becomes hard and compact. Also, the weeds are virtually non-existent because of the thick mulch.

I sectioned off a portion of the garden and set about converting it to a no-till plot.

No-till garden plot

I’m pretty sure there’s no wrong way to create a no-till garden, as long as you put down enough organic matter. My no-till recipe goes like this:

  • 1-inch compost
  • Sugar (carbohydrates activate the microorganisms in the soil. can also use molasses)
  • Biodegradable paper mulch (for weeds)
  • Another inch of compost
  • Organic fertilizer (a.k.a. chicken droppings from the last coop cleanout)
  • Leaves
  • 4-inches shredded woodchips

Dumptruck leaves giant pile of woodchips

Wood chips arrive.

Layer of compost added to soil

Bare soil is covered with 1-inch compost.

Paper mulch laid down over no-till garden

Paper mulch from the garden store acts as a weed block.

Added organic fertilizer to no-till garden plot

Pine shavings from the chicken coop.

Leaves added to no-till plot

A layer of leaves.

Woodchips spread over no-till garden plot

The shredded wood chips are put down last.

Watering no-till garden

Final step is to soak everything thoroughly.

I came back two weeks later to plant the tomato seedlings and found the ground beneath the wood chips was still moist from this initial watering (it hadn’t rained since).

Seedling transplanted into no-till garden

While the ground right next to it was hard and cracked.

Bare soil is dry and cracked

The results speak for themselves:

Comparison of corn grown in no-till garden

Comparison of onions grown in no-till garden

comparison of plant growth till vs no-till

There was a significant difference in both the growth of the plants and the size of the produce from the no-till plot.

However, there were a couple of drawbacks. There is a cost to getting the woodchips, and the general prep was a little more than just hoeing dirt into rows. But the time saved weeding more than makes up for it. The biggest problem I experienced was low germination rates. Many of the direct-sown seeds did not germinate. But of the ones that did, or of the transplants, they grew significantly better with far less input (I never watered the no-till plot after initial planting the whole summer). I have a couple of theories as to why the seeds didn’t sprout. Mainly, the wood chips have a tendency to fall back over the soil where the seed was placed, making it more difficult for the seedling to sprout. Also, since the black soil wasn’t exposed, the ground would have been cooler in that plot. Some vegetables like corn require very warm temps to germinate.

So as I said it was definitely a success but also had some challenges. I will continue to grow the no-till plot next year and, as always, keep learning.

 


Black Gold: Profiting from the community compost site

Huge composite site behind pickup truck

Good dirt is hard to find.

Last year I filled four raised beds one shovelful at a time with dirt from our recently plowed field. It was possibly the most backbreaking work I’ve encountered (so far). This year I’m building four more raised beds that also need to be filled. And even though we have access to a front-loading tractor, my field is planted so I don’t have a good source of free dirt anymore. I was looking into having a truckload of dirt delivered when I found out about a community compost site nearby. I decided to check it out.

I wasn’t expecting much. I’ve seen community sites before. If you’re lucky and its not too late in the season you might get a few loads of dirt you can use. So I just about fell out of my seat when I arrived and saw the sheer size of this pile. It was at least 12 feet tall and stretched for 50 yards. All free for the taking!

Pickup truck backed up to compost pile

The operation is something to behold. Residents are stopping by continuously unloading yard waste at one end of the site. There is row upon row of decomposing matter. The last of which is fully composted and ready for harvest.

Piles of debris turning into compost

This is the good stuff too. Rich, loamy compost. Black gold. I set to work with my pitchfork and shovel and loaded my truck bed to capacity. Back home, little helpers were eager to help daddy unload into the garden.

Girl helping daddy unload the compost

Boy helping shovel out compost


Planting days are here at last!

Preparing the soil for planting

The weather finally cooperated long enough for us to till and begin planting our garden on Monday. I took the day off and with the help of my awesome sister-in-law Lisa and her mom and daughter we got our fingernails dirty.

Girl standing by blueberry beds

Our first project was the blueberry patch. We bought 16 blueberry shrubs from the same nursery where we ordered our apple trees. First we prepared the beds, mixing in peat moss to make the soil more acidic.

Preparing the soil for blueberries

Then the shrubs were planted in two rows of different varieties (Northblue and Northcountry Blueberry), both cold-hardy for our Minnesota climate.

Planting blueberry shrubs

Two rows of blueberries

In a couple of years these shrubs should be producing 3 to 7 pounds of berries per bush.

Next we tackled the large vegetable plot. Using a borrowed tractor, I tilled the 25 x 60-foot plot.

Tilling garden with tractor

Then we set to work dividing it into several rows with walking paths between each. The plan is to put corn, peas, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers, onions, beets, potatoes, and squash roughly in that order. The taller plants like corn go on the north side of the garden so they don’t shade the shorter plants.

Digging rows and paths in the garden

Last year I created my own drip irrigation out of PVC but it didn’t work as I’d hoped. So this year I ordered a drip system from a reputable dealer. I’m also experimenting with plastic mulch to see if my weed control fares any better.

Setting out the drip tape irrigation

Laying down plastic mulch in garden beds

Dumping wood chips for garden paths

It was exhausting work. We had to dig the beds by hand, lay the drip tape, then cover the beds with plastic and shovel dirt on the ends to hold it in place. Probably would have been easier if we had this:

This is just the first of many planting days. There are still the raised beds to prepare and my no-till experiment. After it warms a bit more, we’ll transplant the tomatoes and start the corn.

Planting days are here at last


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