Monday, November 17, 2014

Am I a Back-To-Eden Gardener? Yes. And No.

If you are not familiar with the concept of Back to Eden gardening, I suggest you watch the film by the same name. You can find it on ( ) where you can watch the whole thing for free. I suggest you do. It's an easy watch and will convince you of the science and the philosophy it contains, if not the religion.
This is the screen that you'll see when you go to and search
for Back to Eden. You can watch the whole thing for free. If you learn
something from the movie, please buy a copy. It'll make you feel better
about yourself.
This is an idea that was developed and promulgated by Paul Gautschi (gout-shee) as his personal journey from struggling gardener to casual garden prophet. The film describes in his words and in the words of others who know him and others who are doing the same thing how to garden the same way that Adam did (or God did, if you will) in the Garden of Eden. Hence the name of the movie.
Here is Paul Gautschi in a screen grab from the movie. No, he's not
parting the Red Sea. Yes, he is standing in his garden. Those are
well-pruned and maintained fruit trees in the background.
Here is his basic premise: nothing in nature is left bare. Nature covers the animals as well as the ground in something. If you look at an untouched primeval forest, the ground is covered with the leaves and needles and plant debris. This layer of mulch is what feeds the soil and the plants as well as what holds the moisture in for the plants and the other organisms who live there. In this process of leaf dropping, decay and incorporation into the soil, the soil is nourished and grows. This in turn nourishes and grows the plants which continue the cycle.

Adding animals only adds another layer to the system. The animals take from the plants and provide their own wastes which in turn add to the mulch layer and so on.

Paul's description of this is heavily laden with Biblical verses and examples. If you have a problem with that, you'll miss some great insight. If you don't have a problem with that, it will all make sense.
He uses chickens as a compost factory. They consume all the excess
he is able to grow in his garden and make the most wonderful compost.
Plus, he gets eggs.
His mulch of choice is to use the waste stream of the tree trimmers and arborists in the area. They take the trimmings and grind them up, leaves, twigs, sticks, branches and trunks, and he uses that to mulch his garden beds. Add compost before the mulch layer and your weeding problems, fertilizing problems and watering problems will be all but eliminated. Sounds too good to be true, right? That's what I thought.

So I did the Stealth Farmer thing and tried it for myself.

If you've been a reader of this blog for a while, you will know that I am a HUGE fan of mulching. I mulch with straw, have mulched with hay, leaves, cardboard, newspaper, grass clippings and even (*gasp!*) plastic sheeting. (I don't use that junk any more. Way, way too much work.) I have to mulch; it's the only way I can afford to water my garden. So it wasn't a stretch for me to grasp the concept of woody mulch. I have a friend who is a tree trimmer and asked him to dump a load of his grindings on my driveway one evening. He was happy to do it as he has to pay the landfill to take his stuff normally. This saved us both money.

I noticed that the pieces of mulch were fairly uniform in size and shape. I also noticed that it was incredibly lightweight. A whole wheelbarrow full and mounded felt like an empty wheelbarrow. The transfer to the back yard went really quickly, except for the fact that there was SO MUCH. I had no idea.

Landscaping here in the desert is very monotonous. Scrape the land flat, stick a few cacti or spindly desert plants in, cover the whole area in gravel of a particular color and you're done. I still have a section of my front yard that has that stuff. So I removed half of the rocks and covered it with about 4" of wood chips. I wasn't hopeful there, the dirt underneath was as hard as concrete.

That was over a year ago. I noticed a few things right away. First, I could reduce the amount of water that my shrubs needed. The soil was still very moist two or three days later. So I was able to reduce my watering by 75%. That was a big cost savings right away.

I also noticed that the plants didn't wilt between watering during the hot parts of the summer. They just seemed to ignore the heat.

One year after putting it down, I moved some of it from the area in my front yard and tried to stick in a shovel. Where it had been concrete, I could now push the blade of the shovel in at least 4" without standing on the shovel. And this is with only what rainfall we have had in that time, which isn't much.

Another thing I noticed is that during the windy parts of the year, which is those months with an "R" in their names, my straw mulch would often need to be readjusted or replaced. The wood chips, however, didn't move. And they don't weigh anything which is really weird. They just stay put.

On the areas where I watered from the top, the wood was very noticeably decayed on the bottom. As much as a full inch to an inch and a half have decayed into the soil. On the areas where I watered from underneath (soaker hose), there was even more decay. That means that I have been putting organic material back into the soil while I've been saving money on water and while my plants have been sailing through the summer heat.
Paul screens his compost. I do, too. He uses a 1/4" screen. I do, too.
That makes me feel good.
I have also noticed that in the area in front, you can stand on the mulch in your bare feet in the summer just fine. You cannot stand on the rocks on the other part. You'll burn your feet and bruise them, too. In the evening, after the sun has gone down, the mulched areas are cooler than the rock areas. There seems to be no "heat island effect" there which makes sense since there are no rocks to absorb the sun's heat all day and re-radiate it back throughout the evening.

About the garden, it's a mixed bag. I noticed that the seedlings had a harder time poking up through the wood mulch than they did through the straw mulch. Either that or all of the varieties of seed and plants I planted in the wood-mulched areas had half the germination rate of the same packets of seed in the straw-mulched areas. Not likely.

I noticed that transplanted seedlings into the wood-mulched areas did noticeably better than their straw-mulched companions. They seemed to get a head start in the growth process. They also suffered much, much less from heat stress during the hottest days.

All told, I won't direct-seed in the wood-mulched areas. I will transplant into those areas. If I can ever get my city to allow me to have chickens, I'll do what Paul does and run everything through them first. But I will continue to mulch with the wood chips AND the straw. I agree with the concepts and even some of his religious reasons, too. So much so that I spanked out $15 and bought a DVD of the movie. You should, too.

So am I a Back to Eden gardener? Yes. And no.

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