Back to Eden gardening is a regenerative organic gardening method that recreates the natural ecosystem in which plants thrive—taking advantage of what nature provides, and with minimal human intervention. The idea behind the Back to Eden method is that with a minimal amount of work and resources, you create a garden that provides a cornucopia of produce, both vegetables and fruits.
The Back to Eden gardening method follows the permaculture principle of working with instead of working against nature. It does not use industrial, man-made techniques.
The Back to Eden gardening method uses the lasagna gardening no-till method of soil preparation, which allows you to start a garden bed on top of an existing lawn without digging up the turf.
In a Back to Eden garden, every inch of soil is covered with a thick layer of natural mulch which suppresses weed growth. This does not completely eliminate weeds, but they aren’t able to take hold the same way as in bare soil, their roots are shallow, and they are easier and quicker to remove.
The thick mulch layer has another benefit: it keeps the moisture in the soil, so the bare soil does not bake in the sun, and there is less erosion. Any precipitation stays in right place and gets absorbed by the mulch instead of evaporating or running off.
Local Natural Resources
The materials are sourced from nearby locations, such as wood chips from local tree removal companies, manure from local farms, leaf litter collected from a neighbor’s property etc., all of them usually free or inexpensive.
Organic Natural Materials
Whether it’s fertilization or pest control, the Back to Eden method uses only natural materials: no commercially produced fertilizer (even organic) but instead compost and manure and no commercially produced pesticides and insecticides (even organic products) but instead taking advantage of companion planting and beneficial insects such as predatory wasps and other natural enemies of garden pests.
The Back to Eden gardening method was named after the biblical Garden of Eden. The term was coined by Paul Gautschi, an American gardener and arborist and a devout Christian. When was struggling to maintain his home orchard and garden, he took his cues from nearby thriving woodlands whose soil was densely covered with leaves, twigs, and other plant material that slowly turn into rich soil over time without humans ever lifting a finger.
The documentary film "Back to Eden" about Gautschi’s gardening method and philosophy was released in 2011.
How to Start a Back to Eden Garden
Small or large, the way to start a Back to Eden garden is the same for plots of all sizes.
Depending on what’s there, you might have to choke out existing vegetation such as a lawn. Although in the Back to Eden method you are mostly using naturally occurring materials, layers of newspaper at least five to six sheets deep, or plain cardboard, are often used as the foundation to kill the vegetation underneath as well as prevent weeds from growing thorough the subsequent mulch layers. Let it overlap generously so there are no gaps whatsoever. Weeds and grass will grow in the tiniest open space. Lightly moisten newspaper or cardboard to keep it in place as you build the mulch layer.
Adding mulch on an ongoing basis is a core element of the Back to Eden method.
A layer of aged compost or manure, at least 3 inches thick, is a good nitrogen source to spread over the newspaper or cardboard. While you can use straw, grass clippings, pine needles, or leaves as another layer, it needs to be thin because otherwise those materials tend to form dense, moldy or slimy mats and won’t let water through.
The top layer is always wood chips—not the neat mulch that you buy at the garden center but a messy mix that in addition to irregularly shaped wood chips also contains small branches, pieces of bark, and even leaves. Make sure the wood chips are from untreated treated lumber. Ideally, you get the chips straight from a tree removal company or arborist. Be generous and make this top layer at least 5 to 6 inches deep.
After this initial installation you just keep adding mulch, which breaks down over time, so you are slowly building more fertile topsoil.
Downsides of the Back to Eden Method
The Back to Eden gardening method is certainly attractive because of its low impact and resourcefulness but it also has its downsides. The hands-off approach of the Back to Eden method is not always realistic for three reasons:
Building fertile soil takes time. Left up to natural processes alone, it can take up to 500 years to form one inch of topsoil. Even if you have decent soil in your yard, you might have to wait at least one year for the layered materials to break down and be ready plant a vegetable garden.
Not watering your garden is only feasible if you live in an area with frequent and abundant rainfall. And even if you do, it does not always rain when you need it. For example, vegetable seeds need moisture to germinate, and if they dry out even once after they have started germinating, they usually don’t recover. You will have to water seeds and also seedlings and tender young plants to keep them alive.
The compost, manure, and other organic materials that you add to your garden do not necessarily put all the nutrients back into the soil that crops take out in any given gardening season. Plus, their nutrient composition, unlike commercially produced fertilizer, is unpredictable. To successfully grow vegetables and fruits, garden soil needs to have a specific nutrient content, and that can only be determined through a soil test. You might have to add manmade fertilizer to replenish the soil in a timely and targeted manner.
If you like the Back to Eden approach, you don’t necessarily have to go all-in, but you can selectively incorporate more human intervention into your organic gardening practices.
What on Earth Is Soil? United States Department of Agriculture.