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Warning for Back to Eden style gardens

 
pollinator
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Two years ago a gladly accepted a large wood chip delivery. I wanted to use it as mulch, walkways and the highly thought of Back to Eden style garden. I won’t be making the same mistake again. Even two years later it’s very difficult to direct seed into and only the most robust plants survive transplantation. Even with really good soil underneath trying to direct seed is more of a waste of seed than anything. Birds, rabbit and squirrels kick the chips all over the seed smothering them out before or shortly after germination.
There are upsides if you have years to wait. They not only bring in a ton of worms but they make a great above ground bed for regular and sweet potatoes. I’m also using a mix of chips and yard waste as a drop zone for questionable seed. This includes cantaloupe, pumpkins, ground cherries and tomatoes. So far so good on the pumpkin and cantaloupe.
I also watched the Back to Eden videos in awe but it takes a long time. If the title is truthful then Adam and Eve had one hell of a wood chipper!
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Potatoes in chips
Potatoes in chips
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Chips and yard waste pumpkins.
Chips and yard waste pumpkins.
 
pollinator
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I think planting in a larger area of compost or good soil might help with the kicking problem.  Transplants into wood chips with just a small amount of compost or soil will likely need extra nitrogen.  At least that has been my experience so far as I try this method in my new gardens.

 
pollinator
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Hi Scott,

Thanks for keeping it real with your results. Things often look a lot easier on camera than in actual practice. While I admire what Gautschi has done, this should not be offered as a one-size-fits-all strategy.

I have used wood chips to great effect, but not with direct seeding. Also, it doesn't seem like they work for every kind of plant. Direct seeding, in my experience, can be challenging for many reasons. Squirrels dig out my seeds, cats use the space as a toilet, some seeds rot or never germinate... adding a thick layer of wood chips over the soil only compounds the many challenges of direct seeding.

My own solution has been to start plants inside, and to mostly use wood chip mulch for my bushes, trees, and transplanted perennials. For the vegetable garden, I generally use salt marsh hay (a local solution, not available everywhere). Other straw and hay mulches make great habitat for slugs, so proceed with caution!

I have often used year-old wood chips as a base layer underneath a compost/soil mix in a new raised bed. This has worked well for me as a store of nutrient and moisture. Then I top that off with salt marsh hay to protect the soil from the sun. Even the supposed nitrogen suck doesn't seem to diminish the compost's nutrient value. I get the wood chips and compost from the local landfill for cheap.

You might think about remediating your garden by adding a 6"+ layer of compost+soil above your wood chip layer, then mulch over that with the best top-mulch for your particular region - keeping in mind the potential for slug issues. I bet you would see some lasting results that way.

Best of luck making this work. I am certain that you can turn that carbon into useful soil, but it seems like it may take a little more work than you were told.

If you want to see more of my work, or stay in touch, I'm active on Instagram @foodforestcardgame



Best wishes!
Karl
 
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I got hooked on Paul, and his garden just about three years ago.  After close to 100 loads of chips over the last few years, and many struggles here's my take.

Wood chips in a high density annual style garden area suck (in my opinion, and my climate).  All the reasons mentioned above.  In a perennial garden, they're awesome.

That's the thing that I overlooked initially, and I think most people overlook in general.

Paul sifts his wood chips after they've been in the chicken coop, and grows his garden in composted, much finer material than raw wood chips.  I'm going by memory, but I don't remember seeing his rows have big chunks of wood in them.  It's compost he grows in, not wood chips.  Yeah, his orchard has raw chips, and his other perennial areas, but his main garden rows look like compost (again going off memory, it's been a while since I watched).

So now, when it comes to an annual vegetable garden bed, I only use finely sifted wood chips that have been sitting in my chicken coop for a year or so.  I can direct seed, transplant, whatever, and it's all just fantastic.  I think it's just brilliant.  

Raw wood chips are such a pain in the butt to work with otherwise.
 
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Yeah, wood chips can be deceiving in a couple of ways.

They absorb the water that has the plant nutrients in it and keep enough of the nutrients from going down to the root level, so using extra organic fertilizers and watering deeply helps.  

If you spread the chips out away from the base of each plant, about 8 inches in all directions, and put whatever organic fertilizer you've got in that 16" circle, the chips will help keep moisture in the soil but will be far enough away from watering the plant that they won't get all of the water/nutrients.

Putting chips in pathways at first will speed up their breakdown, and the composted results can be shoveled into the garden beds after raking off any chip pieces.

Wood chips work well in the bottom of a hugel trench after being soaked in some form of nitrogen/pee and buried.

A couple types of wood chips actually have growth inhibitors, redwood and red cedar.  But once they compost into unrecognizable stuff, they are good for the soil.


 
pollinator
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I think lots of people are confused about what the Back to Eden style of gardening is about.  It isn't about wood chips.  Those used to be Paul G's preferred cover, so people equate Back to Eden gardening with wood chips, but that isn't the underlying point at all.  The point of Back to Eden is keeping the soil covered at all times.  It's doesn't matter what organic material you cover with, just that you always keep the soil covered.  

I've never heard Paul mention putting wood chips in his chicken run.  He puts all of his yard waste in it for the chickens to eat and breakdown, and then does indeed cover his annual growing areas with the material that comes from his chicken run, after sifting it.  In fact, Paul uses that material exclusively in his gardens now and doesn't use wood chips anymore.
 
pollinator
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If I remember right there was a couple in the film that mentioned the failure they'd had when sewing directly into the wood chips.  I think they also mentioned eventually pulling back the chips and planting in the soil underneath.  

I'm using wood chips over cardboard in the paths between my raised garden beds.  My theory is that by the time the bed timbers deteriorate, the paths in between the bed will be almost as improved as the soil in the beds themselves.  
 
master steward
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Michelle Heath wrote:If I remember right there was a couple in the film that mentioned the failure they'd had when sewing directly into the wood chips.  I think they also mentioned eventually pulling back the chips and planting in the soil underneath.  



I never did figure out how to do that. Every time I tried, the woodchips/much just fell into the area I made, and it all got mixed up. This works fine for perennials and things like onions, garlic, and potatoes. But it never really worked for annuals.

I have an easier time planting annuals into existing back-to-Eden style beds by just applying some soil to the top in kind of a strawbale-type garden.
 
pollinator
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Joshua Bertram wrote:
Paul sifts his wood chips after they've been in the chicken coop, and grows his garden in composted, much finer material than raw wood chips.  I'm going by memory, but I don't remember seeing his rows have big chunks of wood in them.  It's compost he grows in, not wood chips.  Yeah, his orchard has raw chips, and his other perennial areas, but his main garden rows look like compost (again going off memory, it's been a while since I watched).

So now, when it comes to an annual vegetable garden bed, I only use finely sifted wood chips that have been sitting in my chicken coop for a year or so.  I can direct seed, transplant, whatever, and it's all just fantastic.  I think it's just brilliant.  



This is SO important.

I made the same mistakes initially and have now seen the light. I reserve raw woodchips for around perennials where it doesn't matter, and sifted composted chips go to top dress beds. I now have chickens to help add nutrients and a recently assembled wine cap mushroom bed to turbocharge chip breakdown and provide extra produce as mushrooms. I can get unlimited chip deliveries, but was reluctant to do it because of my initially disappointing results.

Paul calls his method "woodchip" but it is really best described as "well rotted woodchip chicken bedding". The nutrients the chickens add to the process are totally overlooked in the video, as is the fine tilth he has in his growing areas for ease of weeding with a rake.
 
gardener
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I generally only use fresh chips for mulching paths. When the weeds or self-seeding plants start moving in, I know those chip paths have turned into soil. Last year I put some chips over top of some weeds I had to remove as they were smothering stuff I wanted. The weedy plants have already moved onto that path, so the thickness of the chips and the number of healthy microbes already in the area, the age of the chips, and the moisture all affect the results.

What I feel *is* important, is that much of North American soil is low on carbon due to tilling, artificial fertilizers, monoculture plantings among other issues. Wood chips from safe sources are a great resource that can be used many ways, but they need help to accomplish this.  Wood chips need very specific micro-organisms to break down, so encouraging fungi helps as does my main approach which is to inoculate them with duck-shit +/- liquid gold, followed by composting them with whatever else I can easily add to the mix that will encourage the worms and microbes to come and play (I've been told that worms excrete a lot of microbes that are in their gut, so they're a good way to introduce useful microbes to your mulch pile).

Eventually, I hope that all that carbon ends up in my soil, although I'm sure some of it ends up in CO2, plants etc.
 
gardener
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I use raw wood chips and leaf mold plus chop and drop material on my annual garden beds. But I've also added wine cap mushroom spawn to the beds to speed up the breakdown of everything. When I go to direct seed if the seeds are small I pull the mulch back and add a bit of topsoil / compost and then seed into that. Once the plants grow up a bit I cover the topsoil / compost with wood chips again. Large seeded veggies like beans and peas just get put into the regular garden soil under the mulch and they push up through the wood chips fine though I do pull the wood chips back a little bit.

But I have decided to switch to growing my own starts for most of my veggies except ones that don't do well being transplanted and ones that have large seeds like beans and peas. It will make it easier to manage and all in all the starts I've already been using seem to do fine water wise. Decreasing my watering was the main reason I wanted to direct sow instead of growing my own starts. But I'm building a greenhouse this summer so switching to starts will be fairly easy and it should improve things and save me time overall.

I started my kitchen garden with just wood chips for mulch and then in the first fall I spread leaf mold over the wood chips. Next I chopped and dropped my spent veggies and placed them on top of the leaf mold--this let the roots decompose in the soil but also helped hold the leaf mold in place. Later in the fall I put in the wine cap mushroom spawn (wine caps have been popping up this spring!). This spring I added more wood chips on top of the existing mulch layers. The wood chips I put down last year were mostly decomposed and the leaf mold was almost gone too.

I do spread worm tea on my beds from time to time and I'm going to be adding worm castings to it too though I haven't yet. So far I haven't added any compost or animal manure--but I'm thinking about starting my own composting setup before long. I also don't plan to keep adding worm tea on the beds forever but it's a nice way to jump start the soil life.

My soils are mostly silt and clay and had almost no organic material in them when I started my kitchen garden. Last year the garden did okay but plants like broccoli didn't produce at all though the tomatoes did great. This year things are doing a lot better and the broccoli are already getting nice heads on them. All in all I'm noticing a stark improvement in the growth of my veggies this year over last year though it's a bit early to know for sure. I hope this improvement continues and I'm planning to keep adding wood chips, leaf mold, and chop-and-drop material.

I don't put the wood chips on too thick--about 2 inches deep and no more than 3 inches. But all the wood chips I use are raw and I don't screen them or compost them. Though sometimes the pile sits for a while depending on when I get it delivered and when I get around to using them.

I also grow some perennial vegetables in my kitchen garden but mostly I'm growing annuals. The biggest lesson I have learned so far is to not chop and drop kale and other brassicas. Their leaves and stems stick around a lot longer and I've found that the only areas I have issues with slugs are where I chop and dropped those plants. The other beds have far less slugs and the chop and drop material from other veggies broke down much quicker.

Anyways, just wanted to share my experience so far with using wood chips for mulch and some of the other things I do to add to it.
 
Scott Stiller
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This thread really took off! I appreciate everyone’s help here as always. Since I’m cooking dinner I only quickly scanned the thread. Everyone is dead on about the chicken compost. It’s really the best thing I’ve ever used. I had to build my run on a hill. I dump yard waste in the top and by the time the chicks are finished I dig it out the bottom. I’ll be back after cooking a giant frittata!
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Pre-sifted chicken compost.
Pre-sifted chicken compost.
 
pollinator
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I’ve had a similar experience to others. Potatoes and tomatoes have done fine more or less in my 12” woodchip beds but everything else has been terrible. Direct seeding is hard to impossible with squirrels or birds dumping chips back over the seeds. I have a chicken run and I’ve been considering just moving the entire woodchip pile in there first before putting it on the garden. Back to eden is a ton of hard work.
 
pollinator
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Same here. I spread about an 8th acre of wood chips six inches deep. I was very disappointed. Tomatoes, squash, cucumbers did fine; everything else didn't.

I've now come to realize that our annual crops our mostly ruderal plants; they are adapted to thrive in bacterially dominated, disturbed mineral soils. Wood chips keep wild lettuce, purslane, etc. from germinating . . . and do the same to similar crop plants.

Though I'm actually spreading out a huge area of wood chip mulch this year, to use as a squash patch.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I'm finding a great deal of inspiration from Charles Dowding's no-dig gardening videos.  He grows in compost, covering the soil completely, and avoids slug problems by using finished compost.   [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCB1J6siDdmhwah7q0O2WJBg[/youtube]
 
Scott Stiller
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That’s an interesting take Gilbert. I’ve been following the advice of Dr Elaine Ingham. Not sure I spelled that correctly. She’s really big on fungal dominance. I’m going to look into what you’re saying, thanks!
 
gardener
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I have received a few loads of chips but never grown annuals in them.
After just sitting in a pile for years,  the resulting compost seems very rich.
We have sifted it to remove the chunks bigger than 1/4" and used the fluffy results for our plant starts.
I was planning on filling most of our corn bed with the unsifted  chips and top dressing with rabbit bedding.
Based on the testimony here I think I will at a minimum create pockets of the finer material to plant into.
Come to think of it, I am most successful growing annuals in containers, where the soil is also carefully prepared.
I am also usually using starts, bulbs or roots, my direct seeding into soil being limited to a few gourd plants in lasagna beds and handfuls of cover crop seeds strewn about.

Once I "harvest " most of my existing pile of chips,  I would like to be intentional about breaking down the next batch by piling high it in a fenced area and introducing more air,  fungus and nitrogen.

 
Daron Williams
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Scott Stiller wrote:That’s an interesting take Gilbert. I’ve been following the advice of Dr Elaine Ingham. Not sure I spelled that correctly. She’s really big on fungal dominance. I’m going to look into what you’re saying, thanks!



One thing I'm looking into that she has talked about in some of her videos is growing low growing perennial plants as a living mulch instead of putting mulch down over the soil. I'm trying this out in my corn beds and my melon beds. Bit of a mixed bag so far but I'm learning and I'm going to make a few changes next year and see if that helps with the corn. Since I planted the corn several weeks earlier than the melons (still waiting to plant them) I'm going to apply some of my early lessons from the corn to the melons.

Sorry for not going into details--just too early to know what is working and what isn't. But I'm excited about the idea of having a perennial living mulch instead of applying mulch each year. Though I'm planning on chop and dropping the perennial mulch plants in late summer--they should have time to regrow some before winter. And several of the species I'm growing will stay green all winter long.

Miners lettuce and alyssum are so far the big winners in this mix (alyssum is semi-perennial here--it tends to overwinter but it also self-seeds easily) but red clover (not crimson clover) is also doing great. So are the coastal (native) strawberries I planted though they're a bit slower this first year. Though I expect the strawberries to spread like wildfire once they're established based on how well they do else where on my land. I also have some California poppies mixed in.

Eventually I'm thinking about trying this in my garden beds but I need to find shorter perennial plants to grow. The ones I'm growing now get too tall for a lot of the veggies I would want to grow--though the strawberries might work. Woodland (another native type) strawberries might be a better choice since they stay smaller.

But another thing I have been doing is slowly switching away from annual greens and only growing perennial greens and some self-seeding greens. I'm growing these outside my kitchen garden in my various perennial growing areas. This leaves my garden open to focus on other veggies. This year I'm still growing annual greens but I'm not sure if I will bother with them next year. Really depends on how many more perennial greens I can get planted this fall and next spring.

The reason I'm bringing this up is this has been a way for me to get better results from using wood chips. The perennial greens all seem to thrive in well mulched areas and since I can grow so many of them I just don't worry about the annual greens.

Miners lettuce is quickly becoming one of my core perennial greens and I'm working on getting it established all over my perennial growing areas. It produces great greens all year round in my climate. It seems to love well mulched areas. The more I can switch over to perennials the better it seems. Just another strategy but I will always be growing some annual veggies since there aren't good perennial alternatives for a lot of them.
 
Scott Stiller
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I currently have alpine strawberries and thyme as my perennial ground covers. I also use self seeding purslane. Although it’s a bit taller than a normal ground cover it’s a slow starter and my vegetables get a nice head start. Although not widespread I can find room between my thyme plants to drop a tomato or cucumber. I just let it run along the top of the thyme and have zero pest issues. Strawberry are literally everywhere. I say I use alpine berries but I tried several low growers years ago and I now cannot tell. Regular strawberries don’t work quite as well for me. They get out ahead of any direct seedings. Transplants do well though. I’ve learned a lot on this thread and I’m very appreciative.
 
master pollinator
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I haven’t had the problems with wood chips experienced by others. I do have difficulty with chips falling onto newly seeded areas of soil, but I haven’t found it insurmountable. It is a pain picking out the chips, but this is only an issue while planting.

It could be because my beds were new last year, filled with rotten wood, yard waste, weeds, some compost, and some bagged stuff from the garden center. I think there were plenty of nutrients and the vegetables responded appropriately. I’ve been relieved to read RedHawk’s thread about the “Urban Myth” of wood chips robbing nitrogen from the soil, and other reassuring research, since I can’t keep my wood chips out of the soil.

I haven’t had a problem with squirrels, rabbits, or birds. I was worried about my chickens creating havoc, and I didn’t want to fence them out of the whole garden area. I took some ideas from a book called (something like) Gardening with Chickens by Jessie Bloom. Photo below. This chicken guard uses 2” x 4” welded wire fencing and has been the most effective thing I tried. The idea is that once the plants are larger, the chickens can’t destroy them and will ignore them mostly, in favor of eating bugs and the occasional cherry tomato. (I plan for robust tomato cages so I can keep most of my cherry tomatoes!)

We never see rabbits around here, and only see squirrels beneath the bird feeder in winter. It’s a rural area, with larger predators (a bear took one of my chickens).  Maybe that accounts for the lack of small garden-wreckers. Who knows?  I didn’t have thee chicken guards last year. Biggest pest problem was cabbage worms.
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Covered bed. Sorry sideways!
Covered bed. Sorry sideways!
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Another chicken guard on bed
Another chicken guard on bed
 
pollinator
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I don't know if it is fair to critique a method when we don't actually follow it to the letter, especially if we omit a major step (like running woodchips and green waste through chicken run first). When people misinterpret my advice, I think it is partly on me the teacher to communicate better,  but regardless it does not disprove the theory I described if it was misapplied. I have not followed Paul Gautschi's advice to the letter, but have done close enough to see how different components interact and play out on their own. I have done both straight woodchips on beds and also have run massive amounts through the chicken-duck run, and I agree with the posts above for the most part. Straight chips are great for perennials, but are difficult to plant in. They are also not all created equal, as redwood chip mulch is much harder on young plants than red alder, which seems to have more immediate benefits as it breaks down quickly. After spending 6+ months in the bird run, the material at the bottom of the bedding of chips/straw is just fantastic humus rich goodness. I like to age it if possible to make sure it won't cook anymore, but seems to work great as mulch right away around estabished plants. I haven't started many seeds with the processed woodchips immediately out of the bird pen, I generally spread it around small but established plants, but I would bet squash will take off out of it. Here is a picture of my old garden at the place we sold in April, with some pretty happy rhubarb and tree collards on hugel beds that had been mulched heavily before the birds inevitably kicked it off:
IMG_3437.jpg
That is a 5ft fence in background for scale
That is a 5ft fence in background for scale
 
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There are many interpretations of ‘Back to Eden’ gardening and I’ve tried various versions in many climate zones in Australia. I’ve always applied wood chips on top of the soil surface (never mixed with soil or used as a base layer). I’ve had great success blocking weeds by using wood chips over cardboard when preparing new beds and moderate success using chips without the cardboard as weed blocker.  
I have found that where I’ve used cardboard and mulch to block couch grass, the garden beds are generally weed free up to the near-edge of the couch grass, but the grass runners seem attracted to the rich soil developing under the mulch and persistently invade the border. Using a ‘spade-trench’ gutter is a high maintenance solution, that only works until my back is turned! Keeping a sharp edge by vigilant spading keeps the couch at bay, but results in an ever widening garden bed.
While gardening in a high rainfall (52” per annum) cool temperate zone in Victoria, getting quality wood chips delivered was an easy solution. I’m now in a remote semi arid zone, 55km from the nearest very small town, so wood chips are not readily available. A neighbouring farmer is chipping eucalyptus trees for distilling oil and though I’ve heard this could be allelopathic, I’ve not had a problem mulching with this mulch (so far). I’ll use these Eucalypt chips in my new food forest and ornamental beds and to define pathways in other areas.
Another point re ‘Back to Eden’:  Paul advocates using ‘whole tree’ chips, not just bark chips.
 
pollinator
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Even with really good soil underneath trying to direct seed is more of a waste of seed than anything. Birds, rabbit and squirrels kick the chips all over the seed smothering them out before or shortly after germination.  



My solution to the chips falling into the row that’s been seeded has been to pull the chips back, then ADD soil or rotted manure/compost to make a raised area (usually a row) a couple inches wide to plant the seeds (carrots, beets, lettuce, etc). So now my soil where the seeds got planted is at the same level or slightly higher than the wood chips. I don’t have much problem with birds or squirrels thanks to the COPs (cats on patrol), so that helps.
Where I use the chips as mulch, I do nothing else. Where I want to build soil, I top the chips with 2” of manure- any kind- in both spring and fall. If find 2” is about perfect for not being enough to let weeds grow in it, but deep enough to accelerate the decomposition of the chips.
For mulch, bigger chips are best. For soil building, chips with lots of leaves and twigs in the chip mix works better. You generally can’t pick and choose the loads you get, but it helps to know if entire trees are being chipped (large chips) or if they are doing a lot of pruning work (more leaves and twigs/small branches).
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