In this post we will be exploring how to start a combination no dig and back to eden garden.
I have found over the years that I have a hard time sticking to one specific idea when it comes to gleaning information from experienced homesteaders, gardeners and homemakers.
I tend to take little bits from each philosophy and then mesh them into a combination that works for me. Isn’t that the beauty of homesteading though?
Taking tried and true methods and tweaking them to suite your specific needs on your individual homestead.
Why no dig and back to eden garden?
In our monoculture focused, industrialized agriculture system, it is hard to find produce that is truly nourishing to our bodies and not loaded with pesticide residue and all manner of other chemicals we don’t want in our bodies.
To make matters worse, these agricultural practices have all but stripped the land of its nutrient content. Without seasonal applications of synthetic fertilizers, crops just wouldn’t be able to grow.
In addition to this, the main nutrients reapplied to these monoculture fields are Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium, leaving out numerous other macro and micro minerals that are needed for the production of healthy food.
How can we ensure that we are getting the best, most nutritious produce to feed ourselves and our families?
The best way is to grow food yourself, in an organic garden setting! And that’s where our combination no dig and back to eden garden comes into play.
Not only will not tilling help to encourage soil biodiversity and life, it will also add in needed nutrients for your plants through the compost layer.
Then, utilizing back to eden gardening techniques, you will be able to substantially cut back on weed growth, increase water retention, as well as add another way of feeding the soil ecology!
When to start?
Practically speaking, you can start this combination garden anytime of the year. Personally, we decided to start building the garden beds in the fall and continuing into the winter.
This works well because it allows your garden beds to be prepped and ready for spring planting.
We found that trying to do the garden building in the spring added a lot of extra work (and stress) on top of an already extremely busy season with seed starting, planting, mowing, etc.
Not only that, but having the beds sit fallow (or with a cover crop) through the winter months allows the mulch to begin breaking down and adding valuable nutrients into the soil where they will be ready and waiting for spring planting!
It also allows microorganisms and earth worms to start helping with the decomposition process, giving an extra boost in soil diversity come spring.
But where do I start?
As a general note as you begin this project…it is much easier to work in small chunks rather than trying to lay an entire garden’s worth of cardboard at once.
This is especially true if you live in a windy climate or are planning to break up this project over several days or weeks like we did. I would recommend not working with a larger area than you can reasonably finish in a single go.
For us that was usually a 5 by 10 foot swath, or a single garden row.
Initially, we struggled with the debate of tilling our garden bed before laying our cardboard weed barrier because of the Bermuda grass.
Ultimately, we decided to just lay an extra thick layer of cardboard, and try smothering out the invasive grass. You don’t have to go that route; tilling once as you build your garden can provide some benefits.
For us, we didn’t want to mess with an already weak soil ecosystem, so we decided against the tilling.
If you don’t till, the first step is to lay a thick layer of cardboard over the entire area of your planned garden bed. If you do till, laying cardboard will be your second step.
Regardless, when picking cardboard for your garden bed, you will want to avoid any cardboard that has a lot of ink, specifically the glossy almost plastic feeling kind.
This isn’t great for your garden, and will leach chemicals you are trying to avoid as it breaks down.
When laying cardboard, it is imperative that you give generous overlap to all your pieces, ensuring that weeds won’t get a chance to sneak through.
I generally tend to err on the side of caution and go about 6-8 inches for my overlap.
You probably don’t need that much, but when you lay your soil/compost layer, the weight from the soil will make the cardboard slide, so it’s better to have a little extra wiggle room. Most recommendations only call for a couple of inches.
I was able to source all of my cardboard for this garden project from grocery stores.
Yes, it’s a little awkward walking up to the sales associate with a cart full of empty boxes from stocking shelves and asking if you can take the boxes, but it’s free! Who doesn’t like being able to cut costs where they can? 😉
The only downside to utilizing this wonderful resource is the time consuming task of removing the plastic tape and stickers from your cardboard boxes. While completely worth it in the end, it does extend your project time.
That said, if you are unable to peel off a couple small stickers here and there, don’t sweat it too much. In the long run it’s not worth it to be quite that meticulous!
We’re just trying to mitigate the amount of plastic residue in our garden beds.
Laying the soil/compost:
After you’ve finished laying your cardboard layer, or at least a wide enough swath that you can work with soil, it’s time to add that good soil and/or compost.
I used a 70% topsoil, 30% compost mix from a landscaping company nearby, because the acre lot we sit on was scraped down to hard pack clay when they built our neighborhood.
Since we didn’t have much ‘soil’ to work with, we decided it would be best for our situation to go ahead and bring in some good topsoil with the compost.
If you already have decent soil, or are willing to wait and build it slowly over time, you really don’t need to bring in topsoil like we did. Compost would be just fine!
In a normal situation, the only thing you really need to add on top of your cardboard layer is compost. You will want to add compost in a layer about 4-6 inches thick.
In all honesty, you can really go ham with this step and add as much compost as you feel like. That said, you don’t want to do any less than 4 inches to ensure you have enough to work with, especially as it compacts.
When choosing a type of compost, if you are utilizing an aged manure, make sure that you are sourcing from farms that don’t use herbicides such as Grazon on their pastures. Some of these herbicides will pass through the livestock and remain chemically unchanged in their manure, spelling bad news for your garden bed.
When you are in this stage of building your no dig and back to eden garden, we found it helpful to leave small, 1 foot wide walkways every 3-4 feet. This allowed us to have smaller sections, keeping things more manageable while also giving us somewhere to walk without compacting garden soil.
In the mulch stage you will want to fill these walkways with mulch. Otherwise, the soil from your beds won’t stay in place and will run into your walkways, making a huge mess.
The mulch layer:
The back to eden garden method is the final step we incorporated into building our beds this year! Once you’ve added your compost layer, you will want to add a 4-6 inch layer of mulch.
Practically speaking, you could use a lot of different things for this layer.
However, I’ve found that utilizing mulch from tree cutting companies or fallen leaves works the best! Something about leaves just brings the earth worms, and we want earth worms in our gardens!
We experimented with some beds being covered only by leaves and some only with mulch. I will say that the leaves are hard to keep from blowing away if you live in a fairly windy climate like we do here in central Oklahoma.
That said, unless you really sift your mulch, it is kind of a pain to plant seeds in the spring through all the large wood pieces mixed in with the little. So there’s pros and cons to each method.
That said, whatever you choose to use as your mulch, you will be helping retain moisture for your plants, keeping soil temperatures more regulated, and provide food for soil microorganisms.
In addition, the mulch is going to act as a weed barrier and heavily reduce the amount of weeds you’ll have to pull throughout the growing season! It’s really a win, win situation!
Once your garden beds have been prepared, they are ready for your plants! 🙂
Having a combination no dig and back to eden garden really helps boost not only soil fertility, but also gives your garden that biodiversity it needs to encourage longevity and production.
If you are interested in learning more about garden tips follow us on Pinterest and Facebook to stay up to date on the latest posts and ideas!