Do you have rock-hard clay soil? Do you have swampy muddy soil? Do you have sandy soil where all the water drains out and leaves your plants bone dry? Then my friend, you need the Back To Eden soil repair method!
Using this method fixes just about any problem soil you have!
I know I sound like a snake oil saleswoman here, but lemme tell you—this method WORKS.
And I can guarantee it from my own personal use and results from this method!
So what is it?
It’s a layering technique that helps improve bad soil. Some people liken it to the Lasagna Layer method only without so many layers! But with Back to Eden layering you only need cardboard/newspaper, top soil, and finely shredded wood mulch.
Is it better than the lasagna layer method? No—it’s just preforming a different function!
The lasagna layer method is fantastic for raised beds, but not so much for HUGE swaths of garden that you need to fix the soil from (like say if you’re ripping out all the grass in your lawn to replace it with a garden!) since one of the many layers required is, well, your food garbage and/or your partially decomposed food garbage.
Do YOU have enough decomposing food to fill your front yard?
Yeah, me neither.
So in comes the Back To Eden method which was invented by Paul Gautschi in Washington State. He was dealing with a drought and realized that the woods next his property were doing just fine—thriving even. So he set about looking as to how nature was doing that.
He found that the hummus layer (i.e. that sweet, sweet, rich dark soil that holds all the nutrients ever) was protected and kept moist thanks to a thick layer of twigs and leaves. And when those twigs and leaves were just about decomposed it was okay because fall came just in time to dump more twigs and leaves on it!
Basically, with this method you’re re-creating a forest floor, which is rich in hummus—that stuff your plants want to grow in!
Now, this method works best if you have a minimum of 3 layers of each thing, and you can go as high as you want but 3 to 6 layers is common. Before I show you what to do step by step (with pictures even, because I love you!), I want to break down what you’ll be using and what each one does!
Cardboard (and/or newspaper)
Cardboard and/or newspaper is definitely a must for the first layer, especially if you have grass or weeds. This will block the sunlight and kill it all (pretty sweet huh?). It also acts as a big huge chocolate bar to worms—the love cardboard and newspaper. The reason you layer it in between your mulch and topsoil is to get them to wriggle their little bodies higher into your pile. It’s not necessary but it’s helpful!
Topsoil (or compost)
Topsoil helps the woodchips breakdown faster and also helps activate the breakdown process as well as becoming a home to good fungi and microorganisms you want living in your soil to make it good soil!
Wood mulch. This super important ingredient is what helps condition the poor soil below and make your layers light and fluffy as it breaks downs into hummus. It’s very important to note that if you get your wood mulch from a box store like Lowes or Home Depot, that you get one that’s not color dyed and that says “pathway groundcover” or “varied.” If you get the ones that are ’nuggets’ they’ll never break down as they’re just too large. You want a variety and finely shredded at that!
The process is very easy! You start by wetting the ground you’re going to be amending and thoroughly wetting each layer as you lay it.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you’re like me and you live in a more arid environment, it’s important to do this method in the cooler months. We just get too hot in the summer and you’ll end up with what happened in one portion of my garden I started in the summer—the wood chips will suck up water from the soil trying to get wet, then it evaporates into the air and causes no only your soil to dry out quickly, but it makes it impossible for the woodchips to break down! Trust me, do this in the cooler months.
STEP 1: Cardboard/Newspaper
Spread out your cardboard and newspaper thickly. Wet it. Also, don’t be me and do this on a windy-ish day. It’s no fun rangeling papers, guys.
STEP 2: Topsoil/Compost
Add on a nice layer of topsoil/compost. Wet it.
STEP 3: MULCH
Add mulch. Thoroughly wet it. You’ll repeat these three (or two if you skip the cardboard/newspaper) ingredients a minimum of three times. More is always better in this case!
Now, normally after this, you finish with a layer of mulch and you let it sit for up to a year. For each month you leave it you gain an inch of soil Now, I’m an impatient person—and I also know that most plants are more than happy with 8 to 10 inches of soil—so I usually wait six months and then plant (hence why I do this in the winter).
Once your soil is nice and decomposed and you've planted your plants and harvested them, simply throw more topsoil on top of the spent plants and straw (if you've used it as a mulch) to act as more food for the soil! You can even add another layer of woodchips for good measure!
As the woodchips breakdown your very thick layered pile will break down--so simply add more woodchips and compost as needed! By doing this you're keeping the soil web healthy and fed--no fertilizers needed (at least not much)!
This pile you see in the pics is my newest pile and also the pile I'm going to be trying something new.
That’s right, I’m experimenting.
With one section I’d done previously in my Back to Eden method I planted sunflowers after four months and those sunflowers grew like nothing you’ve seen—and the roots dug deep into the soil and helped break up the clay.
So this year, with this bed, I’m going to be adding a final thick layer of compost (not top soil), throw some oats and red clover in it, and cover/mulch it with straw to help retain moisture. The reason for the oats is because I want oats (so sue me!) and they take very little nutrients from the soil—but their roots will continue to feed the ground once I cut them down! The red clover I’ll be using for medicine but it’s also a green mulch—and will get covered with another layer of compost and help feed the system!
I’m also going to be planting sunflowers in there in the spring to help with busting up any more clay (not that there should be much), as well as wildflowers!
This isn’t the only experiment I’m doing though! I’m also using this method (and my bonus method) along my fence where I’ll be planting fava beans and cabbage as both are known to have roots that are hardy and will bust up clay soils. I want to see if growing these after a month of the soil decomposing will thrive and help breakup soil!
Hurrah for garden experiments!
Obviously this method isn’t for people who want an instant garden, but if you do this method and do it correctly and give it time, you’ll have created and improved your soil naturally and without adding in fertilizers or rotto tilling the ground and damaging the soil web system further! Not too bad of a trade off huh?!
If you have any questions feel free to comment below and I’ll answer! Consequently, if you have experience with this technique please feel free to offer your experience too—good or bad!