Thursday, February 2, 2012

My "Back To Eden" Experiment

Yesterday I posted about the Back To Eden movie and give-away hosted by Pantry Paratus. I hope you've had a chance to watch it before reading this post, because it will certainly make more sense if you have. But I realize life doesn't pause whenever you want, so I'll try to give a little background where I can so those who haven't seen it will understand what I'm trying to achieve.

Over the last few years, Paul Gautschi has replicated something similar to the "lasagna method" for his vegetable garden, with much success! Of course, he lives where it would seem hard NOT to succeed, but that aside, I think his ideas have merit. And although he was an experienced gardener prior to moving to his current location, his vegetable garden was not as successful as he would have liked.

His orchard was.

This prompted him to inquire of the Lord as to why the vegetable garden struggled and the orchard thrived despite being on the same property. The Lord reminded him of a forest floor, which was similar to the ground around his fruit trees, and he then sought to replicate the soil conditions in his vegetable garden.

Here is where you might think, oh, yes, this is the lasagna method; didn't work for me (or perhaps it did). But the difference is Paul uses mostly one layer... wood chips of varying sizes all over his garden (not wood shavings, bark, or saw dust). He chose this medium for several reasons (and I'm sure I'll forget something!)...

• The wood chips naturally decompose over time; the smaller pieces decompose faster, the larger pieces slower.

• The decomposing chips, made from tree branches that contain leaves, wood, and bark, provide both green and brown material, thus supplying the three major items found in fertilizers (NPK - nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus) and thus negates the need for crop rotation.

• The chips must be in varying sizes to create air space and to prevent compaction of soil.

• You can walk on the wood chips and it distributes your weight and prevents soil compaction.

• The wood chips keep the area underneath moist and attract earthworm activity, which also keeps the soil from becoming compacted while adding natural fertilizer in the form of worm castings.

• You can easily part the soil and plant in the chips that have decomposed more.

• Although you must water initially while seedlings are sprouting, afterwards the soil maintains enough water for the plants since the wood chips cover the bare earth. (I'm thinking in really arid locations like the Southwest might have to water, just less frequently - still a nice plus!)

• At first, you will need to maybe add some fertilizer until things start breaking down. Also you will need to add more layers of wood chips; more in the beginning and less each year. Over time, you will build the right kind of soil; thus each year you should see more improvement than the year before.

• Weeding is not a big issue because they easily pull out from soil that isn't compacted.  Also, there just tends to be less weeds overall.

• For some reason, his plants really soak up water and are flavorful and full of water. So much so that the pests which are looking for cellulose seem not to be interested in eating as much of the plant. Paul says it's just too much water for them.

That's all this brain can remember right now. I'm sure if you watch the movie, you'll pick up on more. But it's the basics.

The big no-no that is so difficult for us all is the concept of NO TILLING. It just seems so counter to what we know and think about soil. But isn't this like God; to work counter to what we think? His wisdom is not our wisdom (Isaiah 55:8-10).


“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, 
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. 
9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, 
So are My ways higher than your ways 
And My thoughts than your thoughts. 
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, 
And do not return there without watering the earth 
And making it bear and sprout, 
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; 


So this year, I'm going to conduct my own experiment with the no-till wood chip method. I'm going to give it a try and report back to you what worked and didn't work. It may take me more than one year since I suspect that I'll struggle a bit at first as I build up my soil with wood chips, but if it works here in the arid Southwest, in the mountains where we have more than our fair share of wind, and plenty of cool weather and very little light, then I'm sure it will work just about anywhere!

This weekend I started covering my garden with newspaper to eliminate the weeds (which nearly consumed my garden last year - oh the hours of weeding!). I need to get LOTS more paper, but this is a start.

TIP: Be sure your newspaper is wet when you lay it down, especially if there is wind!

When I laid this paper down, there was a nice breeze blowing, but the weight of the water in it kept it from blowing around. If you're a perfectionist, like me, you really need to get over it for this project. Don't worry about how straight or how thick (within reason), or what's under it; just get it down there. It's all going to compost together and become soil over time.

I laid down newspaper and hay a couple of years ago and it worked great for keeping the weeds at bay (see Preparing the Garden Path). My mistake was letting the chickens on it before it had finished composting in. There was bits of paper everywhere after awhile. But despite that, it kept the weeds down everywhere I had laid newspaper. So don't let the girls rummage through it too soon.

Next I put straw and manure from the chicken coop and goat shed down on top. Since it's my first year, I think I need a little something for nutrients. I may sprinkle some more compost on top of the wood chips, but for now, I just needed to get this down so it could break down a bit before I start planting in the spring. In fact, I'm keeping it wet with a garden hose until the wood chips are on top. This will prevent the straw from blowing away (and the newspaper) and will speed up the composting a bit since we've had warmer than usual weather and very little rain.

You can see one section completed (minus the wood chips) in the photo below, but I've got a long way to go since our garden area is really large. I plan to do the entire space, including the pathways (I just won't put manure in those areas).


If you think you might want to try this method, start hunting wood chips now! It's not that easy to locate them. At least not for me, but I have found a couple of leads and I have one definite source if I'm willing to use my own chipper and make my own. My husbands says I'll be chipping til the cows come home!

Earth911.com has a locater where you can plug in what you're looking for and your zip code to find a recycling center that might take green waste and sell or give away wood chips. Just remember, you need to find them in varying sizes and with green leaves from branches; not saw dust or wood shavings or wood bark.

I can't wait to get some wood chips; I feel like a kid waiting to go to Disneyland or something. The next post, I hope to show how the hunt concluded and what it looks like on the ground.

Have you had any experience with this method? What were some of your thoughts after seeing the movie Back To Eden?



40 comments:

  1. Last year we had a large tree taken down. I asked the tree service guy if he could leave the chips after they mulched the tree and he left a big pile for us. He then offered to bring me as many truckloads (free!) as I wanted since it saved him having to drive all the way back to his site to dump the chips from other jobs. We ended up with three truckloads of wood chips - most of which went on our raised beds. We just used the others as mulch in natural areas.

    I will be calling him again next fall to get another truckload.

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  2. I bookmarked the page where I can watch the movie, but didn't get a chance to do that yesterday. The lasagna method is new to me, but last year we did put straw down all over the garden. It was awesome! It made a tremendous difference in the amount of weeds we had, and those we did have were easily pulled up. It helped keep moisture in the roots of the plants so watering wasn't something we had to think about. And, I loved the fact that I could go out to the garden and then not be concerned with tracking dirt or mud into the house. My neighbor was so impressed he said that he is going to do that this year in his garden. :0) I look forward to watching the movie - and seeing your results with the method!

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  3. This way of gardening, really does work. "Layering" is how I set my raised beds up, and it does work well. If you are having problems finding wood chips call your a company that cuts down trees, normally they will come dump their chips for free at your house.

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  4. Good morning. I have not seen the movie. Could you tell me what type of wood chips? Should I avoid pine, due to acidity? What are you planning to use? Thanks, Andrea in NH

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    1. Andrea, we have a lot of pine here, too, but fortunately, we have some other things like oak. My thoughts are that a mix would be ideal, but a forest floor is not nearly as varied. That said, only certain plants (acid loving) grow in the forest. You might try contacting Paul on the Back To Eden website.

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  5. So this sounds perfectly logical to me but I have one question... what kind of wood chips? My husband and I cut so many pine branches last year we are up to our ears in pine chips but I don't want to put it in our garden and kill it! Does it have to be a mix of different trees or all one kind... I would love to experiment with this method!

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    1. Justine, I'm copying my response to another reader here... we have a lot of pine here, too, but fortunately, we have some other things like oak. My thoughts are that a mix would be ideal, but a forest floor is not nearly as varied. That said, only certain plants (acid loving) grow in the forest. You might try contacting Paul on the Back To Eden website.

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  6. We meet a woman at the supermarket last week who told us that she hasn't tilled or had to weed her garden in years. She lays downs wet news paper when she plants topped with straw. At the end of the season she pulls up the plants, adds a layer of manure from her horses, more damp newspaper cover with straw and then lays cardboard over the whole garden. The snow we receive in the winter holds the cardboard down. In the spring when she takes up the cardboard, the worms have worked their magic and she doesn't need to till. We are planning to try her method over this next year. We had heard about the newspaper and straw last summer and had already planned on doing that when we plant.

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  7. I watched the movie yesterday and I loved it. Thanks for sharing the link!

    I am going to try this method as well. I spend tons of time weeding my garden. It's a struggle every year to keep those things at bay.

    I'm also going to start looking for a wood chip source. We have a place in our town where we take our yard waste and they turn it into compost and resell it to us but I can't recall if they have any chips with the leaves still in them for sale? I might have to stop by and talk to them.

    As I was reading about this method I kept kicking myself for getting rid of all my bags of leaves. Every year I rake up probably 25 (or more!) bags of leaves and haul them off. I also don't collect the grass from my mulching mover which I'm going to start doing now. I have to make a spot for a compost bin, too.

    We can't plant anything for fear of frost until after Memorial Day so once the snow melts off my garden I could get started. I'm so excited.

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  8. I used the newspaper and straw method last year and it worked wonders. My son just tilled (gasp!) for this year and all of that did just decompose and turn right in.

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  9. Hi Amy!

    I am really going to give this a try, too. Anything to help with the weeding is a blessing!!

    My hubby works for the County and if you call your local Public Works, you can ask if they are doing any tree chipping in your area. A lot of the time they are willing to dump a load IF you have easy access for their trucks. Have a big plate of cookies ready when they come....and they will think of you every time they chip:).

    Thanks for the GREAT information!!

    ~Julia

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    1. Thanks for the info on the public works. I did try one of the utility companies around here, but there is one more I can try. And I did contact my little local community service district. We maintain everything in the immediate area ourselves and dump it at the "dump" (what a clever name!) and they said I could get as much green waste as I want - only I would have to chip it. My husband and I are going to try some this weekend.

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  10. OK, I've been going to do the newspaper thing for the last couple of years now - this year I'm doing it! I hate digging weeds. I'm going to have some raised beds, too, so I won't need quite as much newspaper. Thanks for spurring me on!

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  11. I just read a gardening book on this a couple weeks ago and I really wish I remembered the name of the book... something like, "Gardening on a 1/4 acre," or roughly named similar. Anyway, the point of that is because the author also used the woodchips and went on and on about it's benefits. She got them by listening for the sound of the arborists in the neighborhood and "hunting" them down to ask for the chips! I think this is wonderful and it seems like most companies would be willing to dump in your driveway rather than haul (at these gas prices!) back to a dump site where they probably have to pay a fee anyway. In our town a couple times a year there is a company that is contracted by the electric company to cut trees away from the wires and there are often at least two (!) shredder trucks backed up to the saw, full to the max, and needing to haul those chips away. Tons and tons of chips for someone's garden! Unfortunately, I am not in a position to be able to use that kind of a load and it wouldn't work to ask for a couple wheelbarrows full but maybe someone else here can use that information!?!?

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    1. There are several books. I have a book called "The Backyard Homestead - Produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre", but looking through the home resource and gardening books at Barnes & Noble today revealed about another 4-5 books that had "1/4 acre" somewhere in their name. It's worth leafing through the books thoroughly a couple of times before choosing which one to buy. I could have spent $200 on the spot on more books, but most of them aren't useful until I actually own land...

      My idea is, that if we get that 5-20 acres that we hope to buy at some point, I'd just pick up the phonebook and go through all companies that clear up wood and gardens, and check who operates in our area, and offer a part of our land as a "dump site" for wood chips, if they're driving by. I'm sure that what I can't use for a garden, can be composted, and possibly bagged for further distribution to other amateur gardeners in the area, especially, since I'm big into the idea of a barter based economy, if not outright co-ops. Perhaps some sort of co-op setup with a few like-minded gardeners would enable you to get your couple of wheelbarrow-fulls each?

      For the purposes of co-opping, I know composting, mead making and steam juicing, and mending or modifying clothes. Someone else might be able to provide me with meats I can't grow myself, and so on. There's usually some skill or talent that is worth something when you trade it.

      And yes, I'm still stuck living in an apartment... but I am already looking at lists of what plants grow well in our area, and our container garden already has some vigorous sprouts sticking out of pots that spent the winter on the balcony. :)

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  12. Amy, I got to see about half the movie last night & am so excited! This would be the perfect answer for me given all the time my young kids, dairy goats (even more this year with 3 to milk!), etc. take up which doesn't leave much time for gardening! I got to thinking it might be a challenge for us to find a local source for the wood chip/green waste. But, I'm thinking it would be worth driving my big truck & large cargo trailer to Bakersfield to get a load if I can find some there.

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    1. I'm going to actually try to view the wood chips at a source in Bakes tomorrow. I'll let you know if they will work for us. $10/1 cu. yard. though, not free. They might be good for mixing in and keeping a good variety.

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    2. Definitely keep me updated Amy...our truck is big & then we have the trailer like I mentioned, so we could share a load or something. I got some newspaper at the local office yesterday, but unfortunately, they will only give you one bundle at a time!

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  13. I loved the video! It was like eureka :) I plan on showing my whole family. I told them all about it. I'm really excited, it will really help with not having to use a generator for irrigating.

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  14. We are doing our entire garden with this method this year. Our soil is rocky clay, devoid of nutriants. We have 4 MOUNTAINS of wood chips from our electric compnay who was cutting bcka trees in the area. (FREE!!!) Today we recieved 1 of 2 scheduled semi tractor traylor full of black gold (steaming compost) delivered. We have rolls of unprinted paper that we got from the local free newspaper company for a deal as well as a trunk load of free newpaper. (We thought the rolls might be worth trying sine we are doing such a large space.) We will start laying it down today! We will be reporting it's progress this year as well on our blog www.homeshalom.blogspot.com. We have some workman chipping fallen cedar trees today too...so we are hoping for more chips that we need for this years garden. We plan to expand a panting to place to prepare it for next year (with just chips on paper having broken down for a year). So that will be unfolding as well. We are very excited about it. We could have spent years ammending our own soil and still contended with rock surfacing all the while if we were willking to wiat of didn't have the means to jump start it, but we chose to do it this way to get immediate results in this year's planting. The investment was a BIG one, but we think it is worth it. We got such deal on the other elements it helps balance it out. We want to truly live off of our land without having to buy food...so for us...it is well worth it! I am looking forward to watching your experiment unfold as well!

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    1. Oh, my! You're very blessed to have all those wood chips and paper for free! And so quick! I'm still hunting down supplies for this project. The local and big city newspapers here are selling their old expired papers (although they'll give each person a small stack weekly- not nearly enough). But things are coming together. I can't wait to hear how this works for you!

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  15. I just went out & prepared one large bed with paper & hay/manure waste from the goat pens. Will have to get more newspaper before I can do much more, but again, I'm super excited & eager to find a source for the wood chips! Oh, and not sure if it was like this with you, but as I was watching the video I sort of had this slap your forhead "duh" moment...of course this would work & why do we always have to make things so complicated!

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  16. Love your blog! i am adding you to my blogroll. i can not wait until the next post.

    xo, Lissy Parker ltd

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  17. I used a layered approach in my raised beds last fall. My only problem was that the wheat straw I used as a top dressing SPROUTED! Now I have beautiful wheat grass all over my beds, which my big Black Lab loves to nibble, but it got so tall so quickly that many of my wee seeds were shaded out and never grew. The wood chips I have from a tree removal are fabulous after four years; they are still occasionally sending up a tiny pine tree sapling, so I have to be heartless and pull it. Best wishes!

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    1. ddu, I think you can ask at the feed store for straw that is seedless? Not sure if I dreamed this up, but you could ask.

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  18. Hello Amy,
    I watched the video, it was very nice, but I do have a few reservations. I have maintained a 4-6" layer of wood chip mulch and compost below my conifers for years and that is very helpful for weed control, but the mulch absorbs alot of my water at the surface too.

    As you noted, in our area we get much less rain then Paul does, Washington averages 28" while we average 11" and are 6" behind right now. Mulch cannot add water, it only slows evaporation. We both live in the 3rd most $$ conventional agriculture county in the country, and adjacent to #1 and #2 ag economies. That means many more insects. His orchard looks amazing but I saw lots of stings on his fruit. That's likely because coddling moth and most caterpillars prefer to winter in wood shavings. The forest floor is made of coniferous droppings which contain toxic components that can negate these damaging pests, but most arborist pruned trees are deciduous and do not. Your pest problems will increase and that's not even considering the introduction of plant pathogens like powdery mildew or fungus that will certainly be transferred from wood chips that are often prunings to remove disease.

    It's like comparing apples and oranges really. The forest canopy is dense, little sunlight gets through hence, less evaporation, less weed growth (because weeds are photosensitive- sun dependent, unlike crop seed), AND - forest basins and soil are sponge like, mostly humus, no clays or sands, plus forests are areas that get much more water to begin with than open, deforested areas.

    If you are going to garden organically (which I do) there are things you can do to mitigate, but you will not eliminate them. The first thing you would be instructed to do to mitigate, would be cultural controls ie: eliminate debris- wood chips below plants.

    I don't want to discourage you, I know this is something you are very interested in doing I just want to be sure you are aware of the differences between our region and his. They will likely impact your success. I am hopeful that this plan works for you. I will be watching closely because it would sure be a big money saver if it does. Good luck!

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    1. Heidi,
      You've certainly brought up some excellent points! I'm sure his wood chips are from "naturally organic" sources because he seems to really know the arborists (probably because he is one, too). Would allowing the wood chips to sit for a while mitigate some of the insect issues, or would it increase them? J'm thinking heat that is generated in an active compost pile might make it less desirable for bugs? Not really sure, but I know that I won't have as much control over the wood chips I obtain because they're hard to find to begin with. Also, I was thinking a mix of different kinds of wood chips would be wise - not all one kind. We have some pine and redwood trees in this area and I've talked to a local arborist that has me on their list, so I'm hoping to get a variety, but I'm also chipping some of my own and getting some from Bakersfield. Either way, I'll definitely be watching for extra pests since you mentioned it!

      I figure we'll definitely need to water, but I'm hoping I don't have to water as much. I'll try to keep good records and see if I can tell a difference this year. I'm not sure I could do worse than last year - well, actually, I could, but hopefully not! Thanks for your help, Heidi! I'll keep the blog updated so we can see what happens.

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  19. Again thanks Amy for sharing it! I've spread the word and even have a post coming up in my blog about it.

    I'm itching to try this, but we're no where near to getting to our garden so I will just have to wait till I get the chance to try it. One thing I do wish to add is that I would like to combine it with the square foot garden method. That's where you seed as you need - that way you don't have 40 heads of salad ready for harvest at the same time.

    Aloha!

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  20. Thank you so much for posting about this Amy. I watched the movie (and shared it with others) and it really connected some dots for me! We've used Lasagne gardening for several years and have had good success. However, last year I decided to turn all of the soil in my raised beds and "till" in some compost. Worst.garden.ever. The weeds were just unmanageable and we weren't sure what we were going to do this year. After watching the movie, my husband and I both agreed that we're removing the raised beds and doing the Eden method to our entire garden space. I'm so excited that I'm giddy! It's so simple and eliminates the problems of pathways, compaction and so many other things. We have also put in a small orchard that we'll put the wood chips down in too. I'm interested in seeing how the bug problem goes. We've had a terrible squash bug infestation the last two years. I'm hoping for good results in this area also.
    The only thing that I think I'll do differently is to use cardboard boxes instead of newspaper. We've done this before and it seems to work well. Can't wait to compare notes as the season progresses. Thanks again for sharing this. I know that a lot of people will be blessed by it!

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  21. Amy,
    After reading through the comments there is another risk with the lasagna method. The colored inks on newspapers are usually made with dye that contain chemicals, most notably lead, which is absorbed by the plants. If you are going to use newspapers and boxes,make sure they don't have colored ink on them. The glossy paper that the coupon circulars are printed on is where these toxic dyes are used. Also, I know someone who sourced their compost from the local dump and it was filled with weed seeds and fungus that was more of a problem than help. It is definitely worth paying for clean fill that has been tested for toxic metals to get started. Soil has to be balanced with essential nutrients like potassium, magnesium, copper, etc and the pH needs to be right for the crops you are growing. Replicating the forest floor is for trees that have deep roots, not shallow root systems like veggies. I'd recommend a soil test to find out what nutrients you need to add. A local Ag extension can give you the precise quantities based upon the size of your bed. The lasagna method is a great way to get started when you have turf/grass/weeds that needs to be killed but after that nutrients need to be replaced that the plants absorb. Adding too much nitrogen, which is what leaves and mulch are, will not work for all veg, only the nitrogen loving plants. I definitely agree that mulch keeps the weeds down and balanced soil is inhospitable for pests.

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  22. Very interesting! I haven't watched the movie yet, but I'll do it soon. My grandpa has been planting in piles of woodchips for the past few years, and has had amazing tomato and watermelon plants! I was shocked when I asked his secret and he told me he was just planting in the old woodchip piles he has around his yard. Anytime a tree cutting company is in his neighborhood, he tells them they can dump the woodchips in his yard. He has several HUGE piles just sitting there, breaking down. He told me I'm welcome to help myself. I've been using them for my flower beds, but now I'm thinking I need to fill my raised beds with that stuff! It's really nice and composted toward the bottom of the piles. Thanks for sharing, Amy!!

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    1. The info you shared on your grandpa's garden is very encouraging! Keep us posted on your blog!

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  23. Ok, I must confess I was extremely skeptical about this. If you'll recall, I've read Gardening When It Counts and he was adamant about keeping the wood out of the compost. But I was bored and wanted something to watch while crocheting and I'm totally sold! (I've since watched it again with my even more skeptical husband who is now more excited about it than I think I am!) I thought the video did a wonderful job making the case for wood chip mulching and his soil is enough to turn most gardeners green with envy! I especially loved the way Paul infused his gardening philosophy with Scripture! To God be the glory! Not to mention, Paul addressed the concerns I initially had.

    If we can get things lined up, we'll be experimenting right along side you this year... which I look forward to comparing since we live in such different areas/climates. I'm optimistic about getting a source for chips too since I know a tree service parks about a mile up the road.

    Thank you so much for posting this information Amy!

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    1. Quinn,
      I hear you! I have been reading Gardening When It Counts off and on. I'd start and read a couple of chapters, then set it down again; overwhelmed. After a couple of months, I'd try it again. Same thing. I don't know if this is going to work, but I confess I feel like a huge load has been lifted off my shoulders and I'm joyful again about gardening. Even if it only works half as well as he claims (and I'm positive it would take years for mine to look as lovely as his), I will feel like it was successful. I look forward to hearing about your own garden at Just A Couple of Acres.

      Now if it would only solve my gopher issue!

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    2. Hi Quinn and Amy,

      The gopher issue is my major concern. We are in the process of rebuilding our raised beds (like at GrowOrganic. com, but on a much smaller scale) and I put hardware cloth down to keep out the gophers. Interestingly, the gophers seems to just leave mid season last year (even though there were plenty of plants to eat in other beds), so I'm not sure about that. Anyway, I'm concerned I'll just attract more gophers. We live in the foothills and my garden is the only "salad bar" around.

      I may try this in one garden area before I invest in more raised bed materials. Thanks for sharing the video. I love the idea!

      Linda

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  24. I did this last year sort of by accident with the path mulching.
    I am pleasantly surprised by the results and lack of weeds so far this Spring. Of course it isn't Spring yet but we are having Spring weather here. :)

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  25. Hi Amy, how did is go? I am considering this maybe in a square foot format.

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  26. Amy, I'm really curious how this did for you...but I can't find any update. Megan

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    1. So far so good! However, I am using it mostly for pathways and around perinnials at this point. I did plant zinnias and a few other flowering plants into the soil with bark around them, but I have not direct seeded anything into the bark. One step at a time! The good news is... I'm watering less and the weeds are almost non-existant! The area with two year old bark needs more since it does start to break down over time.

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