Today we harvested 6 cups of shelled peas, a dozen radishes, a basket of strawberries and some sweet pea flowers for the table. There are a lot of things that make this really special for me - but 2 stand out above the rest. The kids and I spent a half hour shelling peas together and they both discovered how much they like fresh peas (duh, they're as sweet as candy), and finally I've created a gardening experiment that has been successful! With hot, dry weather all over the nation, it's important to conserve water whenever possible. Here is how we grew all these things without watering or weeding....
Last summer I grew a garden for the first year in my neighbors yard across the street. I started by removing the sod (back breaking pick axe work), then I rototilled it and added zoodoo (composted zoo animal waste). The water ran right off the soil because it was so hard and dry, and the plants didn't grow well except for the 15 foot sunflowers and pole beans. All the squash plants were big failures and I was watering every other day and weeding way more than enjoying it.
I started researching different ways of gardening and stumbled onto the Back to Eden gardening method pioneered by a man named Paul Gautschi in Sequim, WA. He has a free video on his website explaining how he has grown tons of food on his property with very little watering and weeding for the past 15 years. After seeing the quality of the fruits and vegetables he grows I was really intrigued.
I hadn't ever tried "lasagna gardening" and this seemed pretty similar but fewer steps. I wanted whatever took the most work out of gardening and still gave great results!
Here is the step by step method to recreating this no-weed, no-water garden for yourself. You can do this anytime of the year but it's most effective if you lay down all your groundcover (newspaper, compost/manure, wood chips) in the early fall and allow it to soak up the winter rains. It's also a great excuse to do absolutely nothing with it all winter long because it's "hibernating". :)
Step 1: Decide where your garden area is going to be. If there are long grass or plants in this area then cut them down to a shorter size and leave the clippings right where they are, it'll break down and add nutrients to your soil. DO NOT till (shovel) your ground. Everything goes right on top of the grass or the previous garden and those plants will turn back into nutrients for the soil. You can see my withered up sad little plants in this first picture from last years garden.
Step 2: Lay down newspaper sections that are several sheets thick and overlap them so no ground is showing. Use only the plain pages and not the glossy colored pages, they take a lot longer to break down and have special ink you don't want in your garden. Water the newspaper so it won't fly away and to help it form to any dips in the ground and suffocate the weeds underneath. I got the newspapers free at the local recycling station.
Step 3: Add 2-3 inches of fresh or aged horse manure or compost on top of the newspaper. I didn't have any at the time I did this so I skipped this step. I'm sure everything would be growing even better if I had it though. Connect with a local stable and offer to take some off their hands. I'm lucky to have a sweet neighbor (a different one than where I garden) that lets me borrow her old pickup truck and I have since picked up several loads of fresh horse manure free from a stable. They are happy to see it go. Don't plant directly into fresh manure - it's too potent and potentially dangerous healthwise. It should be composted for several months before it is planted into. Ideally, this is all going to sit for a few seasons anyways.
Step 4: Add 4-6 inches of FRESH wood chips. I was lucky to have a neighbor (the 3rd neighbor in this story!) getting her cedar tree trimmed and I was able to use a lot of those fresh chips. You can call tree trimming companies, city utilities, or check craigslist for free chips. I followed around tree chipper trucks to write down their numbers for friends who needed it last fall.
I measured the 4-6 inch mark at the beginning then eyeballed it against my hand every now and then. The purpose of wood chips is to soak up and hold on to the rainfall throughout winter and spring, then slowly release it as the temperatures rise and rain becomes more scarce. It also keeps the ground cool (prevents evaporation), prevents weeds from growing and somehow magically made the soil below it very fluffy and loose, where it was once hard packed.
*Move the chips while they are fresh - they are light, fluffy and easy to move with a pitchfork or a snow shovel and a wheelbarrow. Tarp the pile if it rains...it's much heavier to move when wet. A good technique is to lean the side of the wheelbarrow onto the pile and smoosh a big chunk of chips over the top to fill it all at once. You'll save your back that way!
* If you let the wood chip pile sit for even a few days they'll start to get really hot, compost and grow some blueish moldy looking stuff that you'll wish you didn't breathe in (wear a mask!), I had blue boogers for a day after moving chips that were sitting for a week.
I was able to cover the garden area in a day with both newspaper and wood chips working on my own. It'll go much faster with help, but I was really surprised at how much easier and faster it was to do the newspaper and wood chips than removing sod and shoveling the dirt like I did last year.
Step 5: Give yourself a high five and a break for a few months! I'm impatient and this forced break was really nice. It gave me time to read up on companion planting and get a good design going for this spring.
Here are the wood chips piled around strawberry plants left over from the previous years garden. The fresh cedar chips smelled so good!
* Side note: I read in a bunch of places online that cedar isn't good to use in the garden because of how it leaches nutrients, but as Paul Gautschi says in the video, it's not being dug into the soil and is only used as a layer above it so there is no need to worry. I haven't seen any signs of nutrient deficiency in my garden yet this year but will continue to monitor it.
Here's the garden last September after I covered it with newspaper and wood chips. It looked like this until I planted in February.
Pull the wood chips back until you reach the bare soil and plant in that as directed by the plant tag or seed packet. As the plants grow you can fill in the space around it with the chips. Watch the videos for more information but those are the basics!
*Anytime you transplant a new plant or put seeds in the ground, give them some water to get started until their roots are deep enough to find it on it's own.
This is what the garden looks like right now - the grass is brown from the hot and dry spring and early summer we are having but you can see the grass just around the garden still has some life to it. The wood chips are keeping not only the garden well watered, but the area around it too. It's doing it's job!
The peas on the left side of the teepee are over 5 feet tall and are what we picked this week. (The teepee goes far above my head and is built out of bamboo cut from a 4th neighbors yard...can you tell I've gotten to know my neighbors??!!). The tomato plants are going gangbusters and I watered them for the first time tonight. Their leaves were starting to curl which means they are thirsty. Not too bad though...they've been in the ground for a few months already and this was the first watering. Last year I was watering my tomatoes every other day. It's a rediculous positive difference in money, work and time this year.
I am going to implement this same gardening technique in the new elementary school gardens we are designing - much less work, watering and maintenance for the staff & students, and they get to learn so much more about how everything works together!
Sweet peas - they smell so nice!
Tomatoes, herbs and flower bed. I plant them together so the flowers would draw in the bees to pollinate the tomatoes, and the herbs would keep bad bugs out. The whole bed has a line of small green onions planted around the border to keep bugs out too. The pathways are overroasted coffee beans from a local coffee roaster. They help my kids know where to walk and they smell great when stepped on!
My first tomatillos! I've never successfully grown these before - even when they were much more pampered than now. I haven't touched them since they went in the ground!
English lavender and nasturtium - both edible and bees love them! All parts of nasturtium are edible - the leaves have a peppery flavor and are great in salads, along with the flowers, and the seeds can be pickled like capers!
Here are some of the peas from today. They were all PERFECT. I've never grown perfect peas before - they are usually wormy and have holes throughout but not this year! Super sweet and plump.
Our little backyard buddies love the leftovers too!
I hope this has been helpful for you and I'll add more updates on the garden as the summer progresses! Thank you for reading and if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear them!