Back-to-Eden Gardening
(Part 1)

Dateline: 18 March 2017

Paul Gautschi, in his garden.

I assume that everyone reading this has seen the popular Back To Eden documentary featuring Paul Gautschi (pronounced, "gowt-chee"). I bought the video years ago, shortly after it came out. I loaned it to a couple of local friends. I think one of them still has it.

If you have not yet seen the movie, you simply must watch it, especially if you are a gardener. You don’t have to buy it. You can watch it free, either on the Official Back To Eden Web Site, or on YouTube.

And after you have watched the movie, I heartily recommend that you watch This Back To Eden Full Tour on YouTube. It was filmed last July. Unfortunately the YouTube film is only 3 hours and 20 minutes long.

I say "unfortunately" because I could have watched Paul Gautschi talk about his garden (and other things) for twice that long, and I would have enjoyed it twice as much!

As I watched the 2016 YouTube Tour, the word “raconteur” came to my mind as a description of Paul Gautschi. I looked the word up: “One who tells stories and anecdotes with skill and wit.” 

Yes, I think it fits... Paul Gautschi is surely the most endearing and interesting garden raconteur I have ever heard. 

Though he is prone to moments of exaggeration, and is occasionally incorrect (e.g., Johnny’s Seeds is not a company owned or controlled by Monsanto), Paul’s main message about the wisdom of using wood chips as a garden mulch is powerfully inspiring. And the evidence of his success using the wood chips is clearly evident.

Besides that, the man has an independent, contrarian attitude that I just love (as evidenced in his continual assertion that most of the things we are taught are lies).

The story goes that Paul Gautschi moved his family to the 5-acre homestead where he lives (in Washington state’s Northern Peninsula) back in 1979. Paul makes his living as a skilled arborist and he planted an orchard on his land. But the annual rainfall where he lives is only around 14" a year, and the meagre one-half-gallon flow of his drilled well did not allow any water for irrigation. 

So, Paul asked God what to do and he says God revealed the example of the forest around his home. The trees grew very well without any additional water. The covering of dropped pine needles and forest duff served to preserve moisture and promote plant health. Paul asserts that “The Creator” told him to cover the earth in his orchard with an organic mulch. It was kind of an epiphany.

I should explain here that Paul Gautschi talks to God and God talks to Paul Gautschi. Most people who read that will probably not understand it. So let me explain… Paul asks God questions and, in time, God responds through “spontaneous thoughts.” There is no audible voice of God. Personally, I can relate to this kind of communication. God talks to me in like manner.

First, Paul used sheep manure and hay for mulch in his orchard. Then he discovered that wood chips worked better. But Paul continued to garden by using a rototiller, planting on bare soil, and cultivating with a hoe. Only after 17 years of struggling with such a gardening approach did he come to realize that he could mulch his vegetable garden with wood chips too. And that was when he sold his beloved TroyBilt tiller.

Now, it isn’t like Paul Gautschi is the first person in the world to come up with the idea of using wood chips for a garden mulch. Lee Reich has been promoting wood chips as garden mulch since at least 2000, when his book, Weedless Gardening, was published. The concept of using ramial wood chips as a mulch goes back to at least 1986. And gardening in a heavy layer of natural mulch was popularized by Ruth Stout all the way back in 1955 (though her mulch of choice was hay). None of this is anything new.

Nevertheless, when God revealed to Paul Gautschi the wisdom of covering the soil with a mulch of wood chips, Paul ran with it, the results were amazing, and somewhere along the way, someone came up with the compelling name of “Back To Eden” gardening. 

The Back to Eden documentary featuring the remarkable Paul, freely sharing what he has learned with his wood-chip-mulched gardens, has resonated with people all over the world.  And Paul Gautschi gives all the credit to God. It’s a great story.

Though I have titled this essay Back To Eden vs. Minibeds-on-Plastic, I want to make it clear here in Part 1 that I have nothing negative to say about the Back To Eden gardening concept. I think it has a lot of merit. I think every gardener should give it a try.

In Part 2 of this series, I will provide some observations about the Back To Eden way of gardening, as I understand it from an online interview with Paul Gautschi, the above-mentioned 3.5 hour YouTube tour, and the book, Growing Food God's Way (a unique Christian-agrarian book about Paul Gautschi and his approach to gardening).

Then I will comment on the techniques of Back to Eden gardening as compared to my experimental Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening idea.


to go to Part 2 of this series


  1. Actually, you would think such an approach would strike us as pretty intuitively obvious: observe how the Lord has ordered plants in nature, and imitate that as much as you can. I suppose the sticking point, especially in our industrial approach to agriculture, is that such an approach requires patience (i.e. "Time is money!"), and we tend to want immediate gratification, quick profits, etc.

    I look forward to the rest of this little series, brother!

    Incidentally, I FINALLY ordered your "Planet Whizbang" book, along with the "Beyond Off Grid" DVD. I'm going to try the t-post tomato trellis this year instead of the cages. I'm hoping it'll address the blight problem a lot of us here in upper Mid-TN deal with.

    Thanks so much!

    David Smith

    1. Thank you, David. I appreciate your comment and support. I think you'll be pleased with the t-post trellis spans for your tomatoes. The string trellis idea is labor intensive but fun to try on a small scale (I only have one string trellis for tomatoes every year now). But the trellis spans with concrete wire are what I like best. That said, in my minibeds-on-plastic experimental garden this year, I'm going to try growing a few determinate tomatoes in a square cage. One plant per bed, with lettuce, basil, marigolds and other noncompeting understory plants in the corners of the beds.

  2. I too watched this amazing video some time back and certainly can see the results Paul is getting. I know it is not 100% wood chips as there is green leaf matter in there too (Paul is quite clear on that)....but....I cannot get my head around the known scientific fact that woodchips do leach nitrogen from the soil - it is a persisting concern that is preventing me from bothering to even try it. Your thoughts would be appreciated on this point Hendrick please.

    1. I've read they only leach nitrogen if mixed in with the soil and that they will not do so as a mulch, on the surface. Also, there is a point in decomposition when that is no longer the case. I have been collecting wood chips for a few years. I mostly use them in a play area for my kids, in my chicken run, and to cover/smother things I don't want around my property (BTW, vinca and quackgrass grow right through them). My experiments in the garden have been limited to thickly mulching pathways so I can't make any observation on their impact on the beds I grow in. When they have broken down in the pathways, I toss it into the beds.

      I can say too, I have been very impressed with the rate at which wood chips can break down. Piles that were 4'-6' high when dumped in my yard have broken down, to half or one third the size they started, in less than a year. I measured one such pile with a compost thermometer 2-3 days after it was dumped (time of year when there were lots of green leaves in it) and the center of the pile was 145 degrees. In areas where I have dumped 10-12" of chips in the last 2 years, I now have incredibly workable soil, instead of the heavy clay that was there to begin with. I haven't tried growing vegetables in these areas yet but I can certainly attest to the change in the texture of the soil and that there is clearly more biological activity.

      One downside I see mentioned a lot is slugs. I do have a slug problem where I live and in my garden but I'm not sure how much the chips I've used in my pathways contribute to it. In other areas where I have the most chips, I rarely, if ever, see any slugs. I don't know if I just haven't noticed them, or if the fact that I'm not growing anything in those areas, could be the reason.

      I view wood chips as the cheapest (free), cleanest, source of organic matter I can get. In my mind, it's not a question of whether or not I use them, but how to best use them. One "issue" I've had is the inconsistent size. Larger pieces (thick twigs, chunks, and small branch pieces) don't break down like the finer pieces and end up collecting on the surface, in much the same state I received them, even after ~18 months. This year, I'm hoping to collect these and try to make biochar out of them.

    2. Mr Home Maker—
      Don't mix the chips into the soil and there is no nitrogen problem, as Scott says. When I first heard that from Lee Reich I questioned it. But the popularity of Back to Eden gardening seems to have brought the question to the forefront and clarified the matter of nitrogen.

      Scott Cooper—
      I knew I would get some feedback from readers that are using wood chips. I appreciate your observations and comments on the subject.

  3. My wife and I are starting our fifth season gardening with the back to eden approach. We couldnt imagine gardening any other way. Weeds are far more managaegeable, no tilling is required, and the soil is beautiful under the mulch. When we transplant tomatoes, we see at least one worm in virtually every scoop of dirt.

    We have had no problems with nitrogen. If you till in the wood chips, then they would bind all of the nitrogen, but the wood chips should only on top of the soil, not in it.

    Mr. Kimball, i am thrilled you are tackling this topic directly. Just last week I searched your old deliberate agrarian blog for any writings about back to eden gardening. I look forward to the next post.

    1. Russelld—

      I really appreciate your experienced feedback on this subject.

      I also searched my Deliberate Agrarian blog to see what I wrote about Back to Eden gardening. And I couldn't find anything!

      In retrospect, I think I decided not to mention or promote the Back to Eden gardening concept because of my own experiences with using wood chips as a mulch in my garden (before the movie came out). I discuss this in Part 2 of this series. I loved the documentary and I sure do appreciate Paul Gautschi's worldview and contra-mundum attitude, but I wasn't sure how to properly process and present his techniques. Now, after six years have gone by, and after watching some up-to-date YouTube movies about his methods, I understand more clearly what he is doing and am more comfortable discussing it, as I do in Part 2.

  4. I'm not familiar with The Back to Eden approach, but it sounds remarkably similar to Foundations For Farming, another Biblically based approach to farming and gardening that emphasizes minimal tillage and aggressive mulching. We had already started to transition over to primarily mulching beds about 3-4 years ago when I was introduced to Foundations For Farming through Noah Sanders' Redeeming the Dirt conference. Since then we've transitioned our entire 10,000 sq ft garden to mulched beds year round. As a result, our earthworm population has exploded, weeding has become much more manageable, watering requirements have dropped, and production continues to improve. We mulch primarily with hay and leaves as this is the most readily available source of organic material for us, but we are starting to incorporate wood chips a little this year. I'm looking forward to the next few posts, and I'll have to do some reading on The Back to Eden approach.

    1. Hello Stewart—

      I'm glad you have mentioned Foundations For Farming. As you may know, I wrote numerous times about Foundations For Farming at my Deliberate Agrarian blog and I promoted that system of gardening, as well as their ministry. The difference between Foundations For Farming's gardening system and Back to Eden is that Foundations For Farming presents what I see as a much clearer, more organized gardening system. I have their 7-hour DVD training series and I am impressed with the integrated whole of the system. The Back to Eden documentary is not detailed and leaves all sorts of questions in people's minds about how best to implement the system.

      That said, Back to Eden and Foundations For Farming are on the same page when it comes to the matter of mulching the soil. You should watch the Back to Eden documentary sometime. It's free to watch. I'm pretty sure you will like it. Very inspiring!

  5. I share the same growing zone in the Olympic Rain Shadow as Paul Gautschi. His practices combined with permaculture design are the foundation blocks that were started back in 2008 with the birth of my garden. I spent 3 hard working years just cleaning-up 25 years of homeowner soil abuse and feeding life back into my soil. My only harvest was rocks. My first plantings in the spring of 2011 were perennials: fruit trees, asparagus, rhubarb and blueberries. When it comes to "The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book" she had been gardening and working her soil for some years to the point that she could actually "dig" in it. When my neighbor's watch me sink a shovel and harvest potatoes and elephant garlic...they are in awe.

  6. Elizabeth L. Johnson said,
    I'm thrilled that I don't have to weed nearly as much as before using a thick covering of wood chips mulch. When my other half was quite skeptical, I started measuring pH level each spring. After use only as a covering, the acid went from 7.0 to only 6.5, and has stayed there for years. Wood chips do not seem to ruin my garden with acid.