Solar Pyramids
In The Minibeds

27 March 2017

It's a rainy, overcast day here in upstate New York. There is still snow in the hollows, but my Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden is clear. So, today, in the midst of so much wetness, I set up some Whizbang solar pyramids in the minibeds. 

As you can see in the picture above, the solar pyramids fit the minibeds perfectly. And the plastic flaps on the pyramid covers fit under the minibed frames right nice. I didn't have the solar pyramids in mind when I decided on the minibed size last summer. So this is a pleasant surprise, indeed.

If you have read my Planet Whizbang Idea Book For Gardeners (and visited the special hidden web site I created just for readers of that book), you are familiar with my solar pyramid idea. But for those of you who have not seen these unique garden devices, here is a picture I took several years ago that illustrates just how remarkable these solar pyramids are...

In the picture above, you can see a tomato plant inside a solar pyramid, and you can tell that it is a good size. In the background (on the right) you can see some smaller tomato plants. Believe it or not, all the tomato plants were transplanted into the garden on the same day, and they were the same size when planted. The tomato plant in the solar pyramid was in a totally ideal  growing environment, while the others were not. That made all the difference.

It's not a pyramid-power thing. It's a solar thing. And, as I explain in my book, this idea came from Leandre Poissson's excellent Solar Gardening book. Leandre made solar cones using an expensive rigid plastic. My solar pyramids are made using a much-less-expensive (but very durable) woven plastic. Here's a picture of Leandre Poisson with one of his solar cones...

The diffuse light inside the cone is ideal for plant growth. And the dynamics of the open top on the cone (with the bottom being sealed) play an important role in maintaining optimum growing conditions. The growth inside one of these things is nothing short of amazing.

It is much too early to plant anything in the garden, but I have been reading about winter sowing of garden seeds (thank you, Scott Cooper). I have a feeling that I can vary the common winter sowing approach and simply plant seeds directly in the earth inside the solar cones. When the soil temperature and environment in the cones is right (long before it is right outside the cones) the seeds will get themselves started.

If I can start tomatoes from seed, directly in the soil, in very early spring, here in upstate NY, and have them be at least as big as the usual transplants at the usual planting time, that would be quite an accomplishment. Same goes for some other crops that are not usually planted this early.

I've wanted to try this for a few years and haven't done it. This year will be different. I now have an experimental Minibeds-on-Plastic garden!

Stay tuned...

Insect Fabrics In The Garden
Current Options For U.S. Gardeners

Repost Dateline: 26 March 2017
(originally published on 25 August 2016)

ProtekNet 25gr insect barrier on hoop cloches in my garden.

My recent post about the Haxnicks lantern cloche, and the observation that such a screened cloche has been an incredible boon to four kale plants in my garden, has led me on an investigation into insect screen options for garden beds.

I have used Agribon-over-hoops to make cloches in my garden for years. It works very well for getting plants off to a great start in the spring. But as the heat of summer comes, Agribon cloches get too hot on the inside. They also restrict sunlight and air movement, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Other downsides to Agribon are that it does not let any rain get through and it doesn't allow you to see what's happening inside the cloche (without lifting the cover).

On the other hand, an insect screen cover allows more sun, air, rain and visibility, while protecting your plants from insects, deer, rabbits, rodents and hail. 

I have found three brand-name insect fabric materials made for the garden:

1. Agralan Enviromesh
2. Haxnicks Micromesh
3.  ProtekNet 25gr

I've purchased all three to see them and put them to use in my garden. Here are some details for you...

Agralan Enviromesh

Agralan Enviromesh is made by Agralan Ltd. in the United Kingdom. I purchased a piece measuring 8'6" x 16' from Greenhouse Magastore.

The Enviromesh is made of UV stabilized woven polypropylene. Color is white. The grid size is 1.35mm x 1.35mm.

Agralan Enviromesh has apparently been around for a long time. They say their fabric has a 7 year lifespan, but with care it should last at least ten years. That's quite a claim!

When I opened the Enviromesh package, my wife said it looked like flea beetles could get through. I read the literature included with the fabric and it says "flea beetle may be discouraged by ENVIROMESH, but it may  not give complete control." Well, that was a bummer. One of the reasons I want netting is to exclude flea beetles.

Then I read: "In situations where flea beetle is a serious problem, it may be preferable to use ENVIROMESH ULTRA FINE, particularly over very small plants."

The Ultra Fine has a grid size of .8mm x .8mm. So I went looking for the Ultra Fine Enviromesh. I can't find a US source. I've contacted Enviromesh in the UK, but they have yet to reply.

Haxnicks Micromesh

I purchased a sheet of Haxnicks Micromesh measuring 16'6" x 5'10" from Gardener's Edge. It is made of woven polyropylene. It is UV stabilized. It has a green-yellow tint. 

Grid size is .6mm x .6mm, which they say will exclude flea beetles. Lifespan is not stated. Haxnicks does not make the same durability claims that Agralan makes for their Enviromesh. The difference in durability is visibly evident. While both fabrics are strong, the Enviromesh looks to be much stronger.

The Haxnicks package indicates that their mesh is made in China. 


ProtekNet appears to be the most popular name-brand insect netting in the United States. The company actually  makes several different kinds of insect netting. The most commonly available option is the 25 gram. If you go to THIS LINK, and click  the "Brochures" tab, you can download a chart that compares all the ProtekNet fabric options. For the discussion here, I'll stick to the popular 25gr netting. 

Johnny's sells ProtekNet 25gr in large rolls for hundreds of dollars.  I bought a 82" x 33' piece from Purple Mountain Tools for considerably less. The picture at the top of this page shows some ProtekNet-covered cloches in my garden.

ProtekNet is a completely different kind of netting material. It is made of knitted (not woven) polyamide, which I understand to be a nylon. It is soft and stretchy, while the woven polypropylene materials (Enviromesh and Micromesh) are much stiffer. When you cut ProtekNet, the fabric edges curl. That doesn't happen with woven polypropylene.

ProtekNet has a very fine mesh at .35mm x .35 mm. It has no problem stopping flea beetles, and even smaller insects.

It is recommended that if you use hoops with ProtekNet, they be PVC, not wire, because the wire may damage the fabric. 

The stated lifespan for ProtekNet is only 1 to 3 seasons, which I interpret to be one season (or two if you're lucky). Though the material is said to  have UV resistance, my understanding is that nylon does not have anywhere near the long-term durability of polypropylene.


I like the stretchy ProtekNet for my small hooped cloches. But I don't like the idea of it not lasting. 

The Enviromesh looks like a vastly superior product. But the flea-beetle-excluding size  apparently isn't available in the United States. :-(

Other Options?

Yet another UK company (Gromax) makes a product called Gro-Net, which appears to be comparable to the Agralan Enviromesh (though the Agralan company disputes the long-term viability of Gro-Net). I contacted the Gro-Net company and the salesman was on vacation. But he's supposed to get back to me soon. It looks like their product is not yet available in the US. 

I'm not aware of any other insect netting material in the US that is specifically made for garden applications. I am curious to know if anyone reading this knows of other products. Or, do you have personal experience with any of the products I've discussed here?

There appears to be an opportunity in this country for someone to come up with a product on par with the UK Enviromesh. That is to say, a UV stabilized woven polypropylene that is made to last for a decade or more.

In an upcoming post I will tell you about a new approach to gardening that I'll be trying next year. And I'll show you the different netting materials on some hooped cloches.

For more information on this topic, please see my blog post titled, Everything You Need To Know About Enviromesh Insect Netting.

Whizbang Pocket Cultivators
On Sale Now
(Limited Supply)

Dateline: 23 March 2017

If you have read my blog writings for awhile and/or you have read my Planet Whizbang Idea Book For Gardeners, you already know all about the Whizbang Pocket Cultivator. I call it a pocket cultivator because it fits in your pocket, like this...

A lot of people, upon first seeing the pocket cultivator say, "That's just a fork!" Well, they just don't understand.

It was a fork, but after it is cut to length and a bulbous taped end is created, the fork becomes a comfortable tool for stirring the soil around plants in your garden. I almost never go to my garden during the growing season without my pocket cultivator. The tool will be especially useful with my Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden this year.

As an entrepreneurial experiment, I have made a limited number of Whizbang Pocket Cultivators like you see in the picture above. By limited, I mean I made only ten of them. They are for sale here, first come first served, until they are gone.

These pocket cultivators are Deluxe versions for two reasons. First, they are made from vintage silverplate forks that I bought at an antique store last summer. There was a box with hundreds of pieces of old silverware and I sorted through them all to get the ten forks-to-pocket-cultivators that I'm selling here.

It so happens that some old forks are really heavy duty. Not all old forks—just some. And these ten forks were exceptionally strong. After getting them, and making the ten pocket cultivators I'm selling here, I figured I would just find some more vintage forks on Ebay with the same manufacturer's name and buy them. So that's what I did. And I was profoundly disappointed to find that they were not nearly as strong. So they are not going to be pocket cultivators.

If I make these pocket cultivators again, it will be only with vintage forks I've found in antique shops, and have had a chance to see just how strong they are.

That said, please keep in mind that if you buy one of these Limited Edition, first production run Whizbang pocket cultivators, you should not use them to dig potatoes in clay soil, or anything like that. You can dig somewhat with them but if you do so, you should grasp the fork down close to the tines so the handle-to-tine connection doesn't bend. These vintage forks are strong, and they will serve you faithfully for many years (as long as you don't lose them), but they will bend if you put a LOT of bending stress on them. The primary function of these little cultivators is to stir the soil surface, snag little weeds up close to your vegetable plantings, and make shallow planting pockets in the soil. They'll smoosh bugs too.

The second reason these pocket cultivators are Deluxe is that I've double-dipped them in Plasti-Dip. So they're even more comfortable than cultivators with ends that are just tape-wrapped. They're also easier to find with the bright red color. I don't know how long the Plasti-Dip coating will last, but it's pretty tough, and even if it eventually wears off, the tool will still be perfectly functional. Here's another picture showing a couple of the Deluxe pocket cultivators I'm selling…

Every pocket cultivator is a little different. The forks themselves are different, and the hand-wrapped, hand-dipped handles are different. That's because the handles are carefully hand-crafted by yours truly. There isn't a doubt in my mind that you will appreciate this unique gardening tool.

The price is $21.95 each, and that includes first class postage to any US address. I hope to make more of these for next spring, but these ten pocket cultivators are the only ten I have for now.

UPDATE 3/26: All the Pocket Cultivators are sold. Thank you.

Back-To-Eden Gardening
(Part 4)

Dateline: 22 March 2017

This is maximum productivity in an 18" diameter minibed-on-plastic! These little beds (mulched with lawn clippings) were forerunners of my wood-framed, 30" x 30" Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening idea.

My previous essay in this series explained that there is no more effective weed suppressing garden mulch than black plastic. That’s why black plastic mulch has become so popular with so many growers. 

Granted, it's an artificial cover, but a cover nonetheless, and it provides the benefits of a soil cover without the need to import large amounts of natural biomass (i.e., wood chips, straw, hay). The larger a garden is, the more biomass you need for mulch. Black plastic mulch is a biomimetic solution.

But there are a couple of discouraging drawbacks to black plastic mulch. First, wind will lift and displace it unless it is somehow secured, and typical hold-down techniques are a bother. Besides that, they often don’t work with complete satisfaction. This matter of wind-lift and hold-down is exacerbated by the fact that the vast majority of black plastic applications use long, relatively narrow strips of the material. Four foot wide plastic is typical.

In the Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening system, wind lift is NOT a problem. That’s because a single large sheet of black plastic is used and it is securely weighted down by numerous, precisely-spaced minibed frames. 

For example, my Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden was made with a 24’ x 44’ sheet of plastic and it has 45 minibeds. The perimeter of the single large sheet is secured by burying the edges in a shallow trench, weighting them down, or pinning them in place. I’m using a combination of all three methods.

The reliability of the Minibeds-on-Plastic approach to plastic hold-down proved itself here (upstate New York) in the 2017 experimental garden last month. We had a February thaw. My whole garden was bare, and there was a significant wind storm. The wind lifted several sheets of sheet-metal-roofing that I use in part of my garden to mulch a walkway. The metal has been in place for years with no problem. But the big winds lifted and tossed the metal sheets. The wind also displaced several weighted-down plastic sheets I was using for occultation covers on some long raised beds.

However, my Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden, which is right next to the sheet-metal walkway, was totally unaffected by the winds. It was a true test that the experimental garden easily passed, and I was well-pleased to see it.

The other common problem with black plastic mulches is that they are thin and only made to last for one season. So, if you use the long strips, you have to pull them up and dispose of them every year. That’s a hassle.

But with the Minibeds-on-Plastic approach, the large plastic sheet stays in place for several years. Eventually, the plastic will need to be replaced, but if a thick, UV resistant plastic is used, it should last. I’ll be evaluating the longevity of the 6mil, UV resistant bunker cover I’m currently using. I hope to get at least three years of useful life from the material. 

Tom Dolye, the man who inspired me to eventually develop my Minibeds-on-Plastic garden, used a single, large sheet of specially formulated black plastic that reportedly lasted for decades. Perhaps the inexpensive, recycled billboard plastic tarps, which seem to be more durable than the 6-mil bunker cover, will last that long. I plan to establish a small Minibeds-on-Billboard-Tarp garden this spring.

 Biomass With 

The only real drawback I can see when using black plastic as a garden mulch is that it does not feed the soil and soil biology, like a natural mulch does. But with my Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening system (which, I should add, is still in the experimental stage) each 30” x 30” minibed will will have a natural mulch for soil cover. 

My intention is to use shredded leaves for minibed mulching. But I will also be using mulching materials from aboveground biomass that I harvest from some of the minibeds, which brings me to an important aspect of the whole system I want to create…

I will be planting different cover crops into the beds in order to establish root biomass. The root mass of some cover crops far exceeds their aboveground biomass. I will focus on maintaining a steady, rotating supply of different root biomass into each minibed.

I once heard Elaine Ingam say that “massive aboveground biomass is biomass in the wrong place.” She said that because roots, live and dead, feed the soil biology in a very tangible way—especially if those roots are in a no-till garden bed. And those roots will extend into the soil well beyond the perimeter of each minibed.

No-Till Minibeds

The mention of no-till gardening brings me to the the other important aspect of my Minibeds-on-Plastic garden system… I will not be digging the soil in the minibeds. There will be shallow cultivating occasionally, and minimal disturbance when transplanting, but no tilling, no double-digging, no turning of the soil. All plant roots will be left in place (unless, of course, they are part of my harvested crop).

I’ll admit that leaving plant roots in place is contrary to everything I have done in my garden over the decades. I want to pull up every plant and prepare the soil bed so it is neat and clean. But last year I resisted the urge in a couple of raised beds elsewhere in my garden. Instead of pulling and cultivating the soil after I grew a crop, I just cut the old plants off at ground level, and planted the next crop beside the old plants. It worked just fine. Here are some pictures showing what I did in one garden bed (not a minibed)... 

As I recall, this garden bed was planted to spinach. When the spinach crop went by, I cut the spinach plants at ground level and planted three rows of peas, without cultivating the soil. Once the peas were up, I shallow-cultivated the bed to eliminate weedlings, and mulched with shredded leaves, as you can see in this picture.

When it came time to plant garlic in the bed, I cut off the pea plants, leaving the roots in the soil. This picture shows a couple of roots I pulled up to see if there were many nitrogen-fixing nodules... and there were!

In this picture you can see that I am planting garlic into the bed. The soil is undisturbed except for the holes I made to plant each garlic clove. If any pea roots were in the way of my planting spaces, I removed them. The soil in the bed had beautiful tilth. After planting the cloves, I mulched the bed with a heavy cover of shredded leaves. That bed is now covered with snow.

The objective with this no-till approach is not to save work (though it does save work), but to preserve soil structure and inflict minimal damage to soil life. It is the biology in the soil that feeds plants. We need to preserve and promote that soil life. No-till gardening does that in a profound way. If you have not yet watched the Ray Archuleta series on soil health, Click Here Now and watch it. After watching that series, you will understand the importance of no-till.

So, my point is that the soil directly under and adjacent to every minibed is going to be husbanded with an eye towards soil health. There is more that I could write about this, including the importance of oxygen in the soil, and how a plastic mulch actually contributes to the proliferation of oxygen in the underlying soil. 

I know that sounds backwards but it's in my Minibeds-on-Plastic Report, which goes into some depth explaining Tom Doyle’s thoughts on “oxygen fertilization.” The first time I read it, I thought Mr. Doyle was promoting a nutty concept. But he was onto something. 

I recently heard soil-health advocate Jerry Brunetti say on a YouTube presentation that "oxygen in the soil is the number-one fertilizer." The Minibeds Report also goes into some depth discussing Tom Doyle’s experience of never needing to water his plastic-covered garden. 

Oh, one last thought… When growing a cover crop in the minibeds, the aboveground biomass can be cut up and used as a natural mulch in the beds. Or, it can be composted. Or, it can be spread over the black plastic as a cooling cover in the hotter months. 

If a mature cover crop in a minibed is so dense on the surface that it’s not possible to plant the next crop into it (or if the topgrowth needs to be severed from the roots to stop the cover crop from growing), my plan is to harvest the cover crop low, then slice the dense mat of stem and root vegetation into manageable sections with an old knife. Then I'll cut the plants just below the surface and flip the biomass over to use it as a mulch layer (the aboveground biomass will never be tilled into the bed). This kind of operation would be tedious on a large scale, but it will be much simpler in a minibed.

And this is a good place to end this series of essays. As you can see, Minibeds-on-Plastic is an integrated system of gardening that is very manageable. It allows for focused attention on a diversity of garden crops in small growing plots (as opposed to the whole garden) with the goal of high-culture and maximum productivity. 

Manageability, efficiency, and productivity is what will result in maximum satisfaction. That's my "theory" with Minibeds-on-Plastic. The upcoming 2017 Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden will prove the validity of my gardening system.... or not.


to go back to Part 1 of this series

Back To Eden Gardening
(Part 3)

Dateline: 21 March 2017

The 2017 Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden in late 2016.

In Part 1 of this series I introduced you to Paul Gatuschi and his the Back To Eden gardening. In Part 2 I provided some insights into his system of gardening. This essay I will begin to look at similarities and differences between my Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening system and the Back To Eden system.

First, and foremost, there is the matter of covering the soil, a.k.a., mulching. This is fundamental to Back To Eden gardening, and it is fundamental to Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening. The difference is that Back To Eden gardening is known for promoting the idea of using wood chips for a soil cover (but in more recent interviews, Paul Gautschi says that the mulch doesn’t have to be wood chips. It can be whatever you have—even rocks), while the Minibeds-on-Plastic system utilizes a single, large, thick sheet of black plastic. 

The whole point of any mulch is to protect the soil—to keep it from drying out, to reduce compaction, to promote biological activity, and to suppress weeds. Mulch is important, especially with a no-till gardening approach, which is also common to Back To Eden and Minibeds-on-Plastic.

Specifically, the suppression of weeds is the biggest and  most desired benefit in many gardener's minds. This is especially the case if they have some experience gardening. 

Unwanted weeds will, obviously, rob your garden plantings of soil moisture, soil nutrients, underground root space, and aboveground access to sunlight. As a rule, vegetables do not suppress weeds, the weeds suppress vegetables. 

My experience has been that natural mulches like wood chips will suppress a LOT of weeds in the garden, but they never suppress all the weeds. Black plastic mulch, however, will suppress ALL the weeds in the area it covers. Not some. Not a lot. All. That’s a powerfully endearing quality.

In the book, Teaming With Microbes, Jeff Lowenfels states in the first paragraph of his chapter on mulches that “black plastic sheeting makes great mulch.”  Then he goes on to ignore black plastic as a mulch and focuses on natural mulches. This is the usual bias among people who garden organically or naturally (it was my bias for more than 30 years of gardening). 

The exception to black plastic mulch bias is a great many organic market gardeners and small farmers. They have seen the enormous benefit of using a black plastic mulch, and this has been the case for decades.

While many organic food producers don’t like to use black plastic, they know how well it works for them. They have to be pragmatic about black plastic. They have to take into account success and production. It’s much easier to have a successful garden when you have virtually no weeds to deal with. 

Even the Rodale Institute, progenitor of the American organic movement, admits (In their 2014 report, Beyond Black Plastic) that black plastic mulch is a totally effective mulch…

“Black plastic very effectively prevents plants from growing in the areas it covers. Compared to growing vegetables in bare soil, using black plastic greatly reduces the need for other forms of weed control, be it herbicide application, cultivation, or labor-intensive hand weeding. Another perk of using black plastic is that it warms the soil, in some cases allowing for earlier planting. For these reasons, black plastic has grown in popularity over the last 50 years.”

Among the drawbacks to using black plastic mulch, the Rodale report notes that plastic is inherently unsustainable and difficult to recycle.

Fair enough. But plastic is also ubiquitous these days, and its use can be as easily justified as it can be condemned. My justification is that, in the form of a black sheet in my garden, plastic allows me to achieve a measure of plant yield, overall success, and personal satisfaction that I can not otherwise get (considering the time I have for gardening, and my overall physical ability). 

Besides that, I sided my house with wood instead of plastic, I never drink soda (no plastic soda bottles), and I frequently refuse to take a plastic bag for small purchases. (“I don’t need the bag, thanks. Save a tree!” is my standard reply—which gives you an idea of how long I’ve been ecologically minded). So, I reckon I’m eligible for some sort of moral offset when it comes to the oft perceived “sin” of using plastic mulch in my garden.

Another problem with black plastic mulch in the Rodale report is a concern about microbial stress, suggesting that excess heat in the summer may destroy fungal activity in the soil under the plastic and promote a preponderance of bacterial activity, to the detriment of the plants being grown in the plastic. Here’s what the Rodale report says in the summary…

“The maximum soil temperatures in the black plastic treatments averaged 5.8 °F higher than the rolled and mowed [organic mulch] treatments in June, 4.0 °F in July, 2.0 °F in September, and 0.5 °F in October. Minimum soil temperatures in 2012 were higher in the black plastic treatment in June and July by roughly 2 °F.”

Hmmm. Those temperature differences are actually less than I would have thought. Are they enough to ruin the soil biology under the plastic? I don’t really know. The Rodale study did not look at soil biology. They only suggested that the soil biology may be negatively affected. I wish they had taken a closer look at that aspect.

And how deep were those temperature readings made? I can’t find that in the report. Was it at the soil surface? Down one inch? Down 2 inches?  It seems like depth would make a difference.  Is the soil biology devastated by such heat, or it merely inconvenienced and temporarily set back in certain areas of the mulched soil? 

Based on my past experience using black plastic mulch, I have a feeling that the temperature under the plastic is not going to be a big issue. But this is something I plan to test in my 2017 experimental garden.

The bottom line here is that black plastic is an incredibly effective garden mulch. The only real drawback I can think of at this time is the absence of aboveground biomass, and the soil benefits that come from such biomass. But Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening (as I  am pursuing it) does not ignore biomass and soil biology. Not at all. 

I’ll discuss those things in the next (and final) installment of this series. 

And I’ll also discuss how Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening is not your typical black plastic gardening concept because it has NONE of the common complaints that gardeners who use black plastic usually have.


to go to Part 4 of this series

Back-to-Eden Gardening
(Part 2)

Dateline: 19 March 2017

Paul Gautschi
(photo link)

In Part 1 of this series I introduced the Back to Eden gardening system, which is so popular that it really doesn’t need much of an introduction to most informed gardeners. And I wrote about the remarkable Paul Gautschi, who is such a compelling spokesman for Back to Eden gardening. 

My recommendation is that if you like the Back to Eden wood-chip-mulched gardening idea, then you should give it a try. The benefits of covering soil with a natural mulch, and never tilling the underlying  soil are undeniable. 

But I also recommend that you try it on a small scale first. That is my recommendation with any new gardening concept. Dip your toe in the water before you jump in.  

I think it is important to point out that when it comes to gardening, one size doesn’t fit all. Which is to say, every garden and every gardener’s personal situation is different. Soil types vary. Growing climates vary. Land availability for gardening varies. The gardener’s capacity for physical work varies. His or her time for gardening varies. Financial resources for gardening vary. And the desired outcome will also vary. 

For example, some people want to feed a large family and put up lots of food, while others (like me) are more focused on growing so that only two people (my wife and I) can eat fresh from the garden every day, as long as possible, while preserving smaller amounts of food for out-of season eating.

Furthermore, please remember that successful gardening is really more of a journey than it is a destination. No one ever finds total gardening success the first time they plant a garden. And even those who have gardened for decades have their share of yearly failures. 

One of the attributes of a successful gardener is that they are continually experimenting, continually evaluating, and continually refining their own particular approach to gardening.

That said, around 15 years ago, I experimented with wood-chip mulch in my garden. I had the wood-chip mulch for maybe three years. My experience was that the wood chips reduced weeds, kept soil moist, and were an ideal environment for slugs to live, breed, and hide during the daytime. The slugs made nightly forays into my crops and inflicted considerable damage. It was very discouraging, to say the least. 

When I finally raked out the wood-chip mulch, slug damage dropped to tolerable levels. Some years later, when I tried mulching with black plastic, slug damage became almost non-existent.

I once had the opportunity to personally ask Lee Reich, author of the book, Weedless Gardening, about slug damage in his wood-chip-mulched gardens. He told me that slugs were not a problem for him. I have listened to numerous YouTube videos with Paul Gautschi, and slugs are not mentioned. I don’t see slug damage on his plants.

Eliot Coleman (who does not, as far as I know, use the Back to Eden approach to gardening) says in his books that ducks are the best solution for slugs in the garden. I had a couple of ducks once. They were a lot of fun to watch. Unfortunately, I didn’t have them when I had wood mulch in my garden. Besides that, some sort of wild critter ate both ducks. But I digress.

So it is that I had what I consider to be a bad experience with wood-chip mulch in my garden. Nevertheless, I still think wood-chip mulch is a great idea (though not for my own vegetable garden) because, as I noted above, it is a soil cover ("armor" is the word often used) and it eliminates the soil disturbance common to traditional gardening. I am convinced more than ever that covering the soil and not-tilling are beneficial and desirable for ultimate soil and plant health in any home garden.

Now, after watching more videos about Paul Gautschi and his wood-chip-mulched gardens (This Video in particular), I’ve come to realize that Paul’s primary use of wood-chips-only as a mulch is in his orchard, around various other trees and bushes, and in his herb garden. In his asparagus bed too. But he takes a somewhat different approach in his vegetable garden. I’ll discuss this different approach below. 

Before that, let me say that I’m totally persuaded that wood chips (ramial wood chips in particular) are a perfectly ideal mulch for trees and bushes, and herb gardens (slugs don’t like most herbs). This is, after all, a widely accepted understanding in the horticultural world.

What I’d like to do now is list numerous anecdotes about Paul Gautschi’s approach to vegetable gardening. An anecdotal list is necessary because it’s difficult to fully grasp his gardening system from the Back to Eden documentary, and his subsequent YouTube interviews 

You have to listen carefully to the videos to pick out specifics, and sometimes the specifics change. Visitors will often ask questions of Paul and his answers are not always clear or to the point. 

This vagueness may be due in part to an evolution of Paul's methods of gardening. His system is not precisely fixed. This is understandable. All successful gardeners are, as I noted earlier in this essay, continually modifying their gardening techniques from season to season. That said, here are some current observations, along with a few of my own experiences and opinions…

—Paul has a very large area of land under wood chips. It takes an enormous amount of wood chips to cover that amount of ground, and a lot of work to spread it around. Then, it takes more truckloads of chips to continually add to the mulch as it decomposes.Wood-chips can decompose surprisingly fast.

—A wood chip mulch does not smother out all weed growth. Paul has weeds in his garden. The mulch reduces the amount of weeds, and any weeds that grow are more easily removed (by pulling).

—In Paul's book, Growing Food God's Way, ramial wood chips are recommended for mulching. Ramial chips are made from living wood (having leaves or needles) that is less than 3” in diameter. Shredded bark, sawdust, or wood chips from large, dead wood are not recommended.

—Paul recommends that people use a 4” layer of wood chips to establish their garden. A layer of newspapers underneath is a good idea. However, if you are not using newspapers, and you are establishing a garden over sod, Paul recommends an 8” layer of wood chips.

—Paul has a plot of land separate from his homestead where he established a wood-chip-mulched garden over well-established quack grass. He says a 12” layer of wood chips smothered the quack grass. 

—Quack grass rhizomes thrived in the wood-chip mulch I used in my garden years ago. They infiltrated and migrated throughout the garden like never before. But I don’t think I had more than a 4” depth of chips to start (and that level dropped a lot as the chips decomposed).

—A 12” layer of wood chips is probably just fine for tree and shrub plantings, but it would be awkward with a vegetable garden. That’s because seeds and transplants are not planted in the wood chips, they are planted in the soil under the wood chips. The chips must be moved aside some when planting.

—Paul’s 2016 vegetable garden was not covered with wood chips. It may have been covered with wood chips years ago (the Back to Eden film came out in 2011) but it doesn’t appear that any wood chips have been added since then.

—Instead of wood chips, Paul’s vegetable garden is now covered with what I would describe as chicken-scratch-compost. It is a mixture of horse-manure-and-wood-shavings that he adds to his chicken house and lets the chickens scratch through for a few months. In addition to that, he throws all his garden and yard waste into the chicken yard for the chickens to eat, scratch through, mix up, and add their droppings to. The semi-composted accumulation is then sifted through 1/2” hardware cloth and spread over the garden. Paul has around 30 chickens.

—I’m very familiar with chicken-scratch-compost. Years back, when I grew a LOT of garlic on my neighbor’s land, I used a handful of my own, sifted chicken-scratch-compost in each garlic bulb planting spot. I grew gorgeous garlic. Every bulb I pulled up at harvest time had at least one earthworm in the soil round the roots. Chicken-scratch-compost is good fertilizer.

—Paul is wary of using manures and other organic mulches because of the herbicides and other chemicals they may contain. He says those concerns do not apply to wood chips.

—Wood-chip mulch is never tilled into the ground. If the chips stay on top of the ground, they promote biological activity and health in the underlying soil, and they do not rob the soil of nitrogen that your garden plantings need. 

—Paul says that if someone wants to add additional fertilizer to their wood-chip-mulched garden, they can spread blood meal on the ground before the wood chips. He has also spread ashes from his wood stove over the wood chip mulch.

—Paul asserts that when it rains, the water flowing through the mulch covering creates a “compost tea” that flows down into the soil. Thus, there is no need for ever making something like compost tea as a separate amendment.

—In an interview with Dr. Mercola, Paul says that people should use whatever they have access to for a garden mulch. It doesn’t have to be wood chips. He suggests that even rocks can make a good garden mulch, and he says that Japanese gardeners mulch with rocks.

—Back in the 1970s and early 1980s I was an avid reader of Organic Gardening magazine. There were frequent articles on the subject of mulching with rocks. So, as a teenage gardener, I once used a lot of flat rocks to mulch between some rows of onions. Weeds grew up between the rocks, and were hard to remove. A later article in the magazine presented a better rock-mulch idea… instead of a single layer of flat rocks, use a double layer to better shade the soil. I never tried that, but it makes more sense (I might just revisit that idea one of these days).

—Paul uses a string line to lay out straight rows in his vegetable garden. He then uses an iron rake to scrape a shallow furrow in his chicken-scratch-compost mulch, and he plants seeds into the soil at the bottom of the furrow. 

—He spaces his garden rows 36” apart. They are all flat-ground plantings. No raised beds. Paul says that raised beds dry out.

—His 36” row spacings and the plant spacings in his herb garden are much greater than many popular gardening systems suggest (i.e., square-foot gardening). But these plant spacings are, undoubtedly, an integral part of the success of his garden. When plants have lots of root space, they grow better, especially in a low-rainfall climate. This is explained very well by Steve Solomon in his books, Gardening When it Counts (one of my favorite gardening books) and Gardening Without Irrigation.

—Paul’s vegetable garden is in full sun. And his region is known for getting a lot of sunlight (little cloud cover). This is always a good thing for a garden!

You can go to YouTube and find stories of Back to Eden gardening failures. And, on the other hand, you can find stories of success using wood chips as a heavy garden mulch. 

If you are an experienced gardener, and you look at some of the YouTube examples of Back To Eden gardening that are presented as a success, you might think to yourself that it doesn't look as successful as your own garden, which isn't mulched with a lot of wood chips. That has been my own observation.

The bottom line here is that gardening in a wood-chip-mulched garden does work really well. And gardening in a wood-chip-mulched garden doesn't work really well. The final outcome of the Back to Eden method will depend on a lot of variables.

In the next part of this 3-part series, I will compare my Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening idea with the Back to Eden approach. There are similarities and differences. My objective is not to present my idea as superior to Back to Eden gardening. But I do think it presents a more manageable gardening concept, that can be very productive and satisfying for some gardeners in some gardening situations.


to go to Part 3 of this series