Paul Gautschi is a rebel in the garden. He breaks most of the gardening “rules” you’ve ever known, yet he produces lush, abundant harvests that are as sweet and juicy as anything you’ve ever tasted.
He doesn’t fertilize, rarely waters, and doesn’t till his soil or rotate crops. He never has issues with bugs and his weeds are easy to pull. His most pressing problem in the garden is growing too much food and figuring out what to do with it.
Paul’s unconventional style has garnered attention thanks to a documentary called Back to Eden. (You can watch it for free at backtoedenfilm.com). The film takes you to Paul’s home garden in Sequim, WA, and shows you first-hand the success he has by breaking traditional gardening rules.
He’ll tell you how he constantly does things that aren’t supposed to work just to prove the experts wrong. I have visited his home twice over the years, and can stand witness to the simplicity, low-maintenance, and sweet taste of his garden.
So, what’s his secret? It’s all about the covering. Every inch of Paul’s garden is covered in a layer of woodchips. He never mixes the woodchips with the soil, though, or else the chips would leach nitrogen from the soil. He simply layers the woodchips on top of the garden.
As time passes, the chips decompose and feed the earth with minerals. Instead of the soil being depleted at the end of the season, the woodchips ensure the soil is constantly being fed and renewed. The covering creates rich, healthy soil, which in turn creates healthy, vibrant plants.
Even though Paul’s technique might sound counterintuitive at first, his principles work in harmony with nature instead of against it. All you have to do is walk into the forest to see these principles at work. No one waters or fertilizes the forest. No one goes in and tills the soil or rotates the crops. Yet the forest is always flush with greenery. If you take a look around, you’ll notice the forest floor is covered in leaves and needles.
The dirt is covered, not bare, and this covering is continuously composting. Every time it rains, water runs through this compost and feeds the earth with rich compost tea. Since the soil hasn’t been tilled, thousand-year-old microbial colonies are intact and able to use the nutrients from the tea to feed the plants through a vast underground network of hyphae.
Paul’s woodchips do much more than fertilize the garden. When used as mulch, they effectively conserve moisture in the soil so that you rarely need to water. The woodchips themselves retain moisture and release it to the soil as needed. Paul hasn’t watered his garden in 34 years. If you dig in the dirt underneath a layer of woodchips, the soil is always slightly damp.
The soil beneath woodchips is also always loose, soft, and well-oxygenated—an ideal medium for just about any plant to grow. When the soil is covered by woodchips, you could drive a loaded truck over your garden and the soil will not compact. Because the woodchips prevent the soil from compacting, there is no need to till.
Tilling is harmful to the beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil. These beneficials create an intricate underground colony of webs that can travel for miles. If there are no nutrients available in the immediate area, these networks can find nutrients further out to take back to their host plant. However, when you destroy these networks by tilling, your plants become solely dependent on the fertilizers you give them.
This rich, loose soil also makes for easy weeding. Pulling weeds in a garden with bare soil is hard physical labor. More often than not, you need to use tools to dig the weeds out of the earth. But when the soil is covered and not compacted, weeds come out easily without the help of tools. It almost becomes an enjoyable task.
Paul’s homegrown food is sweeter and juicier than anything you will ever taste from the grocery store. Paul will tell you that God gave you taste buds to tell you how nutritious your food is; the sweeter it is, the more minerals it has, and the better it is for you.
Since Paul’s soil is constantly being replenished with minerals, his crops are nutrient-dense, sweet, and juicy. When he tested the nutrient levels in his soil, just to make sure, and his results were off the charts.
“Listen to these numbers,” Paul says. “On the test, you get two lines: the desired level that you want and your lab results. The nitrates: the desired level was 40; my lab result was 120. Phosphorous, the desired level is 174; mine is 2,345. Potassium, the desired level is 167; mine is 1,154. Coming down to the smaller numbers: Zinc, the desired level is 1.6; mine 21.5. What I love about this is [that] I didn’t do anything.”
These high nutrient levels may explain why he never has to deal with pests. Paul claims that most bugs only attack unhealthy plants. Since his soil is healthy, he says, his plants are healthy.
Paul’s garden is also a completely enclosed system. He doesn’t need to buy anything as everything he needs is free. The system begins at his soil manufacturing plant: the chicken coop. His chickens eat yard waste and scraps from the garden. They constantly scratch and mix the composting materials with their own droppings. The result is rich, truly organic compost for the garden. Plus, they give Paul plenty of eggs.
In the fall, Paul will screen the compost over his wheelbarrow and then spread a layer over his garden. He does this in the fall so that a fresh layer of compost feeds and builds the soil over the winter months, just how nature likes to do it. Every time it rains or snows, the ground receives more compost tea. In the spring, the soil is ready to go.
That’s not to say he doesn’t grow in the winter. He eats carrots, beets, kale, potatoes, rutabagas, and turnips from his garden throughout the winter months, without so much as a row cover. That’s another perk of woodchips: they keep the soil insulated. The frost doesn’t kill the root vegetables unless they are exposed, but it does draw out the plants’ sugars. This is why Paul claims his winter carrots are sweeter than his summer carrots.
Paul gets his woodchips from local tree companies who need to get rid of the chips from their jobs. Their trash is Paul’s treasure.
Starting a garden like Paul’s is simple to do. Cover your designated garden space with a few layers of newspaper to smother the grass. Spread out three to four inches of compost, and then layer two to four inches of woodchips on top of the compost. If you can’t get your hands on woodchips, don’t worry, look around your yard to see what you have readily available. Fallen leaves can be shredded and used as mulch. You can even use rocks.
“Wherever you live, there’s something in nature that you can use to cover the ground with,” Paul says. “If you have nothing but rocks, they make a great cover. You can grow wonderful gardens in rocks because rocks are minerals and they hold moisture.”
It’s best to build your garden in the fall and let it sit over the winter to use the following spring, but you can start the plot in the spring and plant by fall for a winter crop. When you do start growing, be sure not to plant directly in the woodchips. Move the chips aside and plant in the soil, then recover with the chips.
Remember that time is your friend with this type of garden. You may need to use a little blood meal or fish emulsion the first couple of years until your soil rebuilds; however, as the years pass, you eventually won’t need to fertilize at all. Your soil will only get richer and your produce will only get sweeter.