How To Plant Seeds in a Back to Eden Garden

This article teaches how to plant seeds directly into your soil or compost -- this is the layer directly underneath your wood chip mulch. Back to Eden Gardening is a no-till organic gardening technique that uses wood chips to regenerate the soil, grow healthy plants, and nutrient-dense food. Planting seeds in a wood chip mulched garden is easy and does not involve preparing the soil by tilling or digging. The goal is to temporarily pull back any coarse wood chips from the row where you are planting seeds to expose the soil beneath the wood chips.

Traditionally, gardeners dig, loosen, or turn over the top layer of soil before planting. Their intention is to eliminate weeds and make it easier to plant but it literally does the opposite causing more work and more weeds. Tilling the soil kills microbial life in the soil which makes farmers dependent on chemical fertilizers. Plus, tilling releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In stark contrast, wood chip gardening, no-till gardening, and cover crops keep the carbon cycle in balance. In fact, these growing practices actually sequester carbon in the soil. That is why we cannot recommend enough times to switch to wood chip gardening which eliminates the practice of tilling and the need for chemical fertilizers. 

 

RECOMMENDED HEIRLOOM, ORGANIC, NON-GMO SEED COMPANIES

We recommend planting heirloom, organic, Non-GMO seeds that have a high germination rate. Not only are you support farms that are practicing organic growing principles, the seeds will also be better adapted to organic growing conditions. Organic seeds are adapted to have natural occurring pest and disease resistance built into their DNA. Click here for our list of the 10 Best Seed Companies of 2021. Although these seed companies are excellent, we encourage you to research an heirloom, organic, Non-GMO seed company near you. A local seed company will advise you on what will grow best in your area and what plants are native to your region. Seeds that were grown and saved in your region are more adapted to your regional growing conditions and may have developed greater immunity to local plant diseases and pests. After you see what plant varieties grow best and which produce you prefer to eat, save your seeds for future planting! Saving seeds from your own garden is the ultimate source of seeds.  

HOW TO PLANT SEEDS IN A WOOD CHIP GARDEN

First, when planting a row of seeds, temporarily pull back the wood chips from the surface to expose the soil underneath. “Exposing the soil” is a dirty phrase according to Back to Eden Gardening no-till principles. This is the only time you need your soil uncovered. Ideally, you want to expose a row of soil at least 4-6 inches wide. This is easy to do with a rake. The goal is to temporarily remove any coarse wood chips from the row you are planting and prevent wood chips from falling down on top of your seeds. Be careful the wood chip mulch mound isn't too high on either side or it may collapse on your row. It's fine if some fall back onto the exposed soil but a heavy layer could prevent seeds from germinating. You can press the wood chip mounds down in place to help ensure they don’t fall back into the rows. 

Take care to avoid disturbing the soil more than necessary. No matter how compact your soil is, do not till, hand rake, hoe, or hand dig into the soil to “break it up” or soften it. This is a job for the beneficial microbes living in your garden! Disturbance of the soil will always do more harm than good. 

PLANTING TIP: If you want to ensure your rows are straight, first place a bamboo or wooden garden stake at each end of your garden bed with jute twine tied onto each end. You can use this as a helpful guide for creating each of your rows in straight lines, moving it as you go. 

Second, you must plant seeds directly into your soil -- this is the layer directly underneath your wood chips that is fine, aerated, dark brown, spongy, organic matter. It is important for Back to Eden gardeners to understand that seeds need to be in contact with healthy soil in order to germinate and grow. Soil has the organic matter, nutrients, and microorganisms that enable plants to be healthy. Where your soil starts and the depth of your soil depends on the volume of wood chips you applied to the surface and how quickly the wood chips have decomposed. 

How do you plant seeds in a mulched garden?

No matter what type of mulch you use, you always want to plant seeds directly in the soil!!! Therefore, you plant seeds in a mulched garden the same way you do in any garden!

Plant Seeds in Vegetable Garden

Do I Need to Add Compost?

You may need to add compost if any of the following are true:

  1. Your native soil is severely compacted, marginal, or infertile.
  2. You just installed a Back to Eden Garden with fresh arborist wood chips. 
  3. Your wood chip mulch is thicker than 4-6 inches deep. 

How Do I Add Compost to a Wood Chip Garden?

When you are first installing a Back to Eden wood chip garden we recommend adding at least 4 inches of organic compost on top of the native soil. Then adding 4 inches of wood chips. After the first year you usually don't need to add compost again. Only continue to add wood chips. Your native soil will naturally become more fertile every year as the wood chips decompose. 

If you don't have enough compost to cover your entire garden, no worries! Just pull back the wood chips and add 4 inches compost directly into the trench where you are planting your seeds. It is helpful to add a layer of compost in your planting row trench to help the seeds receive better sunlight exposure and prevent the wood chips from burying your seeds. This give the plants a head start on getting established while the wood chips take their time to improve your native soil.

How Do I Plant Seeds in Compost?

Pull back the wood chips and sow seeds directly into the compost. You always want to plant seeds directly in the compost or the soil!!! 

PLANTING SEED DEPTH IN A WOOD CHIP GARDEN

Now that you understand the importance of planting seeds directly into the soil, here are some of the best ways to plant seeds. Using your thumb and index finger, plant your seeds in the soil at the recommended depth and spacing according to instructions on the seed packet. There are many specific considerations to follow when planting each variety of seed. The smallest seeds are often considered more difficult to germinate than larger seed varieties. It is crucial to not bury your seeds in thick wood chip mulch before they have had a chance to germinate. Small, tiny seeds will not sprout if they are buried in a thick layer of coarse wood chips. 

For surface sowing seeds, gently press down the soil to remove air pockets. Sprinkle the seeds directly on top of the surface of the soil and gently press the seeds into the soil. Careful and consistent watering techniques are vital to successfully germinate tiny seeds. Use a mist setting on your garden hose or sprinkler that enables your soil to get sufficiently moist. 

For seed planting depth anywhere from ⅛” to 2” we recommend using a rake to make a trench down the center of your row at the recommended depth. You can use a garden dibber, your finger, a pencil, or even a wood chip to create holes for deeper planting depths! 

PLANT SPACING IN A WOOD CHIP GARDEN

For row spacing, plant according to the seed packet spacing instructions since every type of plant requires different spacing between rows. Unlike a conventional garden, wood chips do not limit or control your row spacing in a wood chip garden. The soil in a wood chip garden is never compact. Therefore, you can walk between rows without compacting the soil. Wood chips are an excellent mulch to add to your walking paths and we highly recommend using them as such.

For seed spacing, we recommend sowing seeds a little thicker and closer together than is recommend on a seed packet. You can always thin the plants later to the optimal spacing between plants. The plants you remove can be transplanted into a new row or used to fill any gaps in the row. 

Planting Seeds Back to Eden Gardening

WATERING SEEDS IN A WOOD CHIP GARDEN

Water to germinate your seeds. Make sure any watering is done with a light shower or misting setting on your garden hose nozzle. You do not want to bury any tiny seeds.  Water your newly planted seeds every day until they germinate. Make sure the water filters through the surface of the soil to adequately moisten the soil several inches below the surface. Once the seeds have sprouted and developed stronger root systems you can water less or stop watering completely, depending on your regional climate. We highly recommend investing in a garden hose water filter that removes chlorine, pesticides, herbicides, VOCs, and other chemicals. 

Maintain the rows as needed until your plants are established. Check on your seed rows daily to monitor their growth. If you notice large, coarse wood chips debris has fallen into a section of your rows, gently remove the debris by hand to ensure the germination of your seed is not inhibited. Larger more hardy seed varieties like beans and squash will have an easier time pushing up through wood chip mulch than tiny, delicate seed varieties like lettuces, carrots, celery.

Lastly, once your seeds have sprouted and have grown at least several inches tall you can side-dress your plants with wood chips. Once the plants are somewhat established gently pull the wood chips back around the base of the plant being careful not to bury the plant or its stem too deeply. Do not complete this step until plants have had plenty of time to establish healthy leaves and strong root systems. 

PLANTING TIP: Radish seeds are the first seeds you should plant in your Back to Eden garden to test if the soil is ready for planting seeds. Radish seeds germinate quickly and both the color of the leaves and the health of the root help determine your soil quality. If the sprout comes up yellow, it is an indication that your soil is nitrogen deficient and you will need to add a layer of composted animal manure as fertilizer. If your radishes fail to produce a vegetable root but they still have a healthy top it is a clear sign your soil lacks potassium and phosphorus. You can amend your soil by adding wood ash (for potassium) or bone meal (for phosphorus). If the sprout is green and your radish root is red, your soil is healthy and you are ready to plant in your Back to Eden garden!

radish seeds

PROBLEMS PLANTING SEEDS IN WOOD CHIPS

The most common problems with planting seeds in wood chips usually has to do with the following issues: 

  1. Native Soil is Poor
  2. Wood Chips Are Too Deep
  3. No Compost Underneath Wood Chips
  4. Installing a Back to Eden Garden in the Spring

Thankfully, all of these problems can be remedied by adding compost and planting seeds directly in the compost! 

The traditional Back to Eden Garden instructions are to install your first year Back to Eden Garden in the Fall. First laying down a weed-suppressing paper on top of your soil and then adding wood chip mulch on top. In this case, the paper and wood chip mulch have sufficient time to naturally decompose over the winter while your veggie garden plot is assumed to be remaining dormant. After about a 3 month period of time during the winter, the paper layer will usually have completely disappeared and the wood chip mulch will have begun decomposing and improving the native soil, making it perfectly prepared for planting while you sit back and relax. 

If you are installing a first-year Back to Eden Garden in the Spring and want to plant your garden immediately you absolutely must add compost! We recommend compost from your compost bin, local compost facility, or any OMRI Listed compost for organic growing.

Can I Plant Seeds Under Wood Chip Mulch?

Do not plant seeds directly in or covered under a layer of fresh arborist wood chips that have just been applied to the soil surface! Fresh wood chips require time to decompose -- at least from Fall to Spring -- before the soil underneath the wood chip mulch is ready to plant. If you plant seeds directly into the top layer of fresh coarse wood chips, seeds will not have adequate growing conditions based on the following problems: 

  1. Seeds fall down too far from sunlight getting buried with coarse wood chips and may not germinate. 

  2. Seeds that may sprout will not have the soil needed for the plant roots to grow healthily.

Therefore, it is best to always plant directly in the soil beneath the wood chip mulch!

Do Wood Chips Kill Plants?

Probably the most common myth is that wood chips will rob nitrogen from the soil and plants. Nitrogen depletion is a temporary problem when fresh wood chips are tilled into the soil, which is why you should only use fresh chips as a surface mulch. 

It is another common myth that wood chips do not contain nutrients and that this is the reason why you should not plant directly into them. Wood chips do in fact provide a consistent slow release of nutrients to the soil, assisting not only plants but beneficial microbes as well. Microorganisms slowly decompose them releasing nutrients into the soil below that is accessible to the plant's roots. Fertile soil will ultimately grow healthy, resilient plants packed with nutrients. The soil food web is an incredibly complete and brilliant system. 

Click here to read our tips about the best wood chips to use in a garden!

WHEN TO PLANT SEEDS IN A WOOD CHIP GARDEN

For zone-specific seed planting instructions, we suggest using the Farmers' Almanac Vegetable Planting Calendar. The gardening experts at The Old Farmer's Almanac have done the homework for you! Their planting tool is personalized down to your zip code, pulling from a database of thousands of weather station reports, and using the "days until harvest" for the most popular vegetables grown in the home garden. Then, they determine when to sow indoors, transplant, and plant seeds outdoors based on what's best for each vegetable. The planting calendar will tell you the earliest dates to plant vegetables in the spring and the last dates that you can plant for a fall harvest, based on average frost dates for your location.

Planting Calendar

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2 comments

  • I start most of my seeds inside, between January, and March. I plant the plants into my garden in early spring, as soon as the soil has warmed. I plan to prepare my planting holes, with my special organic compost and manure, and plant directly into these prepared holes in my wood chips. I will let you know how my garden grows. :-)

    Blessings

    Franklin E. Tompkins Sr.
  • I start most of my seeds inside, between January, and March. I plant the plants into my garden in early spring, as soon as the soil has warmed. I plan to prepare my planting holes, with my special organic compost and manure, and plant directly into these prepared holes in my wood chips. I will let you know how my garden grows. :-)

    Blessings

    Franklin E. Tompkins Sr.

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