Back to Eden Gardening

Cultivate your own piece of paradise by introducing some lush disorder into your back to Eden garden.

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by William Rubel
The author’s garden in fall. Note the towering kale trees and sunflower stalks.

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What is Back to Eden Gardening?

Back to Eden gardening is gardening in harmony with nature, a place of meandering paths along which we gather food for our dinner. My definition of Eden is also a garden without rows – a friendly wilderness without an obvious plan.

In contrast, our vegetable gardens and farms focus almost entirely on being friendly to humans, while excluding much of the natural world. Traditional gardens have implied boundary walls and are organized around a short list of plants that are OK, and a long list of plants that aren’t OK. Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher, farmed beans while staying in a cabin on Walden Pond in the 1840s. After a year of assiduously ripping out every weed, he started thinking that it might be a good idea to plant for nature, too, by allotting a portion of his land to the birds and bees.

Nearly two centuries later, the consequence of humans thinking mostly about ourselves has brought us to a planetary climate crisis. Now, many of us are asking, “What can I do?” One thing is to create gardens that draw inspiration from the story of Eden. For me, that means planting a vegetable garden that looks more like a flower garden than a farm, and to allow some wild plants to thrive in my plot.

Rethinking Weeds

Domesticated vegetables are slow to flower and, anyway, we usually harvest them before they do. Weeds, on the other hand, flower quickly. (This includes the wild forms of our domesticated plants.) Flowering weeds support pollinators that are under stress from human activities. The weeds I recommend you get to know are dual-use plants – edible as well as pollinator friendly – and none are invasive.

For most of us, myself included, accepting weeds into our gardens means overcoming old habits and learning new things. You’ll need to develop skills at identifying plants and their traditional culinary uses. Exercise caution when using phone apps to put a name to unfamiliar plants, as some people have experienced misidentifications this way. Be sure to consult experienced foragers in your area, in person or via the many plant ID sites online (including Facebook). I’ve found Wikipedia to be helpful for descriptions of traditional culinary uses for weeds.

Many of us purposefully attract bees to our flower gardens through our choice of plants. My concept of an Edenic garden embraces two sources of flowers. One is common vegetables: Let at least one plant of each variety flower and seed. If onion, carrot, radish, chicory, and (my favorite) cilantro flowers are unfamiliar to you, then you’ll be in for many pleasant surprises! The bees will be pleased too. (For more on flowering vegetables, see my article “Life Cycle Gardening,” April/May 2019.) The second source of plants to support pollinator populations are weeds.

The weeds I accept in my back to Eden garden have a long tradition of culinary use for humans, and as forage for greens-loving rabbits and chickens, and they grow in harmony with domesticated vegetables. These so-called weeds are the wild lettuces and chicories, and wild plants such as nettle, common mallow, and dandelion that people have historically foraged in early spring. At first, using wild plants may mean adding only a few tender leaves to salads, and more robust leaves to soups and stews. But you’ll soon learn that tended wild plants in a back to Eden garden are larger and more tender-leaved than those growing in waste spaces.

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Before you can experiment with eating homegrown wild greens, you’ll need to plant a garden that nurtures them.

Back to Eden Garden Plan

My own yard is small and shady, so I grow vegetables in a community garden plot that’s 20-by-20-feet – a good size for anyone’s first-year Edenic garden.

Based on my experience, I offer this advice for creating your own plot. This garden design is made up of three sections: A 2-foot-wide outer bed for traditional row crops, an informal inner fence for vining plants, and an inner square – the Eden garden proper, planted more like a flower garden.

Outer bed

You’ll work the narrow outer bed in conventional ways, planting it in production vegetables. This 2-foot-wide bed will run along all four sides of the 20-by-20 garden, totaling approximately 160 square feet of planting space. Use the outer bed for traditional row crops – lettuce, potatoes, garlic, carrots, beets – as well as any specialty crop you want to produce in quantity, such as lots of basil for putting up jars of pesto. A single 20-foot-long side of the outer bed can yield 150 to 200 pounds of potatoes. This space lends itself to the square-foot gardening system. If you want to plant corn, I recommend widening the bed on the north-facing side of the square so the stalks won’t shade the other plants.

Inner fence

Artists often depict the biblical Eden surrounded by a fence. Happily, a fence in your home back to Eden garden will provide roughly 65 linear feet for vining plants – enough space for 400 pole beans planted 2 inches apart, 65 cucumbers 1 foot apart, or 32 vining tomatoes 2 feet apart. That’s a lot of space for a lot of plants. You should select a combination of species and cultivars and change plant types every few feet. In the spirit of Eden, this mix of fence-line plantings means harvesting will involve a bit of hunting: You might have to search for cucumbers hidden by bean plants.

Inner square

Focus on species and cultivar diversity, including select edible weeds. This space is the core garden, where you work out your personal Eden vision. If you’re able to start a garden from scratch, I suggest you begin by clearing the square, adding manure, and creating meandering paths. Then, build a savannah-like forest on 2/3 of the inner square by planting it in sunflowers and tall vegetables, such as tree kale (also known as tree collard) and Lacinato-type kale. These tall plants will provide the garden structure and, in hot climates, will cast valuable shade for sensitive plants below. Think of them as the chords that underpin jazz compositions.

Next, start adding other plants as the season advances. Place them almost without any kind of pattern, or in small groups of two or three plants as we gardeners do with flowers. The randomness and species diversity are what make this garden different. Try robust greens, such as escarole and chicory, and as many of whatever suits your palate and that will fit – parsley, cilantro, green onions, chives, tomatillo, cayenne pepper, strawberries, and more.

The magic happened in my garden around the fifth month, when the savannah of sunflowers and kales started maturing. Unprompted, other gardeners in the community garden began telling me they described my plot to friends as a “Garden of Eden.”

Curating Weeds

The aspect of back to Eden gardening that gives me the most pleasure is allowing useful weeds to grow. Cultivating weeds requires skills that most of us gardeners, myself included, don’t have – and it’s exciting and challenging to do something completely new.

I use a phone app for identification, and do follow-up research to learn how to use weed plants in my kitchen. You’ll need to develop the skill of identifying volunteer seedlings so you can decide which to nurture and which to “weed out.” You may also need to recognize the seedlings of vegetables you planted and allowed to set seed. Once you start curating weeds, the ones you keep will cease to be weeds!

A big surprise for me came when I began seeing my own garden as part of the community’s larger plant ecology. After identifying wild prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) and allowing it to grow in my garden, I suddenly recognized it everywhere. I even noticed a long patch of it where a bike path I use passes by a marble cutting yard at the edge of town.

Many of our pets love greens. Chickens and rabbits can both consume large piles of edible prunings and pulled weeds. A benefit of Edenic gardening is that you can also plan for your pets.

Pay close attention to discover their preferences. Chickens always love kale, but both my chickens and rabbits seem to have a special fondness for the common mallow (Malva neglecta), also known as buttonweed. This plant is a hollyhock relative, so you may recognize it when it appears in your garden. Parakeets have a distinct preference for tender lettuces, especially frisée.

Recording the Changes

I’ve fallen in love with my Edenic garden. It’s especially beautiful in the evening when the sun is low in the sky and its raking light makes many of the plants glow. And I love that my plot is so productive!

The garden and I are on a journey back to Eden gardening, and every big journey deserves a journal. I keep my journal by dictating into my phone while walking in the garden. Close observation enables us to improve our gardens the following year.

Especially useful for improving productivity is keeping track of how quickly radish, spinach, and other fast-growing crops reach maturity in different months. This helps us refine our succession planting schedules so we always have something to harvest. More profoundly, our climate and the growing seasons are changing. Recording when weeds and seedlings are ready to harvest will help you adjust the timing of your planting to fit what’s happening on the ground where you live. Your observations will be well in advance of any changes the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes to its Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Last year, I was able to advance my planting schedule by one month by observing mid-December nettle and lettuce seedlings in my garden.

William Rubel is the author of Bread: A Global History, and the founder of Stone Soup magazine. He writes for Mother Earth News on gardening, making bread, home distilling, and more. He lives in California with his daughter.