Ruth Stout's System for Gardening

How to use mulch to cut down on weeding and heavy labor in your garden using the Ruth Stout gardening method.


After you have mulched for a few years, your soil will become so rich from rotting vegetable matter that you can plant much more closely than one dares to in the old-fashioned way of gardening.

Photo courtesy Gardenworks

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 'Mulch Queen' Ruth Stout claimed to have smashed saloons with Carry Nation in Prohibition-era Kansas and worked au natural in her roadside Connecticut garden, but her labor-saving, soil-improving, permanent garden mulching technique is what earned her lasting fame. Stout was born in 1884 and lived to be 96; by the 1950s, she was writing lively gardening books, including How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back and Gardening Without Work. Both are out of print, but Stout's technique remains consistent with the "no-till" gardening methods soil experts recommend today (see Building Fertile Soil). We thought you might enjoy meeting Stout through this excerpt from Gardening Without Work, which was reprinted most recently by The Lyons Press. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS

My no-work gardening method is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both my vegetable and flower garden all year round. As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more. The labor-saving part of my system is that I never plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I use just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal), and I don't go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.

I beg everyone to start with a mulch 8 inches deep; otherwise, weeds may come through, and it would be a pity to be discouraged at the very start. But when I am asked how many bales (or tons) of hay are necessary to cover any given area, I can't answer from my own experience, for I gardened in this way for years before I had any idea of writing about it, and therefore didn't keep track of such details.

However, I now have some information on this from Dick Clemence, my A-Number-One adviser. He says, "I should think of 25 50-pound bales as about the minimum for 50 feet by 50 feet, or about a half-ton of loose hay. That should give a fair starting cover, but an equal quantity in reserve would be desirable." That is a better answer than the one I have been giving, which is: You need at least twice as much as you would think.

What Should I Use for Mulch?

Spoiled or regular hay, straw, leaves, pine needles, sawdust, weeds, garbage — any vegetable matter that rots.

Don't Some Leaves Decay Too Slowly?

No, they just remain mulch longer, which cuts down on labor. Don't they mat down? If so, it doesn't matter because they are between the rows of growing things and not on top of them. Can one use leaves without hay? Yes, but a combination of the two is better, I think.

What is spoiled hay? It's hay that for some reason isn't good enough to feed livestock. It may have, for instance, become moldy — if it was moist when put in the haymow — but it is just as effective for mulching as good hay, and a great deal cheaper.

Shouldn't the hay be chopped? Well, I don't have mine chopped and I don't have a terrible time — and I'm 76 and no stronger than the average person.

Can you use grass clippings? Yes, but unless you have a huge lawn or have neighbors who will collect them for you, they don't go very far.

How Do You Sow Seeds into the Mulch?

You plant exactly as you always have, in the Earth. You pull back the mulch and put the seeds in the ground and cover them just as you would if you had never heard of mulching.

Isn't It Bad to Mulch With Hay That May Be Full of Weed Seeds?

If the mulch is thick enough, the weeds can't come through it.

One man in a group I addressed was determined not to let me get away with claiming that it was all right to throw a lot of hay full of grass seeds on one's garden, and the rest of the audience was with him. I was getting nowhere and was bordering on desperation, when, finally, I asked him:

"If you were going to make a lawn, would you plant the grass seed and then cover it with several inches of hay?" Put that way, he at last realized that a lot of hay on top of tiny seeds would keep them from germinating.

However, it's true that you can lay chunks of baled hay between the rows of vegetables in your garden and, in a wet season, have a hearty growth of weeds right on top of the hay. To kill unwanted weeds all you need do is turn over the chunk of hay. Now, this isn't much of a job but some ardent disciples of my system are capable of getting indignant with me (in a nice way, of course) because they are put to that bother. I have relieved them of all plowing, hoeing, cultivating, weeding, watering, spraying and making compost piles; how is it that I haven't thought of some way to avoid this turning over of those chunks of hay?

How Can You Safely Plant Little Seeds Between 8-inch Walls of Mulch?

One can't, of course, but almost before one gets through spreading it, the mulch begins to settle and soon becomes a 2- or 3-inch compact mass rather than an 8-inch fluffy one. It will no doubt be walked on, and rain may come; in any case, it will settle. As a matter of fact you won't need 8 inches to start if you use solid chunks of baled hay.

Many People Want to Know Why I Don't Use Manure and What I Have Against It

I have nothing at all against it; in fact, I have a somewhat exaggerated respect for it. But I no longer need it; the ever-rotting mulch takes its place.

I sort of complained, in my first book, that no one ever wrote an ode to manure, and through the years since then at least a half-dozen people have sent me poems they composed about manure piles.

I have been asked over and over if such things as sawdust and oak leaves should be avoided, the idea being that they make the soil too acidic. I use sawdust, primarily around raspberries, with excellent results. We have no oak trees, therefore I can't answer that question from experience, but I certainly wouldn't hesitate to use them; then, if it turned out that they were making the soil acidic, I would add some wood ashes or lime. I've had reports from a great many gardeners who have used both sawdust and oak leaves over their entire garden and have found them satisfactory.

How Often Do You Put on Mulch?

Whenever you see a spot that needs it. If weeds begin to peep through anywhere, just toss an armful of hay on them. What time of year do you start to mulch? The answer is now, whatever the date may be, or at least begin to gather your material. At the very least give the matter constructive thought at one; make plans. If you are intending to use leaves, you will unfortunately have to wait until they fall, but you can be prepared to make use of them the moment they drop. Should you spread manure and plow it under before you mulch? Yes, if your soil isn't very rich; otherwise, mulch alone will answer the purpose.

How Far Apart Are the Rows?

Exactly the same distance as if you weren't mulching — that is, when you begin to use my method. However, after you have mulched for a few years, your soil will become so rich from rotting vegetable matter that you can plant much more closely than one dares to in the old-fashioned way of gardening.

How Long Does the Mulch Last?

That depends on the kind you use. Try always to have some in reserve, so that it can replenished as needed.

Now for the Million Dollar Question: Where Do You Get Mulch?

That's difficult to answer but I can say this: If enough people in any community demand it, I believe that someone will be eager to supply it. At least that's what happened within a distance of 100 miles or so of us in Connecticut, and within a year after my book came out, anyone in that radius could get all the spoiled hay they wanted at 65 cents a bale.

If you belong to a garden club, why can't you all get together and create a demand for spoiled hay? If you don't belong to a group, you probably at least know quite a few people who garden and who would be pleased to join the project.

Use all the leaves you can find. Clip your cornstalks into foot length pieces and use them. Utilize your garbage, tops of perennials, any and all vegetable matter that rots. In many localities, the utility companies grind up the branches they cut off when they clear the wires; and often they are glad to dump them near your garden, with no charge. But hurry up before they find out that there is a big demand for them and they decide to make a fast buck. These wood chips make a splendid mulch; I suggest you just ignore anyone who tells you they are too acidic.

Recently, a man reproached me for making spoiled hay so popular that he can no longer get it for nothing. The important fact, however, is that it has become available and is relatively cheap. The other day a neighbor said to me, "Doesn't it make you feel good to see the piles of hay in so many yards when you drive around?" It does make me feel fine.

Now and then I am asked (usually by an irritated expert) why I think I invented mulching. Well, naturally, I don't think so; God invented it simply by deciding to have the leaves fall off the trees once a year. I don't even think that I'm the first, or only person, who thought up my particular variety of year-round mulching, but apparently I'm the first to make a big noise about it — writing, talking, demonstrating.

And since in the process of spreading this great news, I have run across many thousands who never heard of the method, and a few hundred who think it is insane and can't possibly work, and only two people who had already tried it, is it surprising that I have carelessly fallen into the bad habit of sounding as though I thought I originated it?

But why should we care who invented it? Dick Clemence works hard trying to get people to call it the "Stout System," which is good because it should have some sort of a short name for people to use when they refer to it, instead of having to tell the whole story each time. I suppose it does more or less give me a feeling of importance when I come across an article mentioning the Stout System, yet I am cheated out of the full value of that sensation because I've never been able really to identify the whole thing with that little girl who was certainly going to be great and famous some day. What a disgusted look she would have given anyone who would have offered her the title of Renowned Mulcher!

And it borders on the un-enthralling to have the conversation at social gatherings turn to slugs and cabbageworms the minute I show up. And if some professor of psychology, giving an association-of-ideas test to a bunch of gardeners, should say "moldy hay" or "garbage," I'm afraid that some of them would come out with "Ruth Stout." Would anyone like that?

If you want to learn more about the Stout System, you can locate copies of Ruth Stout's books through a used bookseller. You also can order the VHS or DVD video Ruth Stout's Garden from Gardenworks . 

2/17/2016 5:11:04 PM

Several of Ruth Stout's books are back in print. These include "Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent," "Company Coming: Six Decades of Hospitality," and "If You Would be Happy: Cultivate Your Life Like a Garden."

11/29/2015 8:01:46 AM

A very informative article. Thank you.

5/15/2015 4:29:48 PM

I put straw all over my garden for the first time last year, as per Ruth's method. And one added benefit was that the tilling was a lot easier for the tiller-man. Of course, Ruth does not necessarily require tilling, but the tiller-man was grateful that the straw made his tilling simpler.

4/17/2015 12:02:26 PM

You can still find her book 'No-work Garden Book' secrets of the famous year-round mulch method. It's great and the method works! I'll never till again.

4/15/2015 3:05:18 AM

Can't wait to read comments as I am a complete novice

5/4/2014 12:34:17 AM

I was born in 1940 and my mother was the 4-H leader teaching organic gardening. so this has always been a part of my life. I now have 2 acres of pasture to mow and use to mulch my gardens and berry rows. An innovation I use now is to use roles of carpet that have been cut in strips to remove when carpet is replaced. I role these out on top of the hay mulch between the rows. Garden snakes move in under the carpet and reduce the slug population. Some cardboard and slug bait around new transplants seems to give adequate protection.

8/4/2013 3:02:51 PM

For those that get slugs, use a little espson salts, which is actually not a salt, but magnesium sulfate, which  is a pure mineral compound, Sprinkle some around and on top of plants like cabbages, everyones happy with the boost. give this to plants that look pale and need a lift. The other thing is maybe pull your hay to the side and just compost regular in a pile, keep your feild eith barren or plant a winter rye even better, start fresh with new hay in spring. I have even used this method and just pushed the ryegrass over and coverned with the hay,. When breaking open a bale use the squares as they come off the bale, like laying tiles. then in spring you merely pick up whats remaining and plant your row. You may have to turn soil first year only, use forks, instead of shovels..

jonathan lawrence
12/22/2010 10:36:56 PM

there are two ways to eliminate slugs. one, they love beer. put out a plate of beer & collect them. cook them up or feed them to your chickens. another way is to buy some whole sea salt, dilute it in water at about 1 teaspoon per gallon of water & spray the garden down with it. salt, of course, destroys slugs. whole seasalt is a fantastic fertilizer when it is properly diluted & if you don't apply it too often. see the book 'sea energy agriculture for all the facts & details on this wonderful seasalt fertilizing method/slug fighter.

10/6/2010 6:20:17 PM

C. Baker_2, you might have slugs if your mulch is too wet. From what I've read, you don't water this stuff. The mulch should stay dry on top. Closer to the soil, I think it would be wetter, and that is where, I think, that you would have slugs. I don't know what to do to get rid of them, though, but I've heard put broken pieces of pottery in the soil, but this would take a lot of broken pots to do. I think the article I read about doing this was talking around individual plants. My landlord just poured a bunch of wood chips out here, and that is why I am looking this up. It sounds like a great method to do and I've already started putting in lily bulbs I've salvaged. I'm going to use them as a border.

c. baker_2
5/6/2010 9:22:55 PM

I like the idea of mulching with hay or straw but I have a big problem with slugs and last year when I tried using the hay mulch the slugs lived in the hay. Any suggestions?

libby workman
9/30/2008 10:16:00 AM

I use a modified version of Ruth Stout's method. I became a fan when she wrote a column in the very early issues of Organic Gardening back in the 1950s. She had easy access to tons of very cheap spoiled hay; we don't. I began enlarging my vegetable garden last fall when I began to worry about the economy, and now I am enlarging it even more. For no-effort clearing, buy the best quality highest mil large black plastic covering you can find at any hardware superstore; it can be used over and over. Spread it out late summer over the area you want to plant the next spring. Peg the corners down securely with heavy stones. Next spring roll it back a section at a time and drive garden stakes and run string to indicate rows. You will be amazed as you roll the plastic back, because worms have come from everywhere and eaten the dead and rotting vegetation underneath and you will see bare dirt. As you work each section, either till that row or not as you wish. Cover it with saved cardboard and/or layers of newspaper. Then toss grass clippings, leaves or pulled weeds on top to keep the paper from blowing away. I have learned even to keep the planted rows under the paper/weed mulch to eliminate weeding around the plants. I leave only a 2" bare strip down the midrow to insert each seedling in. Try buying space-saver variety seeds, even if you have space, and start the seeds indoors in February. My garden alternates 4' rows with 4' paths, all mulched. Plant everything down the middle of the row, setting and securing a cage (mine are made from sections of 5' or 6' fence wire, rolled into about a 20" diameter cage and secured by bending down the clipped wires over the opposite side) over each plant. Secure from high winds/storms with metal poles driven into the ground and tied to each cage. The cages/poles have lasted over 20 years for me. I leave no space between the cages running down the row. Besides keeping the garden tidy and easy to get to,

1/7/2008 11:58:23 AM

sounds to easy to be true BUT will try it already have piled leaves wii get straw on as soon as possible sure does make sense.