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.


| February/March 2004


 '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.

ROBERTP
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."


karenj2001
11/29/2015 8:01:46 AM

A very informative article. Thank you.


MB
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.






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