Ruth Stout’s Deep Mulch Gardening Method
One of our longtime GardensAll community members sent us a link that introduced us to Ruth Stout, and the use of hay and straw in our gardens. This is also known as deep mulch, no till gardening.
The article is fascinating and engaging, even beyond the funny fact that Ruth Stout used to love to garden naked. Now no lewd ideas here… rather, it seems Ruth was more like a child at play in the garden where she loved to spend all day, every day.
No matter what degree of clothing she had on, it’s quite clear that Ruth Stout was an innovative and creative gardener. Ruth observed nature and how it “gardens” and she began to do more of that herself. Copying nature’s example, Ruth learned how to grow more food with less effort.
Amongst the most popular articles on GardensAll are the articles on Ruth Stout. Some say Ruth is the mother of the no till gardening method. However, others may disagree, as there are several other gardening methods that mimics the natural process of nature, which we’ll link at the end of this.
This Unorthodox Gardener Stopped Tilling and Turning
Born in Topeka, KS in 1884, Ruth lived quite an interesting life. She had never gardened until she and her husband moved from New York City up to Redding, CT in 1930, when she was 46.
There, Ruth began her journey from the typical form of gardening to the deep mulch, based on her observations and reflections on nature’s way of doing things. Ruth became famous for her “lazy”, “no work”, easy-going style of gardening she promoted during her entire second half of life before she passed away in 1980 at 96 years of age.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Stout
“Do what you want to do and don’t tell others how to behave!”
~Ruth Stout, no-till, deep mulch gardener, author, 1884-1980
Ruth Stout’s Gardening Methods
- Hay mulch – used in place of watering (many of us would choose straw instead to avoid the hay seeds)
- No digging or tilling
- Minimal effort (resembling the layered lasagna gardening method)
- Minimal weeding
- Year round food growing (protecting the crops with hay mulch)
Ruth Stout ~ a Free Spirit
We asked the Gardens All Facebook community what they loved most about Ruth Stout. As you might imagine, they love her innovative, simple and easier approach to gardening. But equal or more, they loved her free spirit. Here’s what they said:
“I love her attitude and independent spirit.”
“That she didn’t do anything she didn’t want to, and believed that you shouldn’t tell others how to behave or what to do.”
“I love her no-work, no-till, deep mulch gardening system”.
“I like that she was such a free spirit she even gardened naked.”
Ruth Stout is a legend, ahead of her time and still influencing ours with her ‘no till’, ‘no work’ gardening legacy.
No Till Gardening
Excerpted from MotherEarthNews.com, in Ruth’s own words.
‘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 it’s her labor-saving, soil-improving, permanent garden mulching technique that’s earned her lasting fame.
Ruth 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. Ruth’s technique remains consistent with the no till gardening methods soil experts recommend today. Excerpt from Gardening Without Work, which was reprinted most recently by The Lyons Press.
~MOTHER EARTH NEWS
Ruth Stout’s No Work Gardening Method
Excerpted from Ruth Stout’s – No Work Garden Book
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.
Do 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.
In my first book, I kind of complained, 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.https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/ruth-stouts-system-zmaz04fmzsel.aspx#axzz39Rlo0RD2
Ruth Stout – Biography and Photo
An American author, gardener, and independent thinker, Ruth Stout didn’t start gardening until 1930, when she was 46 years old. Born June 14, 1884, Ruth Stout died August 22, 1980, at the age of 96. Ruth was best known for her “No-Work” gardening books and techniques.
As her popularity (and perhaps notoriety as a maverick) increased, Ruth became a go to source for many organic and no-till practitioners. Her books are considered standards. These include Gardening without Work: For the Aging, the Busy and Indolent, and How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening
Ruth Stout – Timeless Ageless Gardener
The delightful Ruth Stout is timelessly portrayed in this biography video on her life. Ruth’s mischievous rebel spirit entertains with reminiscences about her growing up years as well as her practical and pragmatic approach to gardening and life in general.
We really enjoyed this video of Ruth—in her later years but charming as ever—demonstrates her methods of planting, harvesting, and mulching.
Gardening in the Buff?
And yes, near the end of the film, Ruth mentions her enjoyment of gardening in the buff, and no… they don’t show any of that! 😇
Ruth always presumed her husband, who busied himself with wood carving, was unaware of this habit… until one day when she came home late….
Video Biography on Ruth Stout
“I have a vegetable garden 45 by 50 in which I grow vegetables for two people and I haven’t been in a super market for at least 14 years.”
~Ruth Stout, no-till, deep mulch gardener, author, 1884-1980
In closing, sharing a couple more comments from the GardensAll Facebook community members, and be sure to heed the words of caution too.
Comments from the Community
A GardensAll community member shared about her own experience in gardening the Ruth Stout way:
I Have Fun All Summer Because I’m Not Weeding!
I am so grateful for her information! Total gratitude for this lady! Having been the youngest of 6 who do you think was left to continue weeding that BIG garden…? I love fresh veggies but weeding..? NOT!!
When I first got married I found her book The No Work Garden. I tried a small patch and was Sold!! I’ve had a big garden since then. I can, freeze, make sauces & jams.
The best part is I ride my horse, swim, and have lots of fun all summer cuz I’m not WEEDING!!
When we moved to TN the soil was packed as hard as a rock. No real topsoil. The worms were so small you could hardly see them. Now the top soil is rich and black and the worms are big and plentiful. I’m perfectly happy to let them do the tilling for me.
~Ruth Church, gardener
Thanks for sharing, Ruth Church, and congrats on YOUR no work garden and transforming your soil!!
Do NOT use oat straw mulch!
Gretchen says:“Ruth claims that using mulching materials that contain seeds won’t be a problem as long as you use a deep enough mulch layer. I chose straw this year instead of hay as I assumed it would have a lower seed burden. Unfortunately, I chose oat straw and my garden is a hot mess. A thickly mulched, hot mess. Next year, I will be going back to wood chip with composted chicken manure to add nitrogen.”
I’ve Used This Method for Years
“I have used this method for growing vegetables for quite a few years with great success. There are so many advantages; no tilling which actually does more harm than good, great tilth that increases moisture retention, wonderful habitat for the beneficial earth worms, and the soil becomes so loose and easy to dig in over time. Weeds nearly become nonexistent other than seed that blows in. The soil is fed naturally by decomposition of the mulch and you don’t need to water as often. My mother’s traditional tilled garden was so labor intensive and this is not.
Other No-Till, Deep Mulch, Natural Gardening Methods
- Straw bales
- Lasagna layered beds
- Natural gardening, AKA:
- Eden Method
- Ruth Stout No Till
There are pros and cons to the Ruth Stout garden—or natural gardening—approach.
Natural Gardening is great if you…
- have enough land in the sun for sprawling beds
- have access to ample supplies of vegetation for mulch, such as:
- Straw bales
- Organic compost
- don’t mind a messier looking garden
- don’t want to spend time tilling, making garden beds, weeding, etc.
While Ruth Stout’s gardening method may not be so pretty, it’s especially beneficial if you don’t enjoy the backbreaking time-consuming aspects of gardening.
Wonderful! Now let’s go plant and mulch!
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