Nicknamed the "Mulch Queen", Ruth Stout was born in the United States in 1884. As early as 1920, she realized that all traditional methods of working with the soil (digging, weeding, watering, plowing, hoeing), could be replaced by simply adding a layer of hay on the ground. She wrote a chronicle about this particular approach for the magazine Organic Farming and Gardening from 1953 to 1971. She also published several books about her methods.
Stout emphasized the simplicity of her methods, and the way the gardener benefits from extra free time and rest. It’s easy to see with the titles of her books: Gardening Without Work, I’ve Always Done It My Way, and How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back (unfortunately, many of these books are now unavailable, other than a few used copies). In light of the fascinating results she obtained in her gardens, she didn’t shy away from challenging traditional methods of gardening. She made it a principle to speak only from experience, only from the results she had observed herself.
Description of her method
Quite simply, the method consists of keeping a thick layer of hay mulch permanently on the soil. We can sum this up as the "law of least effort", where we allow nature to do most of the work for us, and we stop needlessly interfering.
Ruth Stout didn’t invent the technique of permanent mulching (nature has been doing it for millions of years!), but it seems that she is the first who wrote about the topic. She was also an influence for other figures in the ecological gardening movement, including Emilia Hazelip who developed the "synergistic gardening" approach (which later evolved into the "self-fertilizing gardening" approach in Québec).
None needed! Only our own two hands! However, a trowel, a fork, a spade and a hoe can sometimes come in handy.
In terms of the materials needed, Stout bought the hay that she mulched with. We can never have too much! It’s a good idea to have some extra set aside. Anything that doesn’t decompose too quickly can also be used as mulch: old hay, straw, pine needles, corn stalks, grass clippings, seaweed... Nevertheless, hay has the best results.
From time to time, Ruth Stout would buy cotton meal or soy meal as a complementary source of fertility. She would spread about 5 pounds over 100 square feet. However, she said she would stop using it completely, if it weren’t for the numerous visitors who toured her garden, and wanting to ensure that the garden was beautiful for their visits.
Other than that, the only inputs for the garden were seeds.
Starting the garden
For Ruth Stout, the best time to start this type of garden is last year! As time passes, the soil quality improves and it becomes more fertile. She believes that the results really kick in after a few years of growing this way. To the frequent question from her readers, "When should I start to mulch?" she would answer "Now!"
More precisly, Stout recommended starting a garden in the summer or the fall. Early in the springtime, the soil is still cold, and the mulch would tend to keep the soil from warming up. If we cover the ground in the autumn with 8 inches (20cm) of hay, it will be ready for seedlings in the springtime.
To the question, "How much hay do I need?", Stout answered, "Twice as much as you think!" More specifically, she recommended a thickness of 8 inches (20cm). This may seem thick, but with the effects of rain and decomposition, soon enough it will be only 2-3 inches (5-7cm) thick.
For beginning a new garden with the Ruth Stout System, the hay can be added directly on an existing lawn. Do not remove the underlying grass and plants: they’ll decompose under the hay and add to the fertility of your soil.
In the case of converting a traditional garden into a Ruth Stout style garden, she recommends planting in your usual manner, and then adding mulch around the plants.
Between the rows of vegetables, she recommends adding fallen leaves from trees.
For Ruth Stout, soil type has little importance. Even if it was acidic, she didn’t do anything in particular. As for rocky soils, she considered them good soils. Mulching is particularly beneficial for sloped surfaces, because the mulch protects against erosion and the leaching of nutrients.
How to plant
For planting seeds, ensure that they’re in direct contact with the soil. In terms of the distance between seeds, use the distances recommended in traditional gardening methods. Nevertheless, Ruth Stout said that the plants can be more closely spaced after a few years of using her method. For transplanting seedlings, use a trowel or a small shovel.
Ruth Stout grew a wide variety of crops, including sweet spanish onions, sweet corn, cabbage, radish, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, beans, peas, young soy beans, carrots, parsnips, peppers and tomatoes.
Examples of several plants that work well in the Ruth Stout system
Easiest when grown from young bulbs.
There’s no need to dig a trench. We just ensure that the asparagus crown is in contact with the ground, and cover it with mulch. To protect these perennial plants during the winter, cover them with an extra 8 inches of mulch when the weather cools.
Transplant them in the springtime with a space of 1 foot (30 cm) between each plant.
In the region where Ruth Stout lived (Connecticut, United States), she could plant her potatoes in the autumn. She planted whole potatoes, spaced every 14 inches (35cm), and covered them with 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) of hay. Just after flowering, the tubers are 1-2 inches in diameter. Her favourite harvest was the young potatoes of the variety Irish Cobbler. For a mature harvest, it’s best to wait until the potato plants turn dry.
Just plant the seeds in the ground, and the young plants will grow through the mulch. It can help to add a string to indicate a row. The seeds are spaced every 6 inches (15 cm). Ruth Stout recommended the varieties North Star, Golden Beauty and Golden Bantam. Her corn harvests were well above average. With 5 rows of 25 plants, she’d harvest 15 dozen ears of corn. After the harvest, she’d crush the corn stalks and cover them with hay. In the spring, we can sow or transplant without a problem, with quite impressive results. As for animals, Ruth Stout had a fence to keep raccoons away from the corn. Crows weren’t able to eat the newly sown grains because they were protected by the mulch.
In her book "No-Work Garden", Ruth Stout’s co-author, Richard Clemence, recommends a rotation of strawberries, sweet corn and potatoes: three productive cultures that are easy to install with the Stout System, and that can bring an income through the sale of these popular foods. To learn more, here is an extract from Ruth Stout’s book that describes the rotation.
For the cooler seasons, Stout recommends choosing cold-resistant plants like kale, that we can harvest even when there is snow... or parnips, that we can leave in the ground all winter and harvest in the spring. To help them get through the winter, we can cover them with a layer of hay.
Stout also suggests growing squash (for example, buttercup and blue hubbard), since they preserve well indoors during the winter months.
Buying seeds and seed saving
Ruth Stout had two recommendations. First of all, she recommended buying seeds from a reliable seed producer, which helps to support their business. And since they are specialized in the production of seeds, it would be ambitious to think that we could do better ourselves. At the same time, she recommends that gardeners use their own seeds. The idea is to benefit from "volunteers": leaving good-quality plants and good-quality fruits in place at the end of the season, so they can regrow the following spring. Ruth Stout nevertheless had the habit of transplanting volunteers to the place where she’d like them to grow the following year.
Tasks in a Ruth Stout garden
- Add hay if there isn’t enough.
- Sow and transplant.
- Harvest what’s still growing from last year.
- Stake climbing plants (ex. climbing beans), and plants that have difficulty supporting their own weight (ex. tomatoes).
- Weeding consists of laying the plants down and covering them with hay.
- Add hay if there isn’t enough.
- For the cabbage family, Stout suggests using salt to counter cabbage butterflies.
- Plant cultures like garlic.
- Everything is left in place. Nothing is ripped out. We just cover everything with hay.
Advantages of the Stout System
- Easy to do
- Easy to understand
- No machinery needed
- Few inputs, other than hay and seeds
- Everything is returned to the soil
- The mulch retains moisture, which eliminates the need to water
- Gives good results
- And, above all, little work!
Less time and physical effort are needed because:
- No tilling
- No digging
- No harrowing
- No ground cover to plant
- No weeding
- No watering
- No spraying
- No compost to make
Comments and criticisms
Ruth Stout realized that her system required large amounts of organic matter and was better adapted to small surfaces. What’s more, the visual look of her gardening system is in constrast with traditional methods and might be an aesthetic problem for some people. And, even if Stout doesn’t mention it herself, to create a more dynamic ecosystem and increase the real autonomy of our garden, especially related to garden "pests", we could consider adding trees and ponds to the system.
In terms of the criticism relating to weed seeds in the hay, here are a few answers:
When we use hay, it’s best to avoid working the soil. If the hay contains weed seeds, as long as we keep piling on more hay as it decomposes, the seeds will be buried and likely won’t germinate.
It’s usually when we work the soil that the seeds are brought up to the surface, which leads to their germination.
If we see weeds that are germinating and growing, we can pull them out (Ruth Stout gardened with 100% hay, so instead of pulling them out, she’d cover the weeds with more hay).
If you’re worried, you can leave the hay outside of the garden for a few months to start the decomposition process before adding it to the garden.
- Self-fertilizing gardens
- Hans-Peter Rusch
- Kurt Kretschman
Ruth Stout’s books:
- Gardening Without Work (September 1, 1974)
- Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent (May 22, 2002)
- I’ve Always Done It My Way
- Don’t Forget to Smile or How to Stay Sane and Fit over Ninety
- How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening by Ruth Stout (Author), Leta Macleod Brunckhorst (Author) (Paperback - February 1, 1990)