Wisdom and Wit of Ruth Stout


 Specialized Garden Techniques

A no till system with less weeds, less work and less water  


Photo of Ruth Stout 'relaxing' in her favorite mulch - old hay bales.

 I have talked to you about square foot gardening, the wide row method and a little on Organic gardening. My favorite gardening book is – No Work Garden Book by Ruth Stout.  Most of my tips tricks and techniques came from her articles in the Organic gardening magazine in the 70’s.  It must be a good book, because it was reprinted 12 times in 4 years.

            Upon reviewing the table of contents:

                        -throw away your spade and hoe.

                        -the couch I garden on

                        -make mine more mulch – mulch can beat Jack Frost and Defeat a Drought.

                        -what 40 years of Organic Gardening has taught me

                        -don’t work so hard

                        -year around vegetables

                        -eleven ways to make mulch work

            Ruth’s first article in 1953 maintains that most of the work associated with gardening – especially organic gardening is unnecessary, except for one thing “mulch”.  Throw away your spade and hoe.  Ruth planned to garden from her wheel chair.  In Ruth’s eyes permanent year-round mulch is the answer to all garden chores.  There is no argument about production either. 

            You can double the tomato harvest; triple the corn, and even better with lettuce and radishes, all with mulch.  Then there are plants that have the wrong pH for their development. Soil pH is a measurement of acidity or alkalinity of soil.  Below 7.0 acids, and above 7.0 is alkaline.  A pH balance of 6.8 to 7.2 is determined near neutral.  Areas of the world with limited rainfall (that would be us) typically have alkaline soil while areas with higher rainfall typically have acid soil.  What to do, - go to the heart of the problem and correct the balance.   How?  With compost in the soil.  Most of our South Dakota soils are alkaline.  You can of course, add limestone to an acid soil; sulfur is one chemical that can be used to lower pH if you have a real problem.    Also consider that you may have plants the need acidity growing next to ones that need their soil on the alkaline side.  Potatoes like their soil quite acid; asparagus, beets, peas and apples like theirs about neutral.  You have only one garden, just a few feet or yards to grow all of these.  The answer is humus in the soil, (mature compost).  Compost stores the minerals necessary for the plants, and feeds them, along with storing water.  To sum it up, mulching keeps the ground cooler than it would be otherwise, conserves the moisture, prevents the soil from baking, thus providing better aeration, and keeps the weeds from growing and robbing the vegetables and flowers from the nourishment and water which they need.   

            - The question most often asked “how much mulch is needed to start – I strongly advocate 6-8 inch thickness. 

            -Another question is why it isn’t bad to mulch with hay which is full of weed seeds.  Well, if the mulch is thick enough, the weeds can’t come through.   

            -It may get to a point you will not need to add manure, --- because the ever-rotting mulch all over the plot takes its place. 

            -People want to know what to use for mulch.  Well, hay, straw, leaves, pine needles, sawdust, wood chips, shredded paper, weeds, garbage – any vegetable matter that rots.  Can you use grass clippings?  Yes, even weeds can be used, as long as they have not gone to seed.  Be sure the clippings have not been treated with chemicals before they were mowed. City dumps usually have large compost piles but you do run the risk of chemicals.  Electrical companies can be contacted about the chips they have from cutting down trees. How often do you put mulch on”?  --Whenever you see a spot where weeds are peeping through. 

            -Doesn’t mulch look awful? Well there are a lot of answers to that, and they depend largely on the mulcher; that is how much he cares about having it look attractive.  It doesn’t have to look bad.  I could come back with another question -- Doesn’t a sun baked or weedy garden look awful. A few weeds may come through the mulch; this is because you don’t apply it thick enough either pull them or toss more mulch on top of them.  Mulch doesn’t grow weeds. 

            The question whether mulch is low in nitrogen?    Add cottonseed (or soybean) meal to your leafy vegetables if you feel you have a nitrogen shortage.

            Mulch changes slick clay soil to light and airy, easy to work soil, the pH is nearly perfect and the earth worms will come.

            Watering – keep in mind most hoses are 25’ for 50’ so when designing adjust your rows/beds accordingly.  To save on water, the soaker or drip lines can cut your water bill nearly 70%.

Photo of a garlic crop mulched with hay

Eleven ways to make mulch work:

1.  Planting – most seeds can be planted merely by pushing seed into the soil/mulch.

2.  Plant residues – the tough one is corn, as soon as harvest is done, flatten the stalk to the ground cover with hay, then next spring plant through this.

3.  Fall cleanup – consists of leaving everything where it is and cover with hay. Destroy any diseased plant growth.

4.  Weeding – hay is marvelous. Especially the chopped hay most ranchers have now days.

5.  Tilling – spading, plowing and cultivating is unnecessary. My most handy tool is a rake or the long handled claw to open up the mulch in the spring to warm up and start planting.

6.  Transplanting – plants are easy to set through the mulch with a trowel.

7.  Growing Potatoes – lay the seeds on the top of last year’s mulch, about one foot apart each way. (not more then three foot wide).  This makes easy access to take care of potato bugs.  Layer the sets with 6-8 inches soil and hay as they pop through cover them again with a little compost and hay, keep doing this till it is mounded up about a foot. After they bloom, I start snatching the larger potatoes from under the hay,leaving room for others to grow.

8.  Acidity or Alkali –If you use the hay mulch for several years you can forget about this problem, along with dusting, spraying and fertilizing.

9.  Soil temperature – Misconception of the mulch method, do not try to pile heavy mulch on cold wet soil in the spring, this is not a good way to begin the system.  Plant first then start   mulching as the plants appear. Better yet start your mulching in the fall after harvest.

10.  Garden Boundaries – I like to keep several extra bales of hay alongside the garden to keep grass from creeping in; the bales begin to break down for the next years use. Also, a pile of well rotted manure is handy, to use in special places throughout the season.

11.  Rotation crops to discourage plant disease and insects.  A simple guide is a four year rotation of:  I like the 4 x 8 (or smaller) beds, one for each of these listed; the bonus is I never walk on the beds to compact the soil.  I can sit on a chair and pull any weeds in a few minutes    and do not need to spend the day hoeing rows and rows.  The area between the beds can be mowed, covered with mulch,  board walkways or even carpeted.

Bed 1. Legumes: Bush, pole, snap, and dry beans, peas

Bed 2. Root vegetables: radish, carrot, potato, onion, garlic, beet, rutabaga, and sweet potato.

Bed 3. Leafy greens: spinach, chard, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach

Bed 4. Fruit-bearing: tomato, corn, cucumber, squash, pumpkin, eggplant Members of any given family should not be grown in the same spot for more than one year. You may need more than one bed for these.

Putting your garden to bed for winter:

            For those who haven’t abandoned tilling for the overall mulch system --- but are going to turn over a new leaf, autumn is the best time to start. Old habits die hard!  Put all available dead leaves on your garden; toss cornstalks on them to keep them from blowing away.  Get plenty of hay – spoiled hay, good hay – salt hay, whatever is available.  Don’t be afraid of weed seed; with this mulch they never get through – if occasionally you see a weed, toss a forkful of hay on it. Our biggest problem in this part of the country is the creeping jenny which will come through the mulch – but keep a spray bottle of “killer” on hand to give it a shot.  Don’t bother trying to pull it out; it just comes back thicker than ever.

            Cover your asparagus with 8 inches loose hay.  For strawberries, after it gets 20 degrees, I give them several inches of mulch.  Mulch roses with garden soil heaped up over them.

            Ruth never cuts off peonies, by spring they die of natural death; also they catch leaves and are mulched.  Add constant mulch to tulips.  Annual flower beds go to sleep with a thick blanket of leaves.

Now for information about specific plants:

            Potatoes – plant by laying them on top of last years mulch and cover with hay, potatoes like potash if you have rotted hay, looking gray that is potash.

            Carrots, radishes, beets, onions – I broadcast (or plant about 2 inches apart) foot square, depending on how many you want,  pat the seed in, lightly mulch, and as they grow sprinkle in more mulch, as they mature, pull out the small ones or every other one and use, leaving room for others to mature larger.

            Asparagus – all the information talks about trenching and salting to keep the weeds out.  Think about nature how does asparagus get started in the wild.  You need to mulch in the spring, manure in the fall.  Pile up with mulch, to get long white spears.

            Cabbage – Perhaps the biggest problem with cabbage is the worms.  Ruth suggests salting to keep worms away.  I keep a spray bottle by the cabbage patch and spray every day or so with soapy water.  This works on broccoli too.

            Onions – scatter around on old hay and cover with 2-3 inches of hay.  To save space, three rows can occupy a space one foot wide (wide row method).

            Tomatoes – plant them against a fence and forget dealing with falling over cages. I use corral panels,  plant on each side and weave the tomatoes into the panels, or use two panels teepee style, it is so nice to pick cherry tomatoes that are clean and hanging on a panel rather than trying to find them in a tangled mass of plants on the ground.

            Squash - planted in hills, Ruth adds a few cigarette ashes to discourage ash boars. Also she does the reroot method as the plant grows so that if the mother plant dies there are still plants to thrive.  I do this with muskmelon too.  My favorite method is to bury a bucket with holes (garden center tree tub) then fill around outside with compost around the tub and plant four hills around the outside of the tub.  You have 4 hills taking up the space of one hill the old fashioned way, plus watering is merely a weekly job of filling the tub.           

            Dill – I never “plant” dill, when it is ready, I snip the heads and leaves into a paper bag, let it dry and use as needed.  In fall I crumple the dried bags of dill and sometime during fall, winter or early spring return the dried bag of residue to the garden where I want it to grow. 

            Corn – takes up space, but even if you have a space one foot wide and 24 foot, long you can plant 6 inches apart and get three rows of corn, or 48 stocks to the row, yielding 10 dozen ears.  Corn will do just as good 6 inches apart as if 3 feet apart, you get six times as much from the same space. But of course it needs the water, and this is where the soaker or drip hose is handy.

            To discourage cutworms, tuck hay up close to the plant.  If you have slugs, a pan of beer overnight, by morning they will be dead or dead drunk.  If you are going to spread cottonseed meal, do it at the rate of 5# per 100 square feet.

            I prefer the Stout system of permanent hay mulching to other techniques for reasons that seem good to me.  But the main thing is to concentrate on feeding your soil instead of trying to feed your plants.

 Compiled by Donna Adrian, South Central Master Gardeners


6 Delicious Edibles You Can Grow Indoors All Winter


Most homes are heated to a comfortably warm temperature range of 65 to 75F during winter. This is ideal for growing many vegetables, so the winter cold is not as much of an issue here as low-light conditions. Your choice would be limited unless you provide sufficient grow lights to imitate the sunny outdoors.

    As a general rule, leafy vegetables can manage with much less light than root vegetables. Fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants need more light to ensure a good yield.


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