2010 resolution: a ‘no-work’ garden?

stout coverASK MY FRIEND ANDREW: I will make the same resolution (to label all the plants in the garden) and then break it. My labeling-the-plants pronouncement is a long-standing annual event, as he is sick of hearing me mention. So how about this instead: I resolve to have a no-work garden in 2010. (I thought that would get a laugh from all of you, and maybe even from Andrew.) But here’s what I was thinking:

“Gardening Without Work,” Ruth Stout’s wonderful 1961 work, is one of my most treasured vintage gardening books, published when she was 76 years old. Though I am a couple of decades shy, the subtitle running up the right side of the cover cries out: “For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent.”

Guilty on all counts at the moment, Ruth. Mea culpa.

It is more the spirit of the book than anything that I love, an attitude brought to life in a series of videos of her that I am thrilled to have just found (you can buy them here or ask your library if they have them for rent). Written a year before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” came out, Stout’s funny little volume likewise decried use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Stout had no tolerance for the burning of leaves, or for wasting the most precious of commodities, water.

ruth stout
Long before phrases like “lasagna garden” were making the rounds of the as-yet-uninvented internet, Stout was layering all her organic materials on top of her soil—sheet composting, as it might be traditionally called—to thwart weeds, reduce the need for fertilizers, conserve moisture and spare herself the work of composting in a conventional heap with all the toting and turning of materials.

Her approach to gardening starts with the foundational principle of applying mulch, mulch and more mulch, and then simply moving it back a tiny bit each year a bit to make room for a row of seeds rather than all that turning and tilling (and weeding).

She says the “aha” came one spring when the plow man hadn’t come yet to till, and she was eager to get planting. She saw that the asparagus (a long-lived perennial vegetable crop) was already up and growing, right through the layers of fallen leaves and such. “I walked over and said to the asparagus, ‘We don’t have to plow for you; why do we have to plow for the other vegetables?’” Stout recalls. “And the asparagus said, “You don’t.’”

Where do you get all that mulch? The garden creates it, or at least some of the raw material that becomes it: spent cornstalks and uprooted pea vines and the like, to which Stout added fall leaves and also bought-in straw or hay (“spoiled” hay was fine, and cheaper; don’t worry about a little decay).

She was practical in so many ways: suggesting you take cues from the pace of plants to know what goes where (for example, that peppers can be planted in the spinach bed, since the latter will be done before the former get big enough to interfere). If there was no room in the good soil of the garden proper for space-hogging potatoes, no matter; she grew them on top of the ground somewhere sunny (including as an impromptu border to her big iris bed some years) and just covered the tubers with clean hay or straw, no digging involved. Or try this precursor to the ubiquitous salad spinner of today: Put your rinsed lettuce leaves in a big piece of cheesecloth, gather it closed as if it were a bag, and swing it overhead. Yahoo!

We all have much to learn from Stout’s vintage wisdom, though I am the first to admit that “no-work” (along with “easy” and “instant”) are on my list of gardening antonyms, on the same page as “probably not happening here anytime soon.” It will be less work, yes, and much smarter work to keep Stout in mind in 2010, but I suspect I’ll come indoors ready to drop on more than one spring day. That would be fine with Stout, who was nothing if not a believer in each to her own.

Update: In the original post, I wrote, “Listen to Stout herself, who lived from 1884 to 1980 and gardened in Connecticut, in these amazing videos,” and embedded the videos below that sentence, but the clips someone posted have since been taken off YouTube by GardenWorks, claiming copyright. I see that Bountiful Gardens in California sells the DVD now, if you can’t order it from your public library for viewing.

December 27, 2009


  1. heidih says

    Thank you for posting those videos. It was like a wonderful after Christmas present and an incredible message for starting the New Year.

    • says

      Welcome, HeidiH. I love that you say that, since that is exactly how it felt to me. I had been cleaning my office and taken out the vintage book last month with a mind to writing about it, and int he process today of doing the post I came across the videos. It did indeed feel like a gift. See you soon again, I hope.

  2. says

    Thank you for those videos. I’m not much of a gardener myself but like HeidiH says, these videos are a wonderful gift. It’s very inspiring and made me smile.

    • says

      Welcome, Sydney. So happy to “meet” you, and always glad to share some smiles. As my father would have said, she’s a “pip,” that Ruth Stout. Don’t be a stranger!

  3. Sharon says

    Thank you for posting these wonderful videos! These have to be some of the best I’ve seen. What a darling woman…and great inspiration!

    • says

      Welcome also to Sharon. A great day for new faces here in the comments, thanks to the ever-inspiring Ruth Stout. She is darling, indeed, in a sort of rambunctious way. :) See you soon again.

      And welcome to Patricia. Yes, when we grow up…tee hee. I think I am regressing, frankly, but that’s another story. So glad for you to join us, and do come back to say hello again soon.

      Nice to see you, too, 50s Pam. You know, I have know about Stout and been a fan for decades, and never knew that any documentary of her was made. I have never heard anybody mention it. You have to love the world we live it, that enables such things to finally get shared and passed down through the generations.

  4. says

    I am a HUGE fan of Ruth Stout, I own 5 different copies of her book (I keep loaning them out and forgetting where they are!) I have tried her methods and especially love the way she plants potatoes. The only problem I have is that here in Western Washington we have such slug problems all that mulch is the perfect abode for the little buggers! Those videos are priceless and I so thank you for sharing them with us. Kim

  5. Madambomb says

    Wow! Amazing. Thanks for sharing Margaret. Dreaming of seeds and mulch and and and. May this be a wonderful year for us all. Xoxoxo

  6. Rose says

    Thank you so much for the videos of Ruth Stout. She sort of reminded me of my grandma and granddaddy when I was growing up. They lived off the land and grew all their vegetables. There were no frills, which reminded me of her.

  7. says

    I to am a devout Ruth Stout fan. My husband Dan read her books as a youth, when he was gardening with his family, and introduced me to Ruth’s system when we began gardening together. we created our first vegetable garden using the deep mulching method (which we still use today). I loved the videos and will share them with him. Thanks!

  8. Andrew's mom says

    Thank you so much for the wonderful Ruth Stout videos. I have had her book for many years and have planted potatoes Ruth’s way in the past. One of the videos was shown in a gerentology course I took a few years ago…as inspiration.

  9. loretta says

    thanks so much for sharing those wonderful video’s of such an inspirational woman.I am a gardener,but hadn’t heard of Ruth Stout,you can be sure I’ll be googling to find out more about her.

  10. says

    What a delight! Thank you so much for sharing the videos. Loved “potato planting” and the comment by her husband about the cars stopping on the side of the road to watch her garden in the nude. A real character . . . in the best sense of the word.

  11. phil says

    we owe you a huge thanks for posting these videos. ruth stout really puts things in perspective, as we exit a most difficult year in 2009. her sense of optimism, self-reliance and simplicity are themes that i will carry with me into 2010, if nothing else, with my gardening chores!

  12. says

    I have been a huge proponent of raised-bed and square-foot inspired gardening for several years, and last year we started deep-mulch gardening, using Ms. Stout’s book as a guide.

    It’s be *best* thing in the world! So many times, I would go out to the garden in the morning expecting to do some work, and find that there’s nothing to do! Drop a handful of mulch on the couple’a weeds that showed up, and I was done!

    The combination of raised, permanent beds, intensive gardening, and deep mulch, and we’ve got *tons* of harvest, minimal pests, and almost no work to do!

  13. says

    Oh my, those videos are a fabulous gift this holiday season. Thank you.

    When I began gardening in the 70’s there were many Ruth Stout’s. Women about the same age as their century. Gardening with little money, their own muscle, and a passion for stewardship.

    As they passed from speaking in the living rooms of garden clubs and the stages of Flower Shows, and serving on their boards, it’s been noticed. Part of the tapestry of reasons Flower Shows across America have been closing down.

    Testosterone-on-wheels creating outdoor kitchens, as ‘gardens’, for Flower Shows is not a success. What would be? Perhaps a delightful mix of that testosterone-on-wheels mixed with the ideology of Ruth Stout.

    How will that look for the average middle class landscape? Like old villas in Italy. Evergreens, gravel, focal points, gardens set on axis with the interior of the home. Little maintenance, no watering, no chemicals.

    This is too long, stopping here!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  14. lynn druskat says

    My dear Dad, an organic gardener in the 50’s, loved Ruth, he taught me to plant my potatoes using her method, and with a back that has been gardening for over 30 years, i am 54, it is refreshing to know, i can still get out there and grow food, and let the rest, well, relax? this is cool

  15. Charlotte Cantrell says

    Wow, thank you so much for posting these videos. She reminded me a LOT of my grandmother. She and my mother always made shortcuts to do things better.
    Happy New Year !

  16. Hostagal says

    The videos are priceless! Thank you for introducing me to Ruth Stout-I’m off to do some research on her and to try to find her books. I’m afraid I live too close to my road to try her method of gardening in the natural state–but what a wonderful laugh I had thinking about it!

  17. says

    Well! I don’t know where to begin…I went to do an errand and came back to 9 more new commenters, and it is the practice here at A Way to Garden to be sure to welcome each and every person the first time they speak up. And so, here we go:

    Welcome, Madambomb (great name!), and may all your dreams of seeds and more come true.

    Welcome, Rose (how appropriate, speaking of names…), and yes, “no frills” it is, especially these days. It all makes sense right now in a fresh way.

    Welcome, Ali, sister Stout devotee. :) I am glad to hear I am not the only fan of hers who missed these videos, and especially glad you and Dan get to see them now, too.

    Welcome, Loretta. The link at the very bottom, after the last video, gives a good synopsis of her methods (the best I could find online) and there are many articles to be found. Enjoy.

    Welcome, Lucindy. Please be advised that as much as I admire her, I have tried to keep my clothes on while gardening (though here nobody could see if I didn’t, tee hee).

    Welcome, Nathan Strange, another fan of Stout’s (and it sounds like maybe of Mel Bartholomew’s, too?). Love the square-foot idea and lately have gotten more that way myself again; not so into long rows for many things.

    Welcome, Karen, and yes, amazing is just the word for her. May we all be so full of life every moment that we are here.

    Welcome, Hostagal (but you seem so familiar…is my dashboard playing tricks saying you are “new”?). Maybe you could hang a curtain along the road in the key stretch? (Kidding.)

    Welcome, Cynthia, and you are welcome. Pleas come soon again and check in with your thoughts, all of you. Did I miss anyone? Phew, hope not.

  18. Rami says

    Ah, yes! Thank you so much for the videos…what a wonderful woman she was. I’ll try some of her no-work gardening this year (starting tomorrow!). Again, thank you.

  19. says

    Utterly priceless – what a revolutionary woman! Not only did she pioneer a new and sensible and better way to garden, she did it in the NUDE!! These are my new words to live by, courtesy Ruth Stout: “Do what you want to do, and don’t tell other people how to behave!” Thank you, Margaret, for the New Years inspiration.

  20. says

    Thanks for the welcome!

    One of the things I forgot to mention about combining all of these techniques is the very important side-benefit of beauty.

    Our food garden is absolutely beautiful (haven’t convinced Mom yet that you can put food plants in your flower beds). You simply *want* to spend time there. You want to look around, explore, admire… We’ve laid out our beds in interesting patterns, we use very large natural-branch teepees, and there’s even a home-made bench in one of the corners.

    This is a very organic, spiritual way to garden. Hopefully that doesn’t sound too cheesy, but it’s the only way I have to explain it…

    And yes, Mel’s book taught me a lot – I don’t subscribe to it exactly, but it’s awesome for plant spacing and showing that rows don’t have to exist.

    Thanks for your great blog – isn’t life beautiful?


    • says

      Welcome, Rami. Glad to have another recruit for the no-work work force. :) Keep us posted on your progress.

      Welcome, Cindy. Yes, this is the time of year (in the northern zones) that asks for exceptional patience. But the days are getting longer…

      @Nathan: Thank you for the details. Yes, life is beautiful, if you pay attention. Hey, my tagline up top on the blog is “horticultural how-to and woo-woo,” so you’re talkin’ to the right girl (er, woman…woo-woo woman, specifically). See you soon.

  21. Cindy says

    Oh, how wonderful, I am so happy now. It’s so hard to wait for Spring…but so fun to Dream and Learn and Plan all Winter!

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