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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 (ask your library if they have them for rent; one sample is embedded from YouTube farther down this page). 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.

Listen to Stout herself, who lived from 1884 to 1980 and gardened in Connecticut, in this amazing video.

  1. cavenewt says:

    What a great article! I am a longtime Ruth Stout fan. In the 70s, as a teenager, I was in the Organic Gardening (Rodale) book club, and bought the No-Work Garden Book, and devoured it. It made so much sense. Walk in the woods; do you ever see bare dirt? No.

    A few years later I moved from California to Wyoming, and a friend borrowed my book, then left town. Lo and behold, 35 years later she returned, and gave my book back to me! I am somewhat of a mulching evangelist and loan it to family and friends (keeping more careful track of it; used copies are expensive). I have convinced skeptics like my midwestern brother-in-law who now has a pumpkin patch covered deeply in straw.

    There is a composting seminar every spring here; I usually go, but they look down their noses at my efforts to extoll sheet composting. Ah, well, my garden does very well, with little watering and weeding needed. I use grass clippings (unpoisoned), wood chips, and leaves. I can’t bear to throw away any organic material. Nor can I bear the sight of bare dirt, as so many other gardens display. Just under my mulch is an almost solid layer of very happy worms. You can’t say that about bare dirt!

    I do have slugs, but I don’t think it’s the mulch; that’s about the only pest we have here. I use Sluggo, which is not poison, it’s just iron phosphate, which is toxic to slugs but harmless to other birds and animals. Beer traps are fine but don’t make a dent in the population.

    I wish the videos were still available. I’ll try the library.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Cavenewt. Yes, too bad about the videos. Not sure why they wouldn’t want them (at least short versions) to be online as “teasers” for the longer product. I suspect I got started with Ruth S. through the Rodale connection, too. Hope to see you soon again here.

  2. Rachel Gualco says:

    Hi Margaret! I really enjoyed your article. I recently came across a new edition of Stout’s book online and was looking to see how it influenced people’s gardening techniques. I’m excited to connect with the quirky character she seems to be and of course, get prepared for my garden this season. If anyone is looking to buy this book new, here is a link: http://www.amazon.com/Gardening-Without-Work-Indolent-Horticulture/dp/1626549532. This edition is only $12.

      1. Rachel Gualco says:

        Oh no kidding! Well, the body of work is actually public domain so there are multiple publishers – I just started working for one of them! If you are interested in this version you can contact me at rachel@echopointbooks.com. I can answer any questions you may have.

  3. donna gagne says:

    I have been trying to get to the library to get some of her books
    to read and see just how she she had become so successful in
    her gardening. I just wish I had listen to my gram when I was
    a kid. It would have been such an education and I could kick
    myself. Now I want to try to make up for what I missed and Mrs
    Ruth Stout seems to be just the ticket if I get to work with her
    advice and know how. Please consider me. Thank you

  4. Anne in Vermont says:

    Hi Margaret, I note that your article was written before 2010. Did you adopt Ruth Stout’s methods? If so, how has it worked and do you have photos posted anywhere please? I came across Ms. Stout only recently when I reread an old Brooklyn Botanical Garden booklet on mulch in which she had an article. I am anxious to try this method, beginning this spring with the material I did not cut down in autumn. I am not likely to be obtaining hay though, just letting materials build up over time, with an addition of chopped leaves in the autumn unless you advise otherwise.

    Thanks for your post, Anne

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Anne. I don’t compost in place, so to speak, in Ruth Stout style, but use a lot of mulch (shredded, rotted leaves; composted stable bedding, etc.). I’m still composting my debris first. I do have friends who sheet mulch like she did, and it’s great. I also have friends who use other no-till tactics to good effect. More details in the links at the end of this story.

  5. Cintra says:

    I think I have disturbed the worms and bugs in my garden for years…. I feel so sorry for them …. I will try and implement some of Ruth Stouts ideas in my garden this year … There is something to listening to our plants!

  6. Bonita says:

    I love this episode, and at first glance, the idea of gardening without work sounds appealing, even though it’s the actual work outdoors that I enjoy, as it gets me away from my (paid) work – sitting in front of a computer all day. I am a data systems manager, but I work at home, so have the luxury of a few minutes throughout the day I can enjoy the garden.

    I have a question about Iris beds. I have several beds that I inherited when I purchased my large, wooded, country property. The previous owner had spent hundreds of dollars on prized Irises, and scattered them all around the property. Having loved Irises all my life, I was delighted to have these, even though there’s a lot of work involved in keeping them healthy and blooming.

    One bed in particular is very large, not the usual clumps of irises that I have elsewhere. This bed is about 5 ft deep and 15 feet long, and the plants need to be divided. I thought this might be a nice chance for a bed makeover. I have listened to some of your other recordings and I got the idea that I need to intermingle my plants so that once the irises are gone (they bloom mid-may most years), and I am left with a big weed patch with Iris greens the rest of the year.

    So I was thinking of mixing some ground cover plants, with some medium height plants that bloom later than the Irises. One ground cover I was considering to put in between the Irises is Euonymus fortunei Emerald Gaiety (Wintercreeper), but I am wondering if it is too invasive and might smother my Irises, do you know?
    This is a very sunny spot, and I live in zone 7B outside Nashville, high humidity, heavy clay. Creeping plants in this region often gain 8-10″ of growth a day during summer.

    Creeping Phlox might bloom too late, which is why I was thinking the variegated foliage might add interest to that area and smother weeds that are so prevalent in my region later in the year, but I don’t want to harm my Irises. I am open to suggestions and don’t mind suggestions with or without blooms. I was thinking of putting some Astrantia plants throughout the bed periodically too, to add late summer interest. I plan to divide these plants in August, and was hoping for some help to put me in the right direction.

  7. Bonita says:

    Just a short update on my earlier question; after posting this I read a little about Wintercreeper and it’s invasive nature, so I think I will stay away from that after all. Now I am looking at some of the creeping Thyme’s to use as a filler plant over the Irises, would that be a better solution? or something else?

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