ASK 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.
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.
- Details of Ruth Stout’s system, from “Mother Earth News”