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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. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Rene; it’s a real piece of oral history, isn’t it, listening to her tell her tale. Thanks for your good wishes, and see you soon again, I hope.

      Welcome, Utblickaren (all the way from Sweden). I agree; the philosophy make the gardening even richer. I often think that gardening is my main spiritual practice in life. Hope to see you soon again, and happy New Year to you, too.

  1. Earth Girl Knits (Emily) says:

    I have to leave another post. I have been consumed with this no-work garden idea for the past day and a half since reading the post. We have a couple of hay bales in the back yard left over from this fall. I’m going to try out her method and will let you know how it works for me this spring/summer. :)

  2. bavaria says:

    My ‘no work’ garden started out of neccessity–my job requires that I am gone for 2 months at a time, so weekly weeding was not an option. Wood chips from a small sawmill here are free and abundant, so I use that for a heavy mulch in my perennial beds. I have very few weeds, and the ones that manage to struggle through the mulch are weak and easy to pull. Some people said I would kill my plants because wood uses nitrogen as it breaks down, but after 14 years of this, my plants still look terrific. I guess the ‘breakdown’ is happening at the soil surface, not at the plant root level. Anyway, it works for me.

  3. Dee/reddirtramblings says:

    Hi Margaret, you did give me a laugh. I have her book about Gardening without an aching back. It’s very funny.~~Dee

  4. mimi says:

    I am just so thrilled to learn that someone else keeps making these labeling-the-plants resolutions! Another triumph of hope over experience . . . this year, for certain!
    And thanks for the discovery of Ruth Stout, can’t wait to find a book.

    We made it past the solstice: Happy New Year!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Anita. Glad you like them; I keep re-watching them myself and always hear new tidbits of wisdom. I just enjoyed a visit to your photoblog, thank you — beautiful work indeed. See you soon again in 2010 I hope.

  5. TC says:

    I watched all three videos. And you can be sure that in 2010 I’m planting my potatoes exactly as she did. I’m also resolving to remember Ruth Stout’s grandfather’s words: “Thee was looking out the wrong window.”

    Now, please tell me where I can get a copy of that book.

    Wishing you all the best in Two Zero One Zero!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, TC. I think the only place is in online used-book searches or at local used-book sellers. Glad you are joining us in the Ruth Stout resurgence of 2010. :)

  6. Penny Crumpton says:

    Thank you for sharing Ruth’s videos and wisdom. She reminds me of my grandmother and the gardening knowledge she had. We have a lot to learn from our elders! Back to basics for 2010!!

  7. christie says:

    Margaret, I am thrilled to see these videos. For 20 years I gardened in the same part of the (very small) town as Ruth Stout..and always loved to go by her very modest, oh-so-Connecticut charming home and garden. IMO it was her free-thinking, irascibility combined with unpretention and empirical good sense which she was able to skillfully communicate in her writings, and NOT her manicured landscapes. (The land was stunning in it’s naturalness..still is.) Most often mentioned about town was that she gardened in her birthday suit…a precedent adopted by many of us in that beautiful, private woods…

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Penny. We do indeed have a lot to learn from our elders, and I think of my Grandma Marion every day over here. :) See you soon again, I hope.

      Welcome, Christie. “Irascibility” is the buzzword. Love it. Also “unpretention” and “empirical good sense.” Let’s all keep those great words of yours in front of mind as we go full-tilt into the New Year. See you soon!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Kathy, and thank you for saying hello. Glad you like the film clips — she continues to inspire, to be sure. See you soon again.

  8. Katha says:

    Margaret, thank you for posting the Ruth Stout videos not only to show us ideas about gardening, but about how to grow old with style and verve. Ruth’s confidence and certainty in her own choices is inspiring.

    But what about the slugs?!! If I mulched that deep, I’d have phalanxes and regiments of them. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for the munching sounds. How did Ruth manage the slugs?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Katha. Many people over the years have asked her (and those who have written about her) about the slug problem. She says she never had any issues with her 8-plus-inches of (mostly hay) mulch. I have to say, until the deluges of 2009 here, I never had slug issues, either, and I have always used a few inches of mulch (composted stable bedding, a wood-shaving or fine chip product) on all my ornamental garden beds and more in the vegetable areas.

      Like Ruth, I am in a rural area, and I wonder if the fact that I have tons of reptiles and amphibians (slug-eaters) in the garden is the reason. This article talks about their role in slug-prevention. I also have loads of skunks and raccoons, and I suspect both like some escargot as well. :)

  9. megan says:

    I love Ruth Stout–thank you so much for posting these videos! I checked the VHS tape out from our library about 10 years ago, but they’ve since taken it out of circulation and I was afraid that I’d never see it again.

    I have as many RS books as I can find. I buy every copy of every book that I see because I know there will always be someone who needs to be “witnessed to” as to the awesomeness of her methods. I have about 8 in. of straw on the garden right now (under a few in. of snow!) and I can’t wait to pull it back in a few months and see how nice the soil has become.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Megan, fellow Ruth Stout fan. I wish I had the tape to watch on the TV screen here, to take in more details. What a treat that you had seen it before; lucky you. Don’t know how it eluded me all these years. Hope to see you soon again.

  10. Desiree Bell says:

    Enjoyed the videos so much! Sometimes I garden that way also. Your site is a wealth of information, can’t wait to explore it more.

    1. Margaret says:

      Wecome, Desiree. Thanks for the encouragement, and I am so glad the videos were an inspiration. Hope we see you regularly in 2010. We’ll be here. :)

  11. luke pryjma says:

    Thank you Margaret for the videos. The whole time I was watching I couldn’t wait to leave a comment. Ruth is inspiring. Her style of gardening and living are relaxing. She has done a lot with some basic principles, use what you got, grow what you need, don’t manage anyone. I thought of Fukuoka a little. And more so I thought of L. H. Bailey. I was lucky to be given his book by my father, The Manual of Gardening, 1918. “The satisfaction of a garden does not depend on the area, nor, happily, the cost or rarity of the plants. It depends on the temper of the person. One must first seek to love plants and nature, and then to cultivate the happy peace of mind that is satisfied with little.” …”The moment the owner lets it (the soil) alone the planting has begun.”

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Luke. I have many vintage editions of L.H. Bailey here, too…big surprise, huh (or not)? I cannot tell you how appreciative I am of your reminder to look at them once again with a close eye now. Thank you — and come again soon, yes?

  12. Van says:

    I have to check out this book, this is a woman after my own heart. We already have so much chaos in our lives, let’s not make our “recreation” (ha!), gardening, any harder than it should be. I’m embracing mulch this year. In excess.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Van. Ruth Stout was really something. Mulch in excess it is! I am always looking for ways to simplify because it’s impossible to do everything, isn’t it? Thanks for your nice comment, and don’t be a stranger.

  13. frazzledsugarplummum says:

    I enjoyed the post and videos about Ruth Stout enormously. Thank you. I am pleased as punch to find that I am already on the way to emulating her style. I dont dig and barely weed either. I tear or chop up what is finished with a plant or pruning exactly where it grows. If there is too much for one spot then I just add it somewhere else. Leaves and garbage the same. I started this when I found I was unsuccessful at composting heaps and thought about how plants die in nature and fertilise the ground beneath them. This only inspires me to go further. Shirley

  14. sharon says:

    I love the video of Ruth, she reminds me so much of my momand her garden and her chickens. All the years growing up in Bend Or. my dad had a garden, and grew beans and carrotts and stawberries and lettuce etc, etc, now 50 years later when i run into old class mates they always remember my dads garden and moms cooking. Thank you for the reminder of how it use to be.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sharon. My father cooked, too; my mother’s mother was the gardener. I love when moments such as you describe bring back the spirit of those old scenes, the gestalt of them. Thanks for mentioning it. See you soon!

  15. in march of this year (2010) i found myself stuck in north texas state hospital, rather prayerfully, for two months. i returned home yesterday. while i was there i was fortunate to discover one room with a wall fool of books, so i stepped back & waited for something to stand out. the 2nd book i picked up was ruth stout’s 1955 edition “how to have a green thumb without an aching back – a new method of mulch gardening”. i was instantly transfixed by the bold statements in the introduction to the book, & leverageable knowledge being my addiction, i knew i would have to devour it. unfortunately i was only given access to the room for minutes at a time & book borrowing was *not* allowed. i resorted to stealing it (borrowing it indefinately) & carefully covering it with a may 1998 rolling stones magazine cover that i found featuring the seinfeld cast dressed up as the characters from wizard of oz. =) http://imagecache2.allposters.com/images/RSPOD/RS787.jpg

    if anyone is upset by my having removed the book, i’m considering mailing it back to the horticulturist who teaches at the hospital. it would have remained buried & unused if i had not taken such bold action in any case.

    i’ve been intending to engage in a sort of Christian ministry focusing on grass roots health & gardening, & by the time i’d finished reading mrs. stout’s work i was brimming with excitement at the prospect of being able to show people how to garden this way! from now on, we can simply mow yards & create gardens as big as the mulch will cover the property 8 inches deep! not to mention raking leaves in the fall, etc..

    i had already intended to learn to build & install rainwater recycling systems because apart from fertilizer, watering is easily the other most cost prohibitive barier preventing people from growing their own food, apart from simple tools which will now pay for themselves much faster.

    “in all of the, over 35 years that i have gardened this way, *i have never had to water once*.”

    revolutionary simplicity is the operative phrase that comes to mind.

    still, a permanent compost pile from local food scraps with some red wigglers would be great for seed starting. seed starting would eliminate that little bit of anxiety many people (myself included =) have between the seeds being perilously scattered on the top of the soil & their hopefully imminent sprouting to above the level of the surrounding mulch. =)

    thanks so much for posting these videos in your blog. may God bless you, please.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jonathan, and welcome home. I am glad Ruth Stout came into your life and expect you will find in her years of inspiration as I have.

      You mention worms…If you are also interested specifically in vermicomposting, or composting with the help of worms, the pioneer you will want to read up on is the late Mary Applehof, who self-published “Worms Eat My Garbage” years ago and got many companies, schools, muicipalities saving money and resources by setting up worm bins. Fascinating.

      I have never done the latter, but the organization she left behind still promotes the practice.

      Best to you, and see you again soon.

  16. jonathan says:

    thanks, yes!
    i’ll remember that.

    for the last year i’ve been dreaming about vermiculture & watching some popular blogs where people are experimenting with this. but i don’t think they’ve quite found the ruth stout key that will unlock this for the t.v. watchers. bins are alright, & i can see myself doing this, but can’t we do this outside, year round without everything dying of heat & cold? stacking hay bales around the perimeter comes to mind first. anyways, i haven’t read any books on it yet & i would love to read “worms eat my garbage” but while i am rich in unasked questions & leverageable ideas i am poor in the pockets at the moment & should move from this to focusing more directly on solving that problem even as i type. =)

    after i resolve my immediate cash flow needs, through a multiple streams of income solution which i feel i’m at the tipping point of accomplishing, i look forward to engaging my vision of son exposure ministries, which is to share the gospel while installing for what it’s worth, or preferably free, year round garden & chicken ecosystems, *but with ruth stout efficacy* & teach others how to do this.

    Ephesians 4
    28 Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.
    http://kingjbible.com/ephesians/4.htm

    i love ruth stout’s epiphany but my mind always wants to learn from the best & then immediately ask, how can this be made better, cheaper, simpler, free? continual improvement, or as the japanese say, kaizen: http://hasanyorukoglu.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/kaizen2.gif

    i figure everyone who can bag up their own unpoisoned lawn clippings can start a mulch garden if it’s deep enough, even if it’s 3ft. by 3ft (since not everyone can afford clean hay. if i had my druthers i would try alfalfa hay because it is so replete & it’s roots reach so deep getting minerals that are not going to be in most of your hay) & if they can’t do that, i’ll be glad to do it for them where i can. however, it seems for some who have used their own yard grass as mulch (with myriad grass, weed, & seeds) as mulch that bugs nesting in this type of mulch in the winter & emerging in the spring & subsequently devouring some crops can be a problem. one immediate thought is to allow your chickens to hang out in the garden.

    after all if you’d like to create the healthiest chicken eggs around, free range bug eating is how it’s done, right?

    as for the slugs that some people report, which ruth never had a problem with, a spray solution of sea-salt should do the trick, no? it melts slugs & pure seasalt is used as a fertilizer when it isn’t overly concentrated. (i have a book that explains the perfect ratio).

    if that weren’t enough, the red-wiggler worms from your vermicomposting would provide another superfood for your chickens, right?

    i’ve also considered adding a small cricket farming operation, since chickens love them, they propogate so quickly, & also eat veggie scraps.

    i always write too much, sorry! but only for my desire to be well understood.

    looking forward to your reply.

  17. Kristi says:

    Lovely post! I am hoping to try the mulch method myself, at least once we move out of our apartment and into a house with space for a garden. :)

    For those of you wondering about the slugs – in the “No Work Garden Book” Ruth advocates the method of placing a pan of beer out and letting them ‘die happy.’ She didn’t have problems with them herself but was often asked about them.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Kristi. That Ruth was something, right? Drunken slugs and all. :) See you soon here again, I hope.

  18. Cynthia McIntyre says:

    Ruth was a lady ahead of her time. Thanks for sharing her story and new appreciation for female gardeners that came before us.

  19. Danielle says:

    Hi Margaret. Thought you might like to know that your Ruth Stout video links to YouTube are broken on this post. YouTube seems to have taken the clips down. Too bad though, I love her writing, I will have to search for the clips.

  20. kem willis says:

    i have been mulching since 1975..the biggest problem i’ve had was voles…not moles but voles..some cats are hanging out here now and they seem to be not as plentiful…i can remember seeing my tomato plants wilting, would move the plant around alittle and the voles had eaten all the roots…the problem with cats is they kill baby birds…i have blue bird boxes and i know this is going to be a problem next year…the cats came this past year after the bluebirds had fledged…anyway, i love working in my yard …i would like to have the richest soil in s.c.!!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Ken. Lots of voles here, too. The cat kills dozens each year, but as you say at the risk of harm to songbirds he cannot be left out unsupervised.

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