2014 pledge: more mulch, no spray (inspired by ruth stout)

mulch WITH HELP FROM THE LATE RUTH STOUT, I’m asking you to do two things this year: Use lots of good-quality mulch, and use no sprays or other chemicals. Get two nuggets of Stout’s 1961 wisdom from her book “Gardening Without Work,” and take the pledge.

Don’t know Ruth Stout? As I have written before: Long before phrases like “lasagna garden” were making the rounds of the as-yet-uninvented internet, Stout was layering all her organic materials (chopped up cornstalks, fallen leaves and such) on top of her Connecticut garden soil. The idea behind her sheet composting, as it might be called, was 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 no-till approach rests on 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 or seedlings. (Less soil-turning equals fewer weed seeds exposed to light, and less soil damage by overworking.)

Stout used everything the garden or the trees nearby produced, combined with loads of “spoiled hay,” to mulch her garden. If that’s too funky a look for you in some areas, then compost every last scrap of organic matter first, top-dressing your beds with the finished material, and also create or locate a source of good-quality, aged mulch that will improve the soil beneath it (more on that in the bullets below; the top photo is the mulch I use–notably not giant bark chips that come in plastic bags).

On the other point of the 2014 pledge I’m proposing, I hope I don’t need to explain why I’d like you all to stop using chemicals—whether fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or fungicides.

Frankly, I don’t even use “safe” sprays and other products approved for organic growing. I rely on a commitment to building healthy soil; practice good garden sanitation; encourage beneficial insects (more on that in the bullets below), and stay vigilant: checking key crops like cucurbits or brassicas daily, for instance, so I can stay ahead of any pest that might show up. I also accept that a little imperfection is natural; the arugula tastes just fine, even with the occasional flea-beetle hole.

Two of my favorite passages from Ruth Stout’s eccentric “Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent” (Amazon affiliate link) speak to the power of mulch, and the danger of chemicals.  Both give you a sense of her irrepressible tone:

the quotable ruth stout

‘I GET LETTERS complaining that mulch won’t kill cockleburs, morning glories, witch grass, vetch. I could add that neither will it plant your seeds nor harvest your crops: I am only saying in a sarcastic, friendly way that just because mulch does one hundred things for you, should it be expected to do one hundred and one?”

‘I DON’T BELIEVE in spraying, and I’m not talking only about the squirting of poison on vegetables we expect to eat. I am against poisoning our little enemies if at the same time I must kill any of our little friends, such as bees, which might happen to be in the vicinity. As one man put it: what would we think of a general who ordered his soldiers to fire on everybody, including his own troops?”

Can I count on each of you to count less on packaged “remedies” this year, if you still use any, and to count more on mulch to help your garden grow?

more help going greener

stout’s ‘gardening without work’

Ruth Stout Gardening Without Work bookRUTH STOUT’S “Gardening Without Work” (Amazon affiliate link), originally published by Devon-Adair Company in 1961, was reissued in 2011 by North Creek Press. I’ve bought two extra copies to share with you.  All you have to do to enter to win is answer this question in the comments box below [NOTE: the giveaway is complete]:

What’s your mulching style and preferred material, and how’s it going with the packaged “remedies” over there (fertilizers, pesticides, weed killers)?

Me? As for mulch: I use chopped, aged leaves in my vegetable beds, and some straw or hay only if I can get it from an organic source. On my flower and shrub beds, I mulch with composted stable bedding (top-of-page photo) from an ethical local provider. As for “remedies,” I use a small amount of all-natural organic fertilizer, including concentrated seaweed and fish emulsion, and some lime on the lawn.

Feeling shy, or have no answer? Just say “count me in” or the equivalent, and I will. But I’d love to hear how you’re doing—and whether you can commit to gardening greener in the new year.

Two winners were picked at random after entries closed at midnight on Sunday, March 2, 2014.

  1. Cintra says:

    I also use shredded leaves and some mulch recycled trees from our town for my shrub and flower gardens and the shredded leaves and hay in my veggie garden. I also use fish emulsion and organic fertilizer. I’m just nor to good a spraying and gave that up a while ago….. It’s hard to combat bugs in a community plot though….. So I have to resign myself to getting whatever I get. :)

  2. Jerome Molinari says:

    I am a city boy who move a few years ago and every year I look to become more garden sustainable and responsible thank you for all these articles.

  3. margaret says:

    THANKS TO ALL for entering! Comments remain open, but the contest is now closed.

    And the winners (who will be notified by email) are: Dana and Andrea.

    I am so heartened to read all your tales of your commitment to smart, safe gardening!

  4. Steve says:

    At the Rhode Island MG Symposium, Jessica Walliser, a consulting editor of OG magazine recommended no spraying at all. Not even a sharp spray of water for aphids or other bugs. The research is showing that plants send out chemical signals that attract beneficial predators once a population of plant eating bugs reaches a certain point. When we spray we interrupt that cycle that will attract beneficial insects. So I’m going cold turkey. No Bt. No Spinosad. Not even sharp streams of water. It won’t be easy.

  5. Trixie says:

    I started to mulch with shredded leaves two years ago. I also use grass clippings. However, I make sure to leave part of my garden un-mulched to help ground-nesting bees make their homes in my yard.

  6. Michelle Cannon says:

    I grow commercially so my four acre vegetable garden needs lots if mulch. I normally use one or two year old oat straw and/or hay. I leave the bales outside to get rained on and “grow” outside of the garden before I apply it. That way my mulch doesn’t grow along with the beans and peppers!
    I also mulch with compost sometimes both depending on who is expecting to grow there. The compost can form a weed inhibiting “dust mulch” on top that alone can keep annual weeds at bay!
    Thanks for all the helpful info gardeners!

  7. Terri Price says:

    We mulch with compost, rotted horse manure, pine needles for acid loving areas, and hay. I am always on the lookout for mulching possibilities.

  8. Casey says:

    We mulched with straw from our farm last summer (our first time mulching anything but ornamental beds) and loved the results! The veggie garden looked beautiful and I only had to weed a couple of times that whole summer.

  9. patty says:

    Never have sprayed anything mainly because I’m lazy. We have two composting boxes that I call the magical dirt boxes. I spread that around faithfully and some times put a layer of shredded newspaper down first. Works every time… well almost :) Love your blog and recipes!!!

  10. Diane says:

    I love Ruth Stout!! I carry black garbage bags in my car in the fall and winter – I am the great leaf/pinestraw thief! If you rake it to the street, I will check it out and maybe pick it up – sometimes it is wonderful mulched leaves and pine straw together – I only have a small area but it is well mulched! I live in the south so don’t have to dig through ice and snow to p/u leaves etc.!

  11. Shannon Johnson says:

    We use everything, even hair clippings, I our garden. I’m not much for sprays and fertilizers. They only seem to burn my plants. My grandparents taught us to compost by digging a hole in the bed and burying the organic waste. No turning or setting a spot aside. The bugs do their thing and the nutrients are deliver to the soil without more work. I had not considered layering my corn stalks over my growing beds. I use them over the winter months with evergreen boughs to cover perennials. As for the hair, if you were wondering, the smell can deter squirrels, raccoons and ground hogs for a while!

  12. louis desena says:

    thanks to your info over the years Margaret I use organic fertilizer,straw,mature farm compost,fish emulsion,bone meal,kelp meal,blood meal,pellitized chicken manure,pelletized calcium,cover crops of alfalfa and commom buckwheat,and Epsom salt.

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