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. Marilynn says:

    I don’t spray. I do have a worm bin and will be using the worm tea as well as the castings. Count me in. Thank you.

  2. Lee says:

    Love coffee grounds from our local grocery and coffee stands. Composting with worm bins bounty [see this month’s Organic Gardening for simple plan]. And many thanks for your new book and this site! Although a little breathing room in the book would have been appreciated…I raced through without an pause!

  3. Elle says:

    Oh, how I’d love to win this book! I’ve watched a youtube documentary on Ruth Stout last year and she is a treasure, thank you!

  4. Elle says:

    Oh, and yes, definitely ‘count me in’. I never use chemicals and would love to try her no-til approach this year.

    1. Kay says:

      Please count me in! I’m newly retired and want to be able to do more work in the garden. My husband is on board too.

      So enjoy your site and info.

  5. Linda Turner says:

    Yes Yes Yes!!! all of these points should be well taken by all gardeners! I prefer not to be called an ‘organic gardener’ because people then assume I use ‘organic products’…I too, shun the use of any sprays, ‘natural’ included.
    I love Mainely Mulch…chopped straw. Sadly, it is a bagged product (in plastic) but it is such a great mulch and soil amendment combined with compost. Love Ruth Stout…

  6. Abby says:

    We compost our organic scraps and use organic mulch. I only plant organic seeds and occasionally use fish emulsion and seaweed. No other fertilizers or any pesticides enter my garden!

  7. Carol Anne McNeill says:

    So far I buy organic mulch of various kinds from my garden centre…would like to make my own sometime soon.

  8. Bess says:

    We mulch with stuff from our compost pile(s) that has not fully composted, mostly old leaves. Does not look pretty but it does the job.

  9. Marsha Goldberg says:

    I have been organic for years but happy to renew my commitment with a pledge. For mulching, I use pretty much anything I can get my hands on, from my own house and my neighbors! I use newspapers for suppressing weeds in large areas, discarded cardboard for starting new beds, wood chips from trees they are grinding up in the neighborhood. I do not buy fertilizer; I use banana peels (for roses), crushed eggshells for tomatoes, and my compost. Love to garden…

  10. Julie Tilton says:

    Please count me in! I’ve been chemical free since I moved to this property 10 years ago. While I do use bark mulch for gardens in the front of the house (public view), I use anything and everything else everywhere else!

  11. Eileen says:

    I use weed cloth in the veggie garden, covered with bark mulch, and pebbles in my other garden beds. Compost only on the vegetables, some organic fertilizer on the trees and shrubs in spring . Love Ruth Stout’s writing, would love to win her book. And thanks for all the great gardening tips!

  12. Michael says:

    I mulch with pretty much whatever I have on hand. Shredded leaves from the yard make up the bulk of my mulch, but I also use locally available straw (shredded), chipped fallen hardwood limbs for my fruit trees, and well aged compost.

  13. Sarina says:

    I’m a scavenger, so whatever I can get to mulch with – fallen leaves, some spent mushroom substrate from a kit, wood chips from an arborist, and for beds that were built too late in the fall to do a cover crop, I used a bunch of burlap bags I get from a local coffee roaster. I see Ruth Stout’s name mentioned a lot, and would love to read her book!

  14. Jen says:

    I’ve been experimenting with different mulches in the garden. Last year, I used lawn clippings and found them to be my favorite so far. They’re free…I just have to make time to rake them up. I use bark mulch in the flower beds (bought in bulk, so no plastic bags) because time is at a premium in the spring and weed-free flowers just make my day :o)

  15. jeanne says:

    Needs to get more mulch! I am mulching with my compost pile from last year, lawn cuttings and some leaves…I have never done a garden this way so it will be interesting! I didn’t spray once last year and had the best crop ever! Here’s to hoping the bugs never find my garden!

  16. We apply 1/2″ -3/4″ of yummy compost from our compost bin….which has been composting for the past year and then we put pine fines on top- just an inch or so of the pine fines. We used to be able to find the pines fines in 1/2″ sized fines and Loved that, but now the producers shred it more, into fine shreds…sort of stringy. I prefer the original as it was not breaking down as quickly, but the plants have not seemed to tell the difference.

  17. Cynthia says:

    We use very composted horse manure from a local horse ranch. Beautiful for all gardens. Really keeps weeds under control. Spring and Fall.

    Also a good trick is to use droppings from our Alaska Weeping Cedar to mulch around hostas. They won’t cross it.

  18. Mariah says:

    Whatever I can get ahold of—leaves, cardboard, straw, all of the above. I also buy ridiculous amounts of bagged mulch…must see about a delivery of mulch this year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.