Farm Living

The Best Way to Keep your Garden Weed-Free

When we walk on top of the garden mulch in the summer, we sing "No weeds, no weeds, no weeds in our garden!"

"After you have mulched for a few years, your soil will become so rich from rotting vegetable matter that you can plant much more closely than one dares to in the old-fashioned way of gardening."- Ruth Stout

Would you like to garden with ease?

How about weeding, would you like to just not have to do that?

I bet you'd love to watch your beautiful produce standing alone in your garden (not nudged between weeds).

Read on my friends, you're gardening ventures are about to get EASIER!

no weeds

What is garden mulching?

Nicknamed the "Mulch Queen", Ruth Stout was born in the United States in 1884. As early as 1920, she realized that all traditional methods of working with the soil (digging, weeding, watering, plowing, hoeing), could be replaced by simply adding a layer of hay on the ground.

She wrote a chronicle about this particular approach for the magazine Organic Farming and Gardening from 1953 to 1971. She also published several books about her methods.

For us, Garden Mulching started as an accident

We were new to the chicken coop world 8 years ago. In early February I found myself with nowhere to go with the straw, manure, and sand from our chicken coop.

I mean we live on a farm so really, I should have had plenty of options. But I thought, what do people do with this stuff anyway?

So, I just put it in my garden! (The closest place to my coop, that seemed like a good close spot to wheel my wagon.)

I'd mow the lawn with my grass bagger and toss the bags of grass into the garden.

Fall would come and I'd use the mower to crunch up the leaves and toss it into the garden mix.

We even burn wood, paper, cardboard in the garden and mix in the ashes to the soil- in the early spring.

kneeling in the dirt

To Till or Not to Till?

Ruth comments that one year she got sick of waiting for the "plow-man" to till her garden and decided to just stick her seeds right into the mulch. Lo- an-behold, this little mistake turned out to be a brilliant no-till gardening method! Ruth and I, we were meant to be friends!

Stout emphasized the simplicity of her methods and the way the gardener benefits from extra free time and rest.

mulched garden cabbage

Plant, mulch, then Rest! This is the best part, ya'll!

We put in all of our time and efforts at the beginning of the gardening season- planting and mulching. Then, when we decide garden burn-out has set in, we retreat to other projects. When we head back to the garden for a look, it's heavenly to see the produce flourishing in amazing moist soil and practically no weeds! All I do is walk through, coving up any weeds that might have snuck through, with mulched grass, and step on it as I walk by, compacting it down.

It’s easy to see with the titles of her books: Gardening Without WorkI’ve Always Done It My Way, and How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.

Quite simply, the method consists of keeping a thick layer of hay mulch permanently on the soil. We can sum this up as the "law of least effort", where we allow nature to do most of the work for us, and we stop needlessly interfering.

Ruth Stout didn’t invent the technique of permanent mulching (nature has been doing it for millions of years!), but it seems that she is the first who wrote about the topic. She was also an influence for other figures in the ecological gardening movement, including Emilia Hazelip who developed the "synergistic gardening" approach (which later evolved into the "self-fertilizing gardening" approach in Québec).

Equipment needed to Mulch your Garden

None needed! Only your own two hands! However, a trowel, a fork, a spade, and a hoe can sometimes come in handy. These are our favorite garden tools!

garden mulch

Garden Inputs

In terms of the materials needed, Stout bought the hay that she mulched with. We can never have too much! It’s a good idea to have some extra set aside. Anything that doesn’t decompose too quickly can also be used as mulch: old hay, straw, pine needles, corn stalks, grass clippings, seaweed.

Every time we mow the lawn, we use our bagger on the parts of the lawn where we play the most. This keeps the grass out of the house and the mulch in the garden!

We fill in the thinner areas in the gardens where the weeds might have seen the light of day and started creeping up, with this mulched grass.

From time to time, Ruth Stout would buy cotton meal or soy meal as a complementary source of fertility. She would spread about 5 pounds over 100 square feet.

Other than that, the only inputs for the garden were seeds.

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Spring Planting the Video!

Why You'll Love Garden Mulch

  • I love the saying "a stitch in time saves nine". If you can do a little bit at the beginning, to save lots of time later, it's always worth doing!
  • Weeding with mulch will help your soil regenerate and grow.
  • This is a fantastic way to use the grass from your lawn mowers bagger.

Starting the garden

For Ruth Stout, the best time to start this type of garden is last year! As time passes, the soil quality improves and it becomes more fertile. She believes that the results really kick in after a few years of growing this way. To the frequent question from her readers, "When should I start to mulch?" She would answer "Now!"

More precisely, Stout recommended starting a garden in the summer or the fall. Early in the springtime, the soil is still cold, and the mulch would tend to keep the soil from warming up. If we cover the ground in the autumn with 8 inches of hay, it will be ready for seedlings in the springtime.

Materials you'll need to make this garden mulch

  1. Extra grass, straw, hay or leaves

Tips about Garden Mulch

To the question, "How much hay do I need?", Stout answered, "Twice as much as you think!" More specifically, she recommended a thickness of 8 inches. This may seem thick, but with the effects of rain and decomposition, soon enough it will be only 2-3 inches thick.

For beginning a new garden with the Ruth Stout System, the hay can be added directly on an existing lawn. Do not remove the underlying grass and plants: they’ll decompose under the hay and add to the fertility of your soil.

In the case of converting a traditional garden into a Ruth Stout style garden, she recommends planting in your usual manner and then adding mulch around the plants.

Between the rows of vegetables, she recommends adding fallen leaves from trees.

hearty sol sitting on the edge of my raised bed, holding a red bushel basket of garlic cloves

Questions People are asking about Garden Mulch

Is your method of weed prevention chemical free?

Absolutely, yes!

mulched garden squash

How to plant

For planting seeds, ensure that they’re in direct contact with the soil. In terms of the distance between seeds, use the distances recommended in traditional gardening methods. Nevertheless, Ruth Stout said that the plants can be more closely spaced after a few years of using her method. For transplanting seedlings, use a trowel or a small shovel.

Crop Rotation

In her book "No-Work Garden", Ruth Stout’s co-author, Richard Clemence, recommends a rotation of strawberries, sweet corn, and potatoes: three productive cultures that are easy to install with the Stout System, and that can bring an income through the sale of these popular foods. To learn more, here is a snippet from Ruth Stout’s book that describes the rotation.

mulched garden

Cold-weather crops

For the cooler seasons, Stout recommends choosing cold-resistant plants like kale, that we can harvest even when there is snow... or parsnips, that we can leave in the ground all winter and harvest in the spring. To help them get through the winter, we can cover them with a layer of hay.

Stout also suggests growing squash (for example, buttercup and blue Hubbard), since they preserve well indoors during the winter months.

Buying seeds and seed saving

Ruth Stout had two recommendations. First of all, she recommended buying seeds from a reliable seed producer, which helps to support their business. And since they are specialized in the production of seeds, it would be ambitious to think that we could do better ourselves. At the same time, she recommends that gardeners use their own seeds.

seed saving from vine garden

The idea is to benefit from "volunteers": leaving good-quality plants and good-quality fruits in place at the end of the season, so they can regrow the following spring. Ruth Stout nevertheless had the habit of transplanting volunteers to the place where she’d like them to grow the following year.

Tasks in our garden

Springtime

  • Add grass/hay if there isn’t enough.
  • Sow and transplant.
  • Harvest what’s still growing from last year.

Summer

  • Stake climbing plants (ex. climbing beans), and plants that have difficulty supporting their own weight (ex. tomatoes).
  • Weeding consists of laying the plants down and covering them with hay.
  • Add hay if there isn’t enough.
  • For the cabbage family, we suggest using Epson salt to counter cabbage butterflies.
  • Harvest

Autumn

  • Harvest.
  • Plant garlic.
  • Everything is left in place. Nothing is ripped out. We just cover everything with grass/ hay.
  • Clean out the chicken coop and add straw/ chicken and cow manure to gardens

Preparation and Storage

Learn what we do to preserve and store our produce to get it ready for the more hectic times of the year, here!

Advantages

  • Easy to do
  • Easy to understand
  • No machinery needed
  • Few inputs, other than hay and seeds
  • Everything is returned to the soil
  • The mulch retains moisture, which eliminates the need to water
  • Gives good results
  • And, above all, little work!
garlic, straw bedding in garden

Why this method of Garden Mulching works!

There is no tilling, digging, harrowing, no ground cover to plant, no weeding, watering, spraying and not compost to make!

greenhouse mulched garden

Comments and criticisms

Ruth Stout realized that her system required large amounts of organic matter and was better adapted to small surfaces. What’s more, the visual look of her gardening system is in contrast with traditional methods and might be an aesthetic problem for some people.

And, even if Stout doesn’t mention it herself, to create a more dynamic ecosystem and increase the real autonomy of our garden, especially related to garden "pests", we could consider adding trees and ponds to the system.

garden seed starting

What about weed seeds?

When we use hay, it’s best to avoid working the soil. If the hay contains weed seeds, as long as we keep piling on more hay as it decomposes, the seeds will be buried and likely won’t germinate. 

It’s usually when we work the soil that the seeds are brought up to the surface, which leads to their germination. 

If we see weeds that are germinating and growing, we can pull them out (Ruth Stout gardened with 100% hay, so instead of pulling them out, she’d cover the weeds with more hay). 

If you’re worried, you can leave the hay outside of the garden for a few months to start the decomposition process before adding it to the garden.

garden wagon

Summer Journal Printable!

Find out how our kiddos keep themselves busy and occupied on their very own during the summer when they're not in the gardens. Read our post about how to create a summer journal and grab your FREE printables, here to personalize those journals! I even include a little application for the extra jobs around our home- for our kids!

we are the gardeners

More gardening posts here!

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Do you have a favorite method of gardening or tool, that works well? Share your gardening secrets below!

Comment below!

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This post may contain affiliate links from a paid sponsor, Amazon or other program. When you use these links to make a purchase I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. This allows me to continue creating the content that you love. The content in this article is created for information only and based on my research and/or opinion. 

Emily T.

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