When we walk through our garden covering up a couple of weeds per week with mulched grass, 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!
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.
It always seems to start 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.
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.
Ah, 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 Work, I’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).
(This post may contain affiliate links which means I make a small commission at no extra cost to you.)
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 favorites:
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... Nevertheless, hay has the best results.
Every time we mow the lawn, we use our bagger on the parts of the lawn where we frequent 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.
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.
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.
For Ruth Stout, soil type has little importance. Even if it was acidic, she didn’t do anything in particular. As for rocky soils, she considered them good soils. Mulching is particularly beneficial for sloped surfaces because the mulch protects against erosion and the leaching of nutrients.
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.
Ruth Stout grew a wide variety of crops, including sweet Spanish onions, sweet corn, cabbage, radish, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, beans, peas, young soybeans, carrots, parsnips, peppers, and tomatoes.
Examples of several plants that work well in the Ruth Stout system
Easiest when grown from young bulbs.
There’s no need to dig a trench. We just ensure that the asparagus crown is in contact with the ground, and cover it with mulch. To protect these perennial plants during the winter, cover them with an extra 8 inches of mulch when the weather cools.
Transplant them in the springtime with a space of 1 foot (30 cm) between each plant.
In the region where Ruth Stout lived (Connecticut, United States), she could plant her potatoes in the autumn. She planted whole potatoes, spaced every 14 inches (35cm), and covered them with 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) of hay. Just after flowering, the tubers are 1-2 inches in diameter. Her favourite harvest was the young potatoes of the variety Irish Cobbler. For a mature harvest, it’s best to wait until the potato plants turn dry.
Just plant the seeds in the ground, and the young plants will grow through the mulch. It can help to add a string to indicate a row. The seeds are spaced every 6 inches (15 cm). Ruth Stout recommended the varieties North Star, Golden Beauty and Golden Bantam. Her corn harvests were well above average. With 5 rows of 25 plants, she’d harvest 15 dozen ears of corn. After the harvest, she’d crush the corn stalks and cover them with hay. In the spring, we can sow or transplant without a problem, with quite impressive results. As for animals, Ruth Stout had a fence to keep raccoons away from the corn. Crows weren’t able to eat the newly sown grains because they were protected by the mulch.
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.
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.
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
- Add grass/hay if there isn’t enough.
- Sow and transplant.
- Harvest what’s still growing from last year.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!
Less time and physical effort are needed because:
- No tilling
- No digging
- No harrowing
- No ground cover to plant
- No weeding
- No watering
- No spraying
- No compost to make
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.
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.
Adding fabric weed barrier
Update- Gardens 2020
This year all 3 of my gardens were tilled to be twice the size they were last year. This left me with tons of ground to cover with grass mulch.
I simply would be at this all summer long. So I decided to use my grass mulch just around my onions and potatoes.
Walking through our shop one day, I noticed a stack of these huge seed bags. These seeds bags were basically in a cube. It was perfect! I started cutting the tops and bottoms off and stretching them out in a row, overlapping a bit on the ends. Then using landscape staples, I fastened down the edges and then cover any gaps with dirt. I found that if I left any spots without dirt, the wind would sneak up underneath and rip the whole sheet up!
So I went back and covered all the edges with dirt. We have Chicago-like wind gusts here and I need to make sure my tomatoes are secure!
Ruth Stout’s books:
I've been lucky enough to find a few of these at garage sales and thrift shops.
- Gardening Without Work (September 1, 1974)
- Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent (May 22, 2002)
- I’ve Always Done It My Way
- How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening by Ruth Stout (Author), Leta Macleod Brunckhorst (Author) (Paperback - February 1, 1990)
Do you have a favorite method of gardening or tool, that works well? I LOVE gardening tools! Share your gardening secrets below!
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!