Friday, September 11, 2009

Ruth Stout: Queen of Labor-Saving

As I wrote in a post in July, I’m gradually developing a set a principles for gardening as a nest egg, or an investment in food security. These include things like minimizing purchased inputs, planting what I call “sure bets,” and finding and developing methods for simplifying the work, or labor-savers, so that even into old age, one can continue to garden.

In the seven weeks since I started this blog, I’ve written about four times as much on minimizing purchased inputs and sure bets as I have on labor-saving. But that’s not because labor-saving is less important to me. In fact, labor-saving emerged as the primary issue for me when my health problems came to a crisis point a couple of years ago. Although I have made steady, if slow, improvement since then, I could not continue with this project if I thought that it would be impossible for me to garden five, or even ten years from now, let alone in old age. What kind of a Backyard Nest Egg would I have if I had to abandon gardening in a few years because it was physically impossible for me to do the work?

Labor-saving strategies enable one to build and maintain a Backyard Nest Egg not only in old age, but also when physically limited by pregnancy or ill health, while working a full-time job, or to simply free up time for other activities. (Truthfully, part of the pleasure of a garden for me is just sitting in it, perhaps in a chaise lounge with a good book, drifting off from time to time, luxuriating in the sounds, beauty and warmth of a summer day.)

So when I happened to stumble on the writings of Ruth Stout and her ideas for “no-work gardening” I felt truly empowered to take on my Backyard Nest Egg project. Well into her 80s, Stout produced in her garden all the vegetables she, her husband, and her sister required. Born in 1884, Stout lived to the age of 96 and wrote many articles for Organic Gardening magazine in the 1950s and 1960s, where she expounded on her labor-saving ideas.

Stout’s key strategy for her “no work” method of gardening was to apply a year-round thick mulch of organic material – primarily hay. Why go to all the trouble of building and turning a compost pile, she reasoned, when one could just throw kitchen vegetable scraps directly into the garden, cover them with a layer of leaves, pine needles, straw, hay – whatever combination of these you had to hand – and allow them to decompose where they lay? Stout especially favored “spoiled hay;” that is, hay no longer suitable for animal feed, usually due to mold, and therefore inexpensive. Whenever the mulch became thin, and/or weeds poked through, Stout advised adding a few more armfuls of hay onto the mulch.

One spring, when she grew impatient waiting for someone to till her garden so she could start planting, she found that the layers of decaying mulch had created soft rich earth into which she could directly plant her seeds. Thereafter, she eliminated tilling from the usual list of garden chores. She even skipped digging trenches for crops like potatoes and asparagus. Instead, she recommended laying seed potatoes on top of the previous year’s mulch, covering them with about a foot of loose hay, and “and later simply pull[ing] back the mulch and pick[ing] up the new potatoes.”[1]

Gardeners are usually advised to dig trenches 8 to 10 inches deep to plant asparagus, but Stout turned that received wisdom on its head as well.

Since I long ago lost faith in so-called experts, I bought two dozen asparagus roots a few years ago and decided to try planting them by just laying them on top of the ground (in a bed of peonies) and tossing hay on them. And I have had a fine crop from these roots every season. You see, I had noticed that in a dozen or more places – in the meadow, by the woodshed, and around – asparagus plants are more luxurious than those in my regular asparagus bed (emphasis in original).[2]
What I most appreciate about Stout is her curious, critical mind. She read many articles and books on gardening, and asked advice of many extension agents, always trying to glean some information that would improve her techniques. Yet she also relied on her own observations and critical analysis. In her No Work Garden Book, Stout has a bit of fun deconstructing a pamphlet entitled “Science Versus Witchcraft” the aim of which is to debunk organic gardening and includes sentences such as “Organic matter is neither essential nor necessary for plant growth.” She also discusses a magazine article in which the author insists that “Plowing IS Important.” The article, she says gives her some satisfaction because, she reasons, they wouldn’t be publishing it if there weren’t a trend to give up plowing. “Merchants who sell fertilizers and plows and so on,” she noted, “aren’t in sympathy with my ideas of gardening.”[3]

Stout reports that early on, she also used manure to fertilize her garden, but later found she didn’t need it. She also claimed that after building her soil for a number of years, she no longer needed to rotate her crops or attend to soil pH for blueberries. She wrote:

My plot has become so rich that I can plant very closely, and I don’t even use manure now. The garden is one-eighth its original size and so luxuriant that in the fall we call it the jungle; one of my carrots, sweet and tender, was large enough to serve five people. My sweet Spanish onions average a pound apiece; some weigh a pound and a quarter.[4]
Finally, in addition to eliminating tilling, hoeing, weeding, building and turning a compost pile, Stout’s heavy mulch method also drastically reduced the need for watering. Since her household relied on water from their well, she was forced to use it wisely, especially during droughts. Before the term “grey water” came into existence, she kept a large watering can by her sink, and saved all the water she used to rinse dishes and vegetables, and any other “waste water” that did not have grease or too much soap in it, for watering what she called her “pet;” her flowers. She claimed never to have watered her peppers and tomatoes and always to have produced good crops of these. She added:

Many people have asked me if mulching adequately protects my flowers and vegetables from a severe drought. The answer is yes; through eleven seasons of year-round, over-all mulching, with several serious droughts, the only crop I have lost has been one late planting of corn. Now I believe I could have saved that, too.[5]
Stout’s advice for when drought is expected:

• Plant seeds further apart than usual, water well, and mulch thickly.
• Don’t plant pole beans, but instead plant successive crops of bush beans, after soaking the seeds overnight.
• Avoid mid-season varieties of corn and plant quick maturing varieties instead. Soak the seeds overnight before planting.

Following Stout, we went out to a farm last week-end and bought ten bales of hay. Because I believe in using what you have, and minimizing purchased inputs, I had originally planned to just use the fall leaves that are so abundant around here for mulching the garden and building the soil. In his Book of Compost, Mike McGrath advocates fall leaves as the best dry material for making compost. He points out that leaves are “filled with trace minerals and nutrients the tree’s roots have extracted from deep in the earth, minerals and trace nutrients essential for plant health” (p6, emphasis in original). He adds, “None of your ‘dry brown’ alternatives are anywhere near as rich in trace minerals and other nutrients as leaves” (p8).

So last fall we shredded and bagged every single leaf that fell in our yard; loads and loads of leaves; ultimately ten large paper yard waste bags of them. (Which is more than it sounds, because the leaves were shredded.) These made a wonderful mulch – but ten bags were not enough. I was forced to spread them a bit too thin, and when they decomposed, I had no more to add.

Also, however much I admire Stout, I don’t plan to throw vegetable scraps and other things I use for compost, like egg shells and coffee grounds, directly into the garden. We have enough varmints around here as it is, and I prefer the garden to look attractive. However, last year, when I grew impatient waiting for compost to finish in the Earth Machine composter (I’ve written about the problems with this composter here), I did put partially finished compost around some ailing peppers and they perked up almost immediately. After that, I decided that as soon as I couldn’t recognize a vegetable peeling or eggshell, the compost was done enough to mulch the garden and finish decomposition there. (Now that I have chickens, I compost their manure as well.)

So my idea for next spring is to put partially composted material on the garden, cover it with hay, and when this settles a bit, top with shredded fall leaves. I tried hay mulch in a few places this summer, but decided that shredded leaves are more aesthetically pleasing. This fall, I’m spreading the hay we just bought in all of our beds. I also plan to place stepping stones in the large landscaped area so that we don’t compact the soil. The raised beds are easy to work in without walking in them. But our largest planting area (previously professionally landscaped with perennials and shrubs by the prior owners) is not a square plot, like Ruth Stout’s, with regular space between rows in which to walk. I keep telling Rick (since he does nearly all the heavy digging for me), that soon, SOON, there will be less work. I’m counting on it, Ruth.


[1] The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book. Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence. Rodale Press, 1971:p16.
[2] 1971; p13.
[3] 1971; p59.
[4] 1971; p4.
[5] 1971; p32.


More articles on Ruth Stout:

Ruth Stout, The No-Dig Dutchess
Ruth Stout, Gardening Gadfly
Ruth Stout's System

Books by Ruth Stout are out-of-print, but you may be able to find used copies or borrow copies from your library. The titles I know of are:

The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, by Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence.
Rodale Press, 1971.

Gardening Without Work for the Aging, the Busy and the Indolent

How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.

No comments: