The Ruth Stout Method: How Gardeners Can Work Smarter, Not Harder


So what exactly is the Ruth Stout gardening method? Have you ever heard of it? Yes, Ruth Stout was a real gardener who gets the credit for the “no work/no till” system. Does that sound too good to be true? After all, no garden gets off the ground (no pun intended!) without some work.

Spoiler – the method involves a twist on a technique you may be familiar with – creating mulch. Mulching in general is always beneficial to the soil, but when you build a time-tested strategy behind it, you can really supercharge your results.

Interestingly enough, Ruth didn’t actually discover this method, but you could say she had a “happy accident” (keep reading….) and did a lot of contribution in mastering it and publishing her findings .She didn’t actually get involved in the horticultural world ( or even marry) until her 40s. And I thought I was a late bloomer.

Originally born into a a Quaker family in Kansas in the late 1800s, she undertook a series of different jobs (one of them actually involved assisting in famine relief in the former Soviet Union) so she had an interesting life in the meantime; and never did any serious gardening until she and her husband moved to a farm in Connecticut around 1930.

Gardening was a struggle – at first. She experimented here and there, but the hired plowman that was sought out to till the soil suddenly became unreliable, and she took it upon herself to stop using fertilizer, and attempting to til, or plow, after having an epiphany, the story goes, upon gazing at an asparagus plant and thinking, if seeds sprout without tilling, with this one, is there any reason others can’t too?

So she tried something relatively new, mulching the plot of land and abstaining from manual labor for a season, and the rest as they say is history.

ruth stout method

So the core tenets of Ruth stout gardening is as follow….

Point One – Your layer of mulch must be about 8″ thick. It should include lots of hay. How attainable this is for you in the modern gardening world will depend on you and your environment and situation. The hay doesn’t have to be fresh. There can also be layers that include twigs, limbs, dried leaves, basically, everyday compost.

It is not too different from the “lasagna gardening” approach you may have heard of which includes pieces of cardboard in between the layers of broken down plant matter.

Point Two – The layer must be permanent. To be successful, it can’t be a one-off….you must always have this blanket of mulch intact for all seasons.

Point Three – Timing.  Although the layer can be started and built upon at any time in the process, it is best to start in late summer.

So how does your garden benefit from this deep layer of mulch? For one thing, because you’ve created a polyculture of support, you’ll be less dependent on fertilizer. As the layers break down over time, they will convert to valuable soil nutrients.

Next, moisture will be better preserved and put to good use, as the layers of hay and straw can retain it and minimize erosion. So you’ll need less irrigation to produce a good yield.

Lastly, deep, permanent mulch layers shield plants from the hot sun and plants drying out, in some species, like seed potatoes, deep mulching is highly necessary for protection as the crops can be at risk of developing too much solanine from sun exposure.

Pests and weeds will be better able to manage and be rid of if need be.

There is peace in the garden. Peace and results. – Ruth Stout

Legend has it she may have been an accomplice to the infamous Carrie Nation (of prohibition fame –  known as “Hatchet Granny”, her claim to fame, or infamy, was taking an axe to saloons in a radical effort to uphold the ban on alcohol.)

After having success with this revolutionary approach, she published her findings and soon word spread. One such book is known as “the No Work Garden”…it was sometime in the 60s, but you can still find a copy in a current edition. Ruth was ahead of her time in the matters of permaculture. Everyone who’s read it says it has a great writing style. It’s laced with a sense of humor and wisdom.I recommend you do, too.


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