Deliberate Agrarian
Snippet #35

Ruth Stout

25 May 2014

There was a back-to-the-land movement happening when I was a teenager in the 1970s. One of the celebrities of that era was Ruth Stout. She wrote articles for Organic Gardening & Farming magazine, which I subscribed to.  She also wrote several books about gardening. Her unconventional gardening approach involved copious amounts of hay mulch, and "no work."

I am sure that most of the older gardeners reading this already know about Ruth Stout, but some younger readers may not. In either case, I think both will enjoy watching the 23 minute documentary below. It was filmed in 1976, when Ruth was 92 years old. She died four years later.

When you watch the movie, you will discover that Ruth was an eccentric personality. My favorite part of the film comes in the very end when she tells of her grandfather and something he told her when she was a little girl.

As for Ruth Stout's no-work gardening methods, they are certainly viable and well worth trying. My problem with natural mulch is that it harbors slugs. If I mulched my whole garden with hay and straw the slugs would proliferate and eat what I tried to grow. That has been my experience. But, like I said, it's worth trying. "No-work" is, however, something of a misnomer. "Less-work" would be a more accurate term.

An interesting fact about Ruth Stout is that she helped Carrie Nation bust up a saloon in Kansas in 1900. With that in mind, you can watch an interesting episode of What's My Line in 1964 with Ruth Stout (she was 80 years old then) At This Link.


Anonymous said...

Shredded 60 bags of leaves, to mix with grass, yesterday to try this method on a new garden plot this fall. Need lots of help in dry Texas.

SharonR said...

I've watched this some years ago. You're right about "eccentric". I don't remember reading her in Organic Gardening, though I'm sure I did. You're not that teen who won first place in a garden contest back in the 70s, are you? I remember being amazed at him and have wondered where he went in his life with all that gardening enthusiasm.

RonC said...

"If I mulched my whole garden with hay and straw the slugs would proliferate and eat what I tried to grow."

Sounds like you have a lack of Ducks problem.

Lorraine Barnett said...

I read Ruth Stout decades ago and loved her style. I have used mulch in my garden ever since. I don't have too many problems with slugs but the year that we had a bad drought, the voles took over the whole garden, hiding under the mulch! I still like my mulch but I try to be a bit smarter about it. I just like her what works for you and don't worry about what everybody else things you must do to have a perfect garden. Thanks so much for sharing this! She is delightful!

Anonymous said...

I love mulch because it helps hold moisture in the soil; here in Oklahoma the wind blows all the time and sucks the water right out of the ground. Unfortunately I can't use it around my squash (squash bugs hide in it and attack the plants) or lettuce (pill bugs ditto). However, around beans, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers it is wonderful.

I have an old copy of Ruth's book and really enjoy her humor and wisdom.


Pharmer said...

Thanks, Herrick. We've enjoyed using Ruth's straw (actually hay) methods for y he past ~10 years and I completely agree that "no-work" is a misnomer. I've since gone back to conventional tilling & cultivation for about half of our gardens because I simply couldn't keep up with the straw. I do think the methods and principles can give fantastic results and the books are definitely worth reading for any gardener. I'm going to watch the video next chance I get.

Herrick Kimball said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Sharon… No, I was not that teen. I still had a lot to learn about gardening back then. And after 30+ years, I still do. :-)

Herrick Kimball said...


You're right. I do need some ducks. We had a couple ducks years ago and they were a lot of fun.

Kathleen Stoltzfus said...

"Thee was looking out the wrong window."
Love, love, love that bit of wisdom. Something I need to remember more often.

Barbara Frank said...

I obtained a couple of Ruth Stout's books through Interlibrary Loan and enjoyed them, though they're a bit repetitive.

Another interesting fact about Ruth Stout is that she was the sister of Rex Stout, creator of fictional detective Nero Wolfe.

Julie Tracy said...

I changed to this method a few years ago and I love it. Definitely less work when it comes to weeds and water. And I don't see the bug and slug problem that I did with the more shallow mulch approach.
However I will say that it takes some skill development when you are planting in it!

I do start getting some weeds later in the season as the mulch breaks down and gets compacted by me and my dogs. But overall my garden looks fantastic and produces loads of food.

BTW - I have some of the most aggressive weeds you have ever experienced. Example of experiment from years ago - dug an area out and lined with plastic, filled with new dirt, and topped with plastic on top. Weeds grew up. When I tore apart the experiment I found they had grown from under the lower plastic, punched thru the plastic, thru 2 ft of dirt, then punched up thru the upper plastic!