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Ruth Stout


Ruth Stout:

The No-Dig Duchess

by Barbara Bamberger Scott

In the early 1980s I went to Sussex, England to study small-scale agriculture at a Rudolf Steiner center called Emerson College.  The course trained people to demonstrate good gardening methods in third world villages.  I learned three ways to garden: the right way, the wrong way, and the easy way.  The easy way was Ruth Stout's way.

The wrong way was obvious: industrialized farming, including the use of chemical fertilizers and poisonous pesticides, leading to the de-naturing of the precious soil.  Everyone knew that this was destructive, and had been the downfall of many a third world village project.  It was a given that a better method was required. 

The right way was, of course, what they taught us at Emerson.  It was a tough row to hoe, because the instructors were proponents not merely of digging, not just double-digging, but triple digging.  This was a technique based on the ancient small-scale agricultural practices of hearty Gallic truck farmers on the outskirts of Paris as well as of terribly finicky, upper-class British rose growers and formal gardeners.  Triple digging is organic and fanatical.  It's done at Wisley and Kew.  It involves cutting into the earth three spits (spade depths) down and systematically inserting various kinds of material from the most decayed compost—horse manure, preferably French—to the coarsest new-cut straw.  It rebuilds soil and if you respect the earth and love to work (those with back problems, take warning) this is a rewarding method over the long haul.  Along with "biodynamic preparations" made from diluted compost, triple digging promises new, permanent soil vigor after a season or two.  Certainly my teachers thought so.  That was the "right way."

Much as I wanted to be a good student, I was far more attracted to the "easy way," the less invasive approach of Ruth Stout—especially after a few weeks of the grueling physical labor involved in Steiner's soil building technique.  The easy way was the precise antidote to all that physical hardship.  American Ruth Stout called it "no dig, no work." Even our excessively Euro-centric teachers gave grudging kudos to Ms. Stout and her "permanent mulch" method.  Stout was sufficiently kooky for the Steiner followers (also known as anthroposophists) to embrace unabashedly.  She had a near-religious respect for the natural environment and, most importantly, believe it or not, her method does work.  With provisos. 

Born in Kansas in 1884, Ruth was a Quaker whose family worked a farm.  She lived into her nineties, died in 1980, and developed a reputation for being brilliant, if eccentric.  She laid claim to having smashed saloons to smithereens along with temperance queen Carrie Nation.  The dates fit and no-one ever proved otherwise.  Her famous brother Rex was also a gardener, entrepreneur and author.  As most everyone knows, he penned the Nero Wolfe mysteries.  Wolfe, who has his own website as though he were a real guy (he wasn’t), was portrayed by Rex as a morbidly obese highly cerebral solver of mysteries who raised rare orchids in a penthouse roof garden.  In real life Rex thought his sister crazy for her no-dig technique, calling her yard, affectionately one assumes, a "garbage dump." But as one writer has correctly pointed out, Rex had servants to help him compost, and he was as strict about his composting as his hero Nero was about schedules for watering the orchids.  Whereas Ruth had only herself and a rather dotty philosopher/carpenter partner, Richard Clemence, who probably wasn’t the brawniest gnome in the garden.

So Ruth developed, or rediscovered, a gardening method that she claims, properly, was invented by God.  For it was God who decreed that each year leaves would fall and cover the bare earth, and that in the spring, plants germinated under their blanket of leaves would miraculously regenerate.  From this and other simple observations, Ruth decided that everyone should do what God does, and cover their garden area with "permanent mulch." And then, as she had, they would discover that "There is peace in the garden.  Peace and results."

What, precisely, was she doing that excited so much dinner table conversation among homesteaders almost a generation ago?  Precious little, by her own report.  It was if anything a kind of deconstruction of gardening as it is generally understood.  Permanent mulch, once built (and continually added to) simply lies in the garden between and among your plants—permanently.  Now often called "The Stout Method" (though Ruth never named it and attributes the title to her faithful Richard), the technique ranged from the crude propagation of potatoes by just throwing them on the ground and leaving them to fend for themselves, to a rather more sophisticated packing order for mulch.

For starters, Ruth opined that any vegetation would make good mulch: hay, straw, leaves, pine needles, even household garbage without the meat and inorganic stuff.  (When Ruth started her work, in less wasteful times, there wasn't much inorganic stuff in the kitchen bin.) In response to immediately arising suspicions that some of these materials might be too acidic (pine needles and oak leaves come to mind) she responded that if there was a problem of acidity, you could just use a little lime, offering wood ash as an example.  Already we’ve gotten out of the realm of "no work" and into the realm of some work, and some understanding and vigilance.  But let’s not second guess the woman who created the system.

She recommended a bottom layer of household garbage (presumably the "hottest" or most active of the materials typically available to a small gardener) with a topping of a combination of leaves and hay.  She was quite certain that "spoiled hay" was the best mulching material one could wish for, practically insisting on its use above (literally) all others.  Whoops, did I mention that if you don’t have spoiled hay lying around, you’ll have to collect—or purchase—this staple of the permanent mulch system?  And with the mulch needing to be at least 8 inches deep, that ain’t, if I may say so, hay.  It’s another job of work for the no-work gardener, and though Ruth may have been correct that there are usually plenty of people willing to part with their used leaves and rotten hay, finding hay in sufficient quantities will present a problem and almost certainly an expense (if not a great one). 

Ruth recommended throwing an "armful" of hay on any spot where the mulch looked thin.  Richard, the more accurate of the two, postulated that you’d need a whopping 25 fifty-pound bales of hay for a garden plot 50 feet by 50 feet and estimated this to be "about a half-ton of loose hay.  That should give a fair starting cover, but an equal quantity in reserve would be desirable."

Ruth always suggested starting NOW, and not worrying about growing seasons.  This is counter-intuitive stuff; most would assume that mulching is an autumn task, but Ruth pointed out that if you wait, the sun will have baked your crop THIS season—she recommended you begin as soon as you finish hearing one of her talks or reading one of her books (or this article).  Run, don’t walk, to the nearest repository of sour hay.

Grass clippings and household garbage are two mulch materials most of us have in abundance even if we don’t farm.  Ruth, a thrifty soul, also suggested following after your local utility workers as they trim tree limbs overhanging the road, to appropriate the fallen branches they leave behind.  If you can get them before the chipper does (there weren’t any chippers in Ruth’s time).  This activity can be slotted in on your "no-work" schedule between visits to the neighbors after a wet spell, offering to carry away their moldy hay.

Ruth has been called an "evangelist" or a "guru" of gardening and indeed her system sounds quite inspiring and still attracts "converts." People who try her method (or one of the many more modern spin-offs) are generally predisposed to making it work, and will report that it’s mostly trouble free, that the mulch keeps the good plants moist and feeds them, while refusing to let weeds grow.  Ruth zealously asserted that weeds wouldn’t grow in hay because they were under the hay, but if they did, you could just turn the hay upside down.  Yes, yes, this is work, but look at all the work she has saved you.  And, contrariwise, the seeds of vegetables, also under the hay, would grow with no tending because they were being lovingly sheltered, warmed and kept moist by the hay.  The same hay that somehow disallows the growth of weeds.  This is illogical, you insist—how can the same material both encourage the good plants and discourage the bad ones?  But Ruth was sure it could and her books may convince you too. 

Permanent mulch (not to be confused with products like crunched bits of rubber and the samey-looking stones known as rip rap, currently marketed under that name) does require "feeding." And more than a little attention, depending on what you’re using to build your stacks.  Hay, which in this day and age is not cheap and plentiful as it must have been for Ruth, is full of—hayseeds!  To keep them down, one hardy Stoutite lifts, turns and smashes the hay several times a season, but still cheerfully reports "it’s a whole lot easier than hoeing or tilling."

  Continued on page 2   >


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