My most recent ISG article was about subsistence gardening. There are ominous signs of coming food shortages as a result of the Covid-19 global pandemic. Some countries are likely to prohibit food exports. My view is that canned, boxed and sacked food is probably going to be available (think rice and beans, etc.), but fresh produce – especially greens – may be in short supply by this fall or winter.
The recent subsistence gardening article clearly describes the amount of work needed to double-dig the ground and prepare the soil. John Jeavon’s Grow Biointensive gardening system is truly superior. But it involves a lot of work, especially at first. So if that intimidated you just a bit, Ruth Stout’s “no-work” system may be for you.
ISG readers tend to be resourceful. Planting a vegetable garden should become a priority. This article explains the excellent system developed over several decades by the late Ruth Stout. And while the claim of “no work” is a stretch, it really is a simple way of putting in a successful, productive garden. Let’s just say that very little work is needed.
Background and Method
Gardening is one of the most relaxing things you can do during these stressful times. There is something about getting your hands in the soil that is deeply satisfying.
You need a gardening spot in full sun, getting at least six hours (eight or more is better) of sunlight on your garden. The type of soil you have does not much matter under this system. That’s because you won’t be asking much of your soil until it improves over time, and it will.
No plowing, cultivating, weeding, watering or spraying are needed.
The secret behind this remarkable gardening system is straw bales and mulch.
Ruth Stout was born in 1884 and she lived to age 96. Said Ruth: “My no-work gardening method is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both my vegetable and flower garden all year round. As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more. The labor-saving part of my system is that I never plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I use just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal) and I don’t go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.”
To cover a garden plot about 50 by 50 feet, you will need about 25, fifty-pound bales of straw. That’s about half a ton. But you will need about an equal amount in reserve (remember, you will be adding lots of mulch). For mulch you can use spoiled hay (cheap), straw, leaves, pine needles, sawdust, dead weeds – any vegetable matter that will rot, but avoid oat hay (the oat seeds will germinate).
First, rake the garden spot free of debris and visible rocks. You do not need to mow it unless the vegetation is tall. In that case, run a lawnmower over the area. The thick layer of straw or hay will smother grasses & weeds.
Leaves rot slowly, but that’s good; they last longer and cut down on work. You can use grass clippings, but you would need to arrange with neighbors to collect and bag them. You would need a lot of grass clippings.
How do you plant?
In the soil, even if it is poor at first. Over time you will develop rich, fertile soil and your garden will become ever more productive. To germinate, the seeds need a thin covering of soil. The seed packet will tell you how deep to plant and proper spacing. If you live in a northerly climate, you can probably plant now. If you live in the south or southwest you may need to plant in the fall. Either way, the sooner you get started, the quicker you will have healthy soil.
Picture in your mind’s eye a 50 X 50 foot garden plot, covered thickly with straw or spoiled hay. Then imagine scraping narrow rows so the soil is visible. Using a garden hoe or hand scraper, loosen the narrow rows of visible soil to a depth of several inches. This is the only time you will likely need to do this. Discard any rocks or stones you unearth as you loosen the soil.
At first your narrow rows of visible soil should be a couple of feet apart, but as your mulch gradually decomposes and feeds the soil, you will be able to plant the rows much closer, even to the point where the leaves overlap. This method will in time create truly excellent, healthy soil with lots of earthworms.
You plant into the soil and cover the plants according to seed package directions. You don’t cover the seeds with mulch, for they will not germinate. Once the little seedlings emerge, thin them according to seed package directions, and then mulch between the seedlings. Do not mulch right up to the plant stems. Leave a couple of inches free of mulch. Weeds will emerge in the straw or hay. No problem; just flip the top layer over with a pitchfork or other garden tool, and voila, you’re done.
Kitchen vegetable scraps (but not meat, fish or poultry) can and should be added to your mulch. Egg shells are great too. All this stuff breaks down and feeds the soil. In two or three years you will note a remarkable improvement in your soil. It’s fine to walk on the thick mulch but avoid stepping in the planting rows. You don’t want to compact the soil.
Ruth Stout was a remarkable person. She did not start gardening until age 48, and she developed her system over many years, keeping careful records. Along the way she spoke to many groups of interested people, a lot of whom were skeptical. But they came around to Ruth’s point of view once they learned firsthand how easy this system is.
So, are there any disadvantages to this gardening method?
Well, there is this: It can look a bit messy if that matters to you. But the productivity of such a garden far outweighs the aesthetics. I’m not suggesting you locate this in your front yard. But if that is what works for you and the neighbors don’t mind, go right ahead. I think you will enjoy this simple, highly productive gardening method.
Barry V. is a former Texas Master Gardener. Now retired, he lives with his wife on a Central Texas ranch.