A Paean for Ruth Stout

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 10, 2009 - 09:19:00 AM

There seems to be an epidemic of broken bones at the moment. Consider the following. A slipped on a piece of paper, fractured elbow. B slipped on a tour in southeast Asia, broke hip. C slipped on a bag of onions defrosting on a grocery floor, fractured pelvis. D forgot to keep hydrated, fainted and broke ankle. E—well, you get the picture. Even the New York Times recently reported an incident in a concert, which had to be halted while a tripper was removed by stretcher. Then there are the open heart surgeries for people who have climbed, bicycled (indoors and out), and walked every day for years, everywhere. Could it be that we are exercising too much, not allowing our bodies to recuperate, to do that most un-American activity of all, rest? 

It is refreshing to offset this depressing litany with a look at the long life of Ruth Stout, famous for her no-work system of organic gardening. Ruth’s brother Rex was an author popular with aficionados of detective fiction. His sleuth, Nero Wolfe, grew orchids, and Stout himself took an active interest in his sister’s horticulture. Ruth became renowned for her theory and practice that digging is a complete waste of time and energy. Provided one gives one’s garden a sufficiently deep mulch, constantly renewed, digging is simply unnecessary. 

When I first heard about it, since I spend an enormous amount of time and energy devising ways to make my life simple and lazy, this notion greatly appealed to me. Like all quick fixes, it is not as easy as it sounds. Still, Ruth’s horticultural output was impressive, and her books on the subject are great fun to read, for she was certainly capable of a dig, usually aimed at a “so-called” (her words) expert. 

Ruth often mentions her use of salt hay for mulching, an East Coast term that might pose a problem for West Coast gardeners because as with all common plant names, it could mean any kind of grass. It is probably Spartina patens, which grows intertidally on Atlantic coasts and was used extensively in colonial times for fodder and mulch. Alfalfa hay or timothy grass are good substitutes, often available from local race tracks and stables when bales fall from delivery trucks or are spoiled by bad weather. Their green color signals abundant nitrogen, just the thing for our clay soils leached of this essential nutrient by winter rains.  

In her No-Work Garden Book (a Rodale Press publication available in Berkeley’s public library) written when she was 86, her garden had been reduced to 40 by 60 feet, providing enough vegetables for three adults and numerous guests. She never bought a vegetable, freezing what she did not give away. In the book she appears in several photographs, a picture of health, forking 8 inches of fluffy hay over the garden, or pulling a rhubarb stalk as big as an umbrella, roaring with laughter, wearing the obligatory pretty cotton dress, which she would no doubt exchange for one of her brother’s old shirts and pants as soon as the photographer has left. 

When it is time to sow seeds, she rakes the hay aside and presses the seed into the soft earth. When the seedlings are big enough, she draws the mulch lightly around them. Apart from harvesting, that seems to be it. The 8-inch mound of hay soon rots down to 3 inches, is constantly replenished, and so it constantly nourishes the ground. Ruth does not mention this, but one great by-product of this method is that the earth is far less contaminated than it is when we dig and grovel in it. 

She says she mulches her garden with anything that rots. Yet when she uses leaves and corn stalks to anchor them, and so forth, she still tops it all off with plenty of hay. Last summer, mindful of this sensible approach, I pulled some California poppy stalks that had turned brown and dry, and tossed them aside until I had found a place to mulch with them. Before I could do so, my duck had made a nest of them and laid her daily egg in it. Perhaps she enjoyed their summery fragrance as much as I did. 

I could not at first see how to mulch my baby carrots, turnips and onions, grown in patches, until I realized that they must in future be sown in rows, with banks of hay between them. Meanwhile, I’ve put some hay around the perimeter of these areas, as a protective barrier. Garlic and favas, peas and collards are big enough even when young to be grown in patches rather than rows, and have already absorbed one layer of hay. Provided the mulch is thick enough, weeds will not appear. 

Ruth herself makes modifications when common sense suggests them. She can be withering about any less than sensible horticultural and culinary antics of her readers. Commenting on the woman who mulched with residue from juicing carrots for seven people, she asks, “What’s so hard about chewing?” She delighted in her raw Spanish onion sandwiches and soybeans and parsnips eaten straight from the garden.  

There’s a section at the end of the book, by Richard Clemence, as though she still can not shake off the “expert.” He exemplifies for me one of two kinds of gardeners, the hortatory, leaving me riddled with guilt and inadequacy. Ruth is the other kind, the inspirational. May I pass on her introductory words so suitable for all of us, fractured or intact? “I rarely do any work after 1 p.m.” By work, she meant writing. Rex died when he was 89. Ruth lived on, until 96.