The Ruth Stout Method: A ”No-Work” Technique for Starting an Organic Garden

Are you thinking of starting an organic vegetable garden that requires no fertilizers, no watering, and best of all, no digging and soil amendments? In that case, the Ruth Stout method is one of the easiest techniques you can try.

Even for beginner gardeners, this is a fantastic way to grow your own food, using just one secret ingredient: lots and lots of hay mulch. 

This guide will explain what is the Ruth Stout gardening method, how to use permanent hay mulching to reduce digging, tilling, and watering, and which vegetables grow best using this technique. It will also provide essential tips on how to get started, and troubleshoot the most common problems you’ll find in a Ruth Stout-style garden.

What Is the Ruth Stout Method of Gardening?

The Ruth Stout gardening method involves keeping the soil covered by a thick layer of hay mulch and simply growing your vegetables in it. It is a form of permaculture that’s also similar to sheet or lasagna gardening and allows you to create a fertile substrate that needs no digging.

Ruth Stout didn’t invent perpetual mulching — it occurs naturally in forests and wild fields. However, she was the first person to write and speak about this method, earning her the “Mulch Queen” nickname.    

Ruth’s story began in 1930 when she and her husband moved to a 55-acre farm on Poverty Hollow Road in Redding, Connecticut. It was there that started gardening at the age of 45. And every spring, she had the same problem: the man who was supposed to come and plow the field was always late.  

The story takes a slightly Biblical turn one fateful spring. But, instead of a burning bush, Ruth found herself looking at her asparagus and asking: “If we don’t have to plow for you, why do we have to plow for other vegetables?”. The asparagus said, “You don’t.” It was then that Ruth decided that she wouldn’t plow that year and simply started sowing her vegetables. 

Ruth then realized that by keeping the garden soil permanently covered with hay she would have to work less and still get good results. The layer of hay meant she didn’t have to plow, it suppressed weeds, required no watering, and broke down into compost that provided her vegetables with valuable nutrients.  

How to Start a Ruth Stout Garden

The core principle behind the Ruth Stout method is perpetual mulching with hay. Ruth used it with great success for over 35 years and essentially created a garden that required no digging, tilling, watering, or using fertilizers. 

At first glance, this permaculture method sounds easy enough to implement. But there are a few key details you need to know if you want it to be successful.   

Let’s start with the most important aspect.

6 Steps to a Ruth Stout Garden

1.) Understand Your Garden Soil

holding garden soil

When starting a Ruth Stout garden, the easiest mistake is assuming that laying some hay mulch on the ground will act as an instant fix, and you’ll never have to dig or till again.

However, that’s not how Ruth started her no-work garden. And this misunderstanding is one of the main reasons beginner gardeners complain that the Ruth Start method doesn’t work.

Before Ruth began using hay to grow vegetables, her garden soil was tilled every spring. This went on for nearly 15 years. By the time she gave up on tilling, she already had a workable substrate that had previously been cultivated. This allowed her to add spoiled hay on top and start planting.

If you’re starting a Ruth Stout garden from scratch, you need to factor in the type of soil you’ll be working with. For example, if your garden has clay-heavy soil, it will be too hard and thick for vegetable roots to get through. It will also have poor drainage. In this case, it’s best to till it first, then add your hay.

Similarly, if your garden has very sandy soil, all the nutrients from the hay mulch will leach through it during the rain, and the substrate will retain less water. In this case, work in a bit of leaf mold and compost to facilitate moisture and nutrient retention, then add the hay. 

The good news is that you’ll only need to put in a bit of extra work in the first year. By the second year, the hay will create a thick layer of mulch that’s loose enough to allow you to ditch tilling and digging.  

2.) Know When to Start

For best results, Ruth Stout recommended preparing the garden in late summer or fall. This allows the hay mulch to break down and become compost, suppress weeds, and keep the soil warm enough for an early spring sowing. 

3.) Gather Your Mulch Materials

Traditionally, Ruth Stout used old, spoiled hay to mulch her garden. But if you can’t get your hands on spoiled hay, you can use regular hay, as well as a mixture of old leaves, straw, grass or lawn clippings, pine needles, and vegetable kitchen scraps.

Straw or Hay: Which Is Best for the Ruth Stout Method?

Ruth Stout used hay for her garden but she often referred to it as straw. This can be a bit confusing for the beginner gardener because straw and hay have different consistencies and nutrient availability. 

Hay is thinner, breaks down easier, and contains more nitrogen, but it also contains grass and weed seeds. Straw is coarse, takes longer to break down, contains little nitrogen but plenty of carbon, and is free of weed and grass seeds. 

You can use some straw in a Ruth Stout garden, but for best results, the bulk of your mulch should be made out of hay. 

4.) Spread the Mulch

Unless your soil is very clay-heavy or sandy, you don’t need to prepare it in any way before laying the mulch. You don’t even need to worry about removing plants or trimming the grass. The mulch will smother them, and they will add valuable nitrogen to the soil once they decompose.

Simply spread the mulch in an 8-inch thick layer. The layer needs to be thick enough to suppress weeds, but not so thick that your seeds will be growing in nothing but hay. The mulch will reduce to half the thickness by spring. 

If you’re spreading the hay mulch in rows or beds, make sure that they’re oriented from north to south. Plant your taller crops on the northern side, and the shorter ones on the south side. This will ensure that all your vegetables receive enough sunlight throughout the growing season.

5.) Start Planting

You can start planting vegetables in your Ruth Stout garden two weeks after the last spring frost. Now, “planting” is a way of speaking — Ruth never did any actual sowing.

Instead, she just sprinkled the seeds in rows, then gently patted the mulch by hand until the seeds fell through the hay. However, she did cover her seed potatoes to prevent them from drying out in the sun.

After planting, she also sprinkled some cottonseed meal to give the young plants a nitrogen boost. 

Ruth claimed that in the entire time she used hay mulch to grow vegetables, she never had to water once. But if this is your first year using this method, and especially if you’ve had a winter with no snow and a dry spring, watering your mulch after sowing is a good call.

After that, the mulch will retain enough moisture that you don’t need to water it or trouble yourself with an irrigation system. 

6.) Keep Mulching

ruth stout plants growing in a garden

As your seeds sprout and plants begin to grow, you will need to add more hay. This will help retain moisture, increase nutrient availability, and smother any weeds that might sprout in the mulch. 

After you harvest your vegetables, allow the plants to die down, then cover them with another 8-inch layer of hay. Over the next few months, they will break down, building a layer of mulch that will then become healthy, organic, nutrient-rich soil. 

What Can You Grow in a Ruth Stout Garden?

You can use the Ruth Stout method to grow any type of vegetable you like. In her garden, Ruth grew a wide range of crops, from carrots and lettuce, to corn, beans, and squash.

Some of the plants that grow very well in a Ruth Stout garden are vegetables that benefit from mulching, such as:

  • Potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Eggplants 
  • Cucumbers
  • Squash and pumpkin 
  • Asparagus
  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Peas
  • Beans 
  • Soybeans
  • Cabbage
  • Lettuce 
  • Kale 
  • Turnips 
  • Corn 

One of the perks of the Ruth Stout method is that the hay mulch retains heat, which allows you to plant a late-season crop. Use it to plant cool-weather vegetables such as kale and cabbage in early to mid-fall.  

You can also store some of your vegetables in the hay over winter. Ruth used this storage method for crops such as potatoes, turnips, and parsnips. Parsnips, in particular, will benefit from a mild frost, which gives them a noticeable sweetness.  

Remember to rotate your crops regularly, to prevent a buildup of pests and diseases in the mulch. In the “No-Work Garden Book”, Ruth’s co-author, Richard Clemence, recommends rotating corn, potatoes, and strawberries, all of which are excellent crops for growing in hay. 

Troubleshooting Common Problems

Before we discuss how to get rid of weeds and pests, there’s one thing worth keeping in mind. As with any permaculture method, the aim of a Ruth Stout garden is to work with nature, not against it.

If you allow nature to follow its course, your garden will become a self-regulating ecosystem that will require very little work on your part.

Slugs and snails will become valuable food for frogs, beetles, and mice, rodents will attract predatory birds, and even weeds can be used to keep pests off your main crops.

Of course, this takes time and patience. So until then, here are the most common pests and problems you’ll encounter in a Ruth Stout-style garden, and how to fix them.   

Sprouting Hay

Hay bales contain grass seeds that will germinate when they come into contact with soil. To minimize the risk of seeds sprouting, avoid disturbing the ground beneath the hay after you’re done mulching. If any seeds do sprout, pull them out, and add another inch of hay on top.  

Mice and Other Rodents

Rodents such as mice, rats, voles, shrews, and gophers will use the hay as shelter. On occasion, they can also gnaw at your root crops, especially potatoes, and damage vegetable roots. You can discourage them from nesting in your hay by watering it occasionally, and rotating your crops. Also, avoid using scarecrows, which will deter predatory birds such as hawks and owls.  

Slugs and Snails

Slugs and snails love decomposing matter, and they can be a common problem in a Ruth Stout-style garden. You can keep them at bay by growing plants that slugs hate, such as rosemary, mint, and geraniums. You can also check your garden regularly, especially in the evening and after the rain, and hand pick the slugs and snails, then drown them in a bucket of soapy water.

Weeds and Invasive Grasses

Some weeds, especially legumes such as clover and vetch, can benefit your crops because their roots fix nitrogen in the soil. Others, such as nettles, dandelions, and bindweeds, can quickly overwhelm your crops and deplete the soil of nutrients. If you find any weeds, you can either pull them out by hand or turn over the hay with a garden fork to smother them.

The main weed that gave Ruth Stout a lot of trouble is couch grass or quackgrass. This invasive grass uses rhizomes to spread through the mulch, has a very fast growth rate, stunts the growth of other crops, and once established, it’s remarkably difficult to get rid of. 

In an updated version of her book “Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent”, Ruth wrote about a method she used to try and eliminate couch grass from her field. She started off by flattening the grass, then covered it with 3 inches of hay.

Whenever new leaves emerged, she added another inch of hay. This way, the grass doesn’t get a chance to create more energy through photosynthesis, and the plants and rhizomes gradually die down. 

Videos

This inspiring video features Ruth herself taking about her methods and shows her garden:

A YouTuber covering some frequently asked questions:

Final Thoughts

Ruth Stout’s gardening motto was: “I don’t do anything I don’t want to do unless I have to, and I don’t have to.” Today, her down-to-earth approach continues to inspire gardeners who wish to become self-sufficient and allow nature to follow its course using permaculture.

If you want to give Ruth’s method a try, remember to be patient, and don’t hesitate to put in a bit of extra work in the first year. Once your garden is established, your hard work will pay off, and your cops will need very little care and maintenance. 

Complete List of Ruth Stout Books

  • How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening by Ruth Stout (Author), Leta Macleod Brunckhorst (Author) (Paperback – February 1, 1990)
  • Don’t Forget to Smile or How to Stay Sane and Fit over Ninety
  • Gardening Without Work (September 1, 1974)
  • Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent (May 22, 2002)
  • I’ve Always Done It My Way