by Bethany Hayes
Growing organic food doesn’t have to be complicated. Using the Ruth Stout gardening method takes half of the work out of gardening and makes it easy for you to grow vegetables abundantly.
Never heard of Ruth Stout? You’re missing out.
Ruth Stout was a passionate organic gardener who spent her life learning and adapting her gardening techniques to find the perfect method. She understood soil fertility and how nature plays a huge part in building and amending soil. She took this knowledge and created the Ruth Stout gardening method.
Unfortunately, it took decades for it to gain popularity. Nowadays, as more gardeners look for simple techniques to decrease gardening work, this method is gaining popularity. If you’re interested in giving it a try, here is what you need to know.
What is the Ruth Stout Gardening Method?
The Ruth Stout gardening method was created by, you guessed it, Ruth Stout, who was born in 1884. She’s sometimes called the “Mulch Queen” because of her love of using mulch in the garden. In the 1920s, she realized that she could replace many traditional gardening methods like plowing and weeding by adding a thick layer of mulch (hay for her) on the ground.
Ruth believed in her method so much that she published her approach in several magazines from the 1950s to the 1970s. She published several books as well.
This gardening method has slowly grown in popularity because of its simplicity. Growing vegetables and food for your family shouldn’t be difficult, and she firmly believed her method works for any soil type and gardener.
Here’s the main idea.
When you use the Ruth Stout gardening method, you lay a thick layer of hay mulch permanently over the soil. We let nature do its work; permanent mulch is a thing in nature.
Gardeners mulch plants and garden beds with natural debris, just like it happens in nature. Spread leaves, twigs, prunings, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and more. Then, nature takes over, and your plants end up happier, and your soil has more nutrients without the need for fertilizers.
The Pros of a Ruth Stout Garden
You might wonder why you should use the Ruth Stout gardening method rather than traditional gardening. It has several advantages that might work better for you.
- Less Physical Effort
The most significant advantage to using this garden method is that it requires less physical effort than traditional gardening. You don’t need to till up large areas in your garden. You don’t have to worry about making compost, weeding, or spraying your beds.
Ruth Stout truly came up with a gardening method for lazy gardeners, and it’s hard not to love.
- It’s Easy to Understand
Understanding all of the ins and outs of traditional gardening is challenging for new gardeners. It’s hard to understand how to start seedlings, amend the soil, fertilize, mulch, and more.
This gardening method is easy to understand. All you have to do is lay down a thick layer of hay, plant your seeds or seedlings, and wait for it to grow. It’s easy peasy, perfect for novices.
Building raised garden beds is expensive. Depending on your area’s cost and your garden bed’s size, it might cost upwards of $70 to fill one bed. If you built five or six raised beds, that’s a lot of money, and you need to add more each year.
- Reduces the Need to Water
One of the big benefits of using mulch in your garden is that it helps retain moisture in the soil. You still need to water but using a thick layer of hay over your entire garden drastically reduces how much you need to water each week.
- Attracts Earthworms
As all of the mulch layers that you add on top of the garden break down into the soil, earthworms find your garden. Earthworms love this method of gardening, and we know that earthworms increase our garden’s ecosystem. They lead to healthier garden beds and plants.
The Cons of a Ruth Stout Garden
Why should you not use this method? Here are some of the disadvantages to consider.
- It Doesn’t Look as Nice
If you want to have an HGTV worthy garden, this garden method is not for you. A garden full of decomposing hay isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as others. So, if looks matter, this isn’t for you.
- Need a Hay Source
Hay is expensive when you buy it from a farm and fleet store. If you have a large garden, you’ll need several bales, and large square bales sell for up to $60 each. Finding a local source is the best way to save money, but it’s not always easy.
- Harder to Direct Sow Seeds
Sowing seeds directly into the ground with mulch around is hard. It will decrease how many seeds germinate because many seeds need light to sprout.
What Vegetables Can You Grow in a Ruth Stout Garden?
The list of vegetables that you can grow in a Ruth Stout garden is long, but some of the best crops are:
If the plants thrive in moist soil, they’ll do fine in a Ruth Stout garden bed. The thick layer of mulch holds in plenty of moisture.
The best crop to use with this method is potatoes. Potatoes grow amazingly in hay or straw bales, even when stacked vertically. Hay gives the plants the nutrients needed while maintaining the necessary temperature and moisture.
How to Use the Ruth Stout Gardening Method
- When to Start a Ruth Stout Garden
One of the differences with this gardening method is that the best time to start is last year. You can begin in the spring, but as the mulch breaks down, it improves the soil quality, leading to higher fertility. It takes a few years for this method to work well truly.
You should start your garden in the late summer or fall. In the spring, the soil temperature is cold, and adding too much mulch will prevent the soil from warming up. Spreading hay or other mulch over the ground in the summer when it’s warm will help the soil preparation for the following gardening season.
- Pick Your Mulch
Stout used hay because she believed that it has the best results, and most gardeners confirm that. However, you technically can use any mulch that won’t decompose too quickly. Other options include:
- Corn stalks
- Grass clippings
- Pine needles
- Old hay
- Spread Mulch Over Your Lawn
If you’re building a new garden bed over your existing lawn, don’t spend time removing the grass and plants. Spread the hay right over the top of the lawn. Soon, the grass and weeds underneath will decompose, increasing the fertility of the soil.
That means you don’t have to worry about tilling up the ground, reducing the time that you typically have to spend on your garden.
- Or, Plant in Your Traditional Garden
If you already have a traditional garden or garden beds, plant as you typically do and then mulch around the plants. It’s the easiest way to get started. Don’t worry about weeding or amending the soil; just get started.
- How Much Hay Do I Need?
You’re probably wondering, “how much hay do I need to spread over my garden?” Stout classically told everyone to use twice as much as you think you need, but the average amount of mulch you should use is eight inches.
That seems like a lot at first, but remember, mulch will decompose and compact. Eight inches turn into three inches before the end of the gardening season.
- Start Planting
Once you have the hay spread across the garden beds, it’s time to get started planting. If you’re planting seeds, they need to come in direct contact with the soil and make sure to keep the recommended distance between each plant.
When transplanting seedlings, use a trowel or a small shovel and move the hay aside to plant into the soil. Then, spread the mulch back into place.
- Continue to Add Mulch as Needed
You’ll need to continue to add more hay to the garden beds as the garden seasoning progresses. The mulch decomposes over time, so it’ll start to decrease, but to keep weeds at bay and continue a nutrient source, you have to keep adding more over time.
Ruth Stout Gardening vs. Back to Eden Gardening
These two gardening methods are the most likely to be confused. Ruth Stout Gardening and Back to Eden Gardening are similar, but the materials used are different.
Here’s the main difference.
Back to Eden uses wood chips; Ruth Stout uses hay. Hay breaks down a lot faster than wood chips, so the garden beds need to be maintained, but hay won’t contribute as much nitrogen into the soil as wood chips.
Both methods use thick layering of mulch over the garden beds, which eventually break down and contribute to the soil’s microbiology and ecosystem. Both ways suppress weeds with thick mulch and retain moisture.
No matter which one you pick, they’re both no-till gardening methods that help to build healthy soil and reduce gardening work for you.
Give It a Try
Gardening is a lot of work, and if you have a hay source, the Ruth Stout gardening method is a valid, effective way to grow vegetables without adding more work for you. It helps build up your soil health while suppressing weeds and reducing how often you need water. That’s a win for organic gardeners.