The Ruth Stout Gardening Technique Confirms That There’s Nothing Much New In Gardening. Most New Techniques Are Old Ones Being Resurrected. The Stout Method Is A Forerunner of Permaculture, Lasagne Gardening & No Dig. This Article Explains More.

Ruth Stout Started Gardening in 1930, in her middle age. She was an American that lived to the ripe old age of 96. 

Ruth stout method of gardening using deep mulches is the forerunner of no dig, lasagne gardening and permaculture

When she first started to garden she had a big plot and relied on local farmers to plough it for her each year. Often they arrived days or weeks late, or had breakdowns and the lost the early part of a short season.  

So Ruth looked for an alternative to ploughing and invented her method which has become known as the Stout method. 

It was in the the Spring of 1944, after years of using conventional methods , sprays, manual labour, artificial fertilisers and 15 years of ploughing, that Stout decided that she wasn’t going to wait for the ploughman any longer. So she planted the seeds without ploughing, covered them and waited to see what would happen. She had surprising success and some failures, and then slowly developed her Stout method. 

What Is The Stout Gardening Method?

The Stout method couldn’t be simpler. Instead of ploughing she covered the soil with a thick layer of mulch, about 8 inches deep, and planted through it. It supressed the weeds and her crops did well. The mulch was never dug in but started to break down and improved the top soil. Fertility increased and crops thrived.

In essence this was a form of permaculture, though it’s unlikely that she followed all the permaculture “rules“.  It’s not unlike No Dig, in that digging is unnecessary, and indeed Charles Dowding told me he had considered her methods as he developed his own. 

The mulch used in the Stout method is often straw or hay, but any organic material can be substituted. In my food forest project we are using woodchip in a similar way way to the Stout method. She later went on to write a series of gardening books including her “No Work“ books. 

In the photo, taken in France, the gardener has uncovered the soil in mulch and planted tomatoes and courgettes. It was early in the season when the photo was taken but the plants are doing ok. There is a small amount on weed poking through in places but it’s a remarkably clean garden. Those weeds that are appearing will be easy to hoe or pull.

Large plants are much easier to grow in the Stout method than small seedlings. The theory with seed is that you pull back the mulch and sow into the soil. It’s a good theory but I’ve seen very mixed results. 

I’ve also seen mixed slug and snail results. Some gardeners swear it decreases numbers, others say they become a scourge and hide in the damp mulch until mealtimes! Maybe it depends on soil type and a host of other factors. I haven’t enough experience of the Stout method over many soil types and situations to be convinced with way.

Stout claimed that the best way to start was to plough organic matter in in year one, then immedialtely move to the mulching technique thereafter. 

No Compost Heap Gardening

The Stout method does away with the compost heap. Materials are dropped on the existing mulch and compost in situ. The theory is sound in many respects but many gardeners would find it an untidy method of gardening. My garden is never pristine but I really don’t want to be dropping undecomposed organic matter everywhere. But, if it works for you, then I can see some advantages. 

Books & Magazines

Ruth Stout became a prolific author and wrote articles for many Organic Gardening and Farming magazines plus her books, some of which are listed below. 

Published Works

Stout, R. (1955). How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening. New York: Exposition Press, 1955, ISBN 0-88365-144-0

Stout, R. (1963). Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent. New York: The Devin-Adair Company, Reprinted by Norton Creek Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-9819284-6-3

Stout, R. & Clemence, R. (1973). The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book: Secrets of the year-round mulch method. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

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