2003 Garden

Getting Started with Ruth Stout

my first garden

The 2003 growing season brought with it my very first garden ever. I had grown tomatoes in pots and herbs on the kitchen windowsill, but I had not ever had a garden. Not because I didn't want one, I did. But living in apartments isn't really conducive to having a garden. I searched and searched for a community garden when living in apartments but it always seemed to elude me. I was either in the wrong physical location or made the wrong amount of money to be admitted to the community gardens. It didn't stop me from reading though, and read I did. Anything and everything I could get my hands on. I also subscribed to Organic Gardening Magazine for a number of years prior to actually having my own garden. So, when I finally got my wish to have a garden, my husband was not surprised that my first garden was a wonder to behold. As he said "Well, you've been meditating on it (gardening) for about 20 years."

Though my first garden was impressive and got many a comment like "this is your first garden!?" "your a natural" "I can't believe that this is your first garden" it was also one of many failures and mistakes. I am thankful that the learning curve, though sharp, was quick.

creating rows in the garden

To begin with I borrowed a tractor and tiller from one of my neighbors (on the very first day that we were moving in no less) and in between unloading the moving truck and unpacking boxes I was out on the tractor breaking ground for my first garden. I started small, only 50'x200'. I then diligently went about the task of creating my garden. It was all orderly with proper raised-bed wide-rows and many hours of preparation to get it that way. I worked long hard hours doing everything the experts said I should do in the many gardening books I had read. Then, because I had this memory of a garden (one I had read about long before) that was mulched, I laid hay mulch in-between the rows. I knew it was the right thing to do, I was sure of it.

spring hail storm, note the hay between the rows

The other people that I knew who gardened told me I was going to plant weeds by doing that. Indeed, the weeds came up before the vegetables and grew at an alarming rate. So what did I do? I went out there and removed all of that mulch, grumbling as I did. Then I spent much time with the hoe removing those weeds. Soon the pinnacle of the 4 year drought we were in hit hard with temps soaring into the 120's daily. The ground split open to reveal 2-3 inch cracks (and not just in my unmulched garden either). It was awful to say the least. Our water source is a shallow, hand dug well. There was no way I could afford to haul water out here from the city to water my garden. I watched helplessly as all of my lovely plants died of thirst in the sweltering heat.

My Hero

It was the middle of August and I was about to throw in the towel. I was complaining about my great misfortune to a friend. She listened and then handed me a book. The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book by Ruth Stout. I started looking through the book and those old memories slowly made their way back through the fog. That night as I stayed up hours into the night reading, unable to put the book down, I discovered I had been re-introduced to an old friend. This was the same author that had written the book I had read so long ago. Here she was with all the details of her mulched garden. I was hooked. The very next day I started mulching the few plants that were still hanging on for dear life. I eagerly mulched them with the hay from 5 large round bales that had been purchased to feed the horses the winter before, and had turned out to be molded all the way through. The very hay that I had cursed and sworn over and complained about not knowing what to do with, I now praised and rejoiced in.

Ruth Stout is one of my heroes. Since then I have read every book of hers that I have been able to get my hands on, (I have yet to be able to locate copies of some of her books) and even bought the video, Ruth Stout's Garden. What an inspiration she is. To witness a 94 year old woman out working in her garden is such a treat. Oh how I wish I had actually met her and been one of those people to make the pilgrimage to go see her and her garden. Alas, I was too young at the time. I have embraced her gardening method and can not imagine gardening any other way.

As Ruth says in her video, "I never plow, spade, cultivate, weed, hoe, fertilize, use poison spray, use a compost pile or water." And she did it this way for over 35 years with fabulous results. How? Easy! Hay. That's it. Hay used as mulch. Hay mulch put on at 8 inches thick (it will settle to only an inch or two) is all that it takes. Keeping the garden covered year round with hay mulch that is rotting and decomposing feeds the soil, keeps it moist, and keeps the weeds at bay. But what of my own experience when I put down the hay and got weeds? I didn't have the mulch on thick enough. What I should have done instead of removing the mulch was to put it on thicker. Much thicker. If you decide to mulch your garden and a weed pops up, just cover it up with hay.

the fall garden

People ask me all the time. "...but how do you plant?" Again, easy. Just pull back the hay to reveal the section of ground that you want to plant the seeds in, and plant the seeds. When I plant I just scatter them on the ground and then pat them down a bit. That's it. After the plants come up, I push the hay back up around them to keep the sun from drying out the soil and to keep the weeds at bay. How do I know this works if 2003 was my first year gardening? I had a fabulous fall garden is how. I wanted to stretch the harvest as long as possible, but without a greenhouse or the funds to put one up what was I to do? I took the hay bales and made a wall around the plants I wanted to protect. Then I found some rebar here on the property and made arches by pushing the ends into the ground on either side of the row. I purchased some 6 mil plastic and covered the rows making my very own cold frame/green house. And the best part, is that it worked!! On Christmas day I harvested lettuce, chard, beets, and carrots from the "green house" to have for dinner. Not long after that we had a very hard freeze and the "green house" was simply not warm enough. So I took it down and rolled the bales of hay over the top of the root crops. Then whenever I wanted to have some carrots or beets I just tipped the bales over and dug up what I wanted.

herb garden 1.jpg
herb beds on north end of garden, (and now obsolete compost bin)

The planting I am really excited about is potatoes. Last year I dug the trenches, cut up and cured the seed potatoes, then hilled them twice. When it came time to harvest, the ground had been baked so hard with the drought, that I lost nearly half of my crop. So how do you plant potatoes in a mulched garden? You toss the potatoes (whole) on top of the hay and then cover them up again with a bit more hay to keep them from dying in the sun. Whenever you want some potatoes you just lift up the hay and take what you want. You don't have to kill the plant to harvest and you can sneak a few early ones without disturbing anything. I am so looking forward to it!

And what about all of the kitchen scraps and other items that have previously been added to the compost pile which in turn was painstakingly kept? When you have a mulched garden, the whole garden is a compost pile. Now I just dump my garbage on top of the garden and throw a bit more hay on top of that. No turning the pile, keeping track of the temperature or being concerned with the right amount of moisture. And it works great!

This year I have expanded my gardens just a bit. I didn't feel like hiking out to the north end of the main garden where I had my herbs planted. So I decided that I needed to move the herbs to their own garden space and that it should be right outside of the kitchen door. To do so, I simply put down my 8 inch layer of hay in the designated area. Put it right on top of the near waist high weeds (not into mowing much-perhaps because I have yet to get a mower) and in 6 weeks time I pulled back a bit of hay to see how things were progressing. To my delight, I discovered a rich hummus earth ready for planting.

hay mulch in designated area

I hope that some of you will be inspired to try Ruth Stout's mulching system. Why do work that you don't need to do? All I have to do, gardening this way, is plant, mulch, and harvest. My garden is never too wet to get into and plant, I don't worry about compacting the soil walking around in the garden (I love to walk around in the garden, go out and sit in the garden, hang out reading a book or just relaxing in the garden, play hide and seek between the rows of corn and sunflowers in the garden, live in the garden....) and I don't have to water. Just plant n' pick!

See you in the garden.

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