Ruth Stout (1884-1980) was a freethinking, practical gardener and author, who inspired many new gardeners to find best practices that defy conventional garden advice. Her vegetable garden methods are comparable to what is known as permaculture today.
For more, also see these gardening tips.
Ruth Stout – Garden Inspiration
I love spring anywhere, but if I could choose, I would always greet it in a garden.~Ruth Stout
Unconventional Garden Success
This video profile (below) of Ruth Stout (1884-1980) pops up on YouTube every so often and gets ordered down so watch it while you can! I have also created a transcript (below) in case the video disappears.
Ruth began growing food when she moved to a country property in Connecticut in the 1930s.
She began her garden, as many do, will tilling, commercial fertilizers, exhaustive weeding, and pesticides.
After several years, impatient for the local the farmer to come till the beds as promised at spring planting time, she realized that tilling shouldn’t be required at all.
If weed seeds sprout so readily without it, why shouldn’t everything we want to grow do the same?
And that was the start of her minimal-work-for-maximum-gain growing method.
By mulching with soft hay, she could shield crops from the hot sun, retain moisture, and eliminate the need to water.
Free-thinking and unthethered by convention, Ruth developed garden methods that worked (brilliantly), trusting her experience over popular advice.
We remember her today as a brilliant gardener, speaker, and author, and one of my personal favorites.
Interview With Ruth Stout
Watch the Video
It’s packed with excellent tips and stories from her life.
You can read the transcript here.
Keep in mind that what worked for Ruth complemented her growing conditions and climate. The wisdom comes in adapting to your own situation.
- Mulch, mulch, mulch – to protect the soil, add nutrients through decomposition, and retain moisture.
- No digging or tilling.
- Minimal effort (similar to what is now called ‘lasagna’ method) and minimal weeding.
- Year-round food growing (protecting the crops with hay mulch).
- Seeing an unorthodox, highly productive garden as more valuable than a “tidy” less productive one.
- Gardening naked.
I list that last one not only for the fun story she tells about it in the film but to emphasize her philosophy of live and let live.
The non-conformity, thinking for oneself, and influence of her like-minded family are so refreshing.
She was a revolutionary well ahead of her time. Or perhaps always outside the mainstream.
The word ‘eccentric’ also pops up a lot in biographies but I’m loathed to include it since strong women in history are constantly knocked down with judgements like that.
Brilliant is a much more accurate choice of words.
Do what you want to do and don’t tell other people how to behave. To make rules for other people—I just don’t get it.~Ruth Stout
Ruth Stout Book
In recent years, this classic book by Ruth has been republished. Great to see her legacy continuing.
Gardening Without Work
For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent
by Ruth Stout
Widely renowned as a gardening expert, Ruth Stout wrote extensively about how to simplify gardening. Her techniques have brought people from all over the world to her garden, and now her advice can help you maximize your garden’s output with minimal effort. In addition to the time-saving tips provided, Stout’s joyous perspective on life and gardening makes this book a delight―and is a must-read for anyone growing food or flowers.
More About Ruth Stout
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
I was born in Kansas in 1884 and lived in Topeka, until I was 18, moved to New York and lived in New York until I was 45. Never once wishing that I could have a garden.
Then my husband. We had been married just a few months and he said would you like to live in the country and without even knowing that I would, I said Oh yes. And he bought this place, and we hadn’t been here more than 10 minutes that I wasn’t out there looking at the lilac bush and the apple trees and so on. And immediately I got thrilled about gardening.
I knew nothing about it.
I had a place twice too big plowed up and my brother and one or two other people told me what to do and I did it—for almost 15 years—according to the way everybody else was doing it with commercial fertilizer and poison spray and plowing.
Hired a man to come and plow and the plow man was always late, and I was always dying to get out there and get things in earlier than I could.
Now, this is how this happened, the way I garden now.
One morning in early April, I went out to the garden. Couldn’t do anything, just went out to shed a tear because I couldn’t begin to plant. The ploughman hadn’t come. I walked over to the asparagus.
And I said, we don’t have to apply for you. Why do we have to plow for the other vegetables?
And the asparagus said, you don’t. Go ahead and plant. If the asparagus said that to anybody with any sense, they wouldn’t have paid any attention.
They would have said, well, you’re a perennial because asparagus, like a tree or like a rose bush just comes up every year.
But anyway, since I wasn’t very smart, I just ran and got my seeds and planted them, and that’s been going on for 35 years. I’d never had a plow man again.
If I told you that the way I garden is very little work, you wouldn’t know what I mean because you don’t know what I call very little work. You might think that I meant I only work six hours a day instead of 12.
So, I’m going to tell you exactly how I garden.
I have a vegetable garden 45 by 15 which I grow vegetables for two people all year round. I am sorry to make you jealous, but I haven’t been in a supermarket for at least 14 years.
I grow all the vegetables for the two of us, freeze the surplus, and do all of that work myself.
I have a few flower beds, not big ones, but a few. I do all that work. I do all of my housework; my cooking and I answer a terrible lot of mail. And I never do any of this after 11:00 o’clock in the morning.
Now the hands go up and your hands are going to go up and asked me what time I got up and my answer to that is somewhere between 6:00 and 8:00 according to when I feel like it when I want to. And the first thing is a long, leisurely breakfast Roman style stretched out on the couch. But I’m all through with all of this after a little after 11:00 o’clock in the morning.
The reason is that I never plow or spade or cultivate or weed or hole or use of fertilizer or use a poison spray or use a compost pile or water.
I just plant and pick.
The reason that I can do all this is because I keep my ground covered all year long on hay mulch which rots, fertilizes the ground, keeps down the weeds, keeps the ground soft and that’s all there is to it.
I had these turnips in here all winter long. And I’ve picked most of them. They’re they look awfully little, but that’s because I picked all the big ones. But there are few left. We’ll eat those.
And now we’ll put in a row of parsley and a row of dill.
We eat them together, so we plant them together. Why not?
All I do is just sprinkle the seeds.
I never really cover seeds the way most people do.
Little seeds like this, I just pat the row a little bit and they’re planted.
The same with the dill.
Since weed seeds can come up all over your garden without your fooling around planting them, I don’t see why the other thing is can’t too, so they are there, they’re planted, that’s it for the parsley and dill.
Now I’m going to plant some potatoes.
No, I’m not going to call it planting.
Anybody everybody wouldn’t dream of planting potatoes like this, but I can think of no reason why not. They grow.
Second, they come up and you get potatoes, and I guess that’s what you want when you plant potatoes or potatoes, or those are a little too close.
See had these in the house all winter and then they begin to sprout, and then instead of throwing them away, you just come and throw them on the ground. Later on, in the year you come out and pick some potatoes.
It’s very simple.
I would be willing to bet that’s 99 out of 100 people who see me do this wouldn’t do it themselves.
But that doesn’t bother me, that’s it. Potatoes are planted. We’re through with that job.
Get some hay on top of those potatoes. Otherwise, they would just die there and die. We don’t want them to die, so we’ll do this.
Second, this keeps say you see it. Most people would cut those potatoes up with just one sprout in each piece of potato, but you don’t have to.
I don’t do anything I don’t want to do unless I have to, and I don’t have to. So, there we are.
I’m covering these potatoes because if I didn’t the sun would just bake them.
And they would die. I just keep the sun off them, and they will grow right through the hay. You can’t do this with a hard hay, or they couldn’t get through.
I’m never put any hay on top of seeds, the hay around the garden is for two things. The main thing is to fertilize your soil, but the other thing that the hay does is keep your ground moist and all of the over 35 years that I have planted this way I have never had to water once.
As our plant all my seeds now, I take just a little cotton seed meal and sprinkle it right with the seeds just in case it does rain too much, cotton seed meal supplies the nitrogen that plants have got to have.
My father had a 40-acre farm, but he was Superintendent of schools. He wasn’t a farmer really. However, he sold a few things like strawberries and so on.
I was always top as a picker because I had lived right there, and I knew where the best ones were.
My mother was a person who never told her nine children what to do and what not to do. She said I just pay attention to my inner voice and since I wouldn’t think of doing anything with somebody else, tells me how on Earth could I be so unfair as to go around telling anybody else what to do?
Ye follow thy inner voice, and I’ll follow mine.
My father was not as noticeable that way as my mother, but he also did not interfere. My father said to me, once Ruth, it’s good to think for yourself, but just once in a long time, couldn’t you think like other people, and I asked him like who and he changed the subject.
My mother never, never, never scolded, but she had tricks she could protect herself. For instance, she loved to read, but, in those days, you couldn’t go to your bedroom and read in the wintertime because you didn’t heat your bedroom, of course, and the only place she could read in the winter would be in the living room, which was warm.
With nine children, don’t tell me that you couldn’t sit there and read for a few hours and not have some of the children come in and interrupt you, you see, but she had her little trick.
She’d sit down to read, and she’d have a base in a very cold water right there by her side, but with a washcloth in it.
But, and if any of us would come in to ask her something, she would just say, oh, come here, I come closer, dear, I didn’t hear what she said.
Oh honey, your face is dirty. Do you think we’d go near her with that basin of water there? No indeed.
What I feel I know for sure is do what you want to do and don’t tell other people how to behave. To make rules for other people. I just don’t get it.
For instance, when I helped, Carrie Nation smashed the saloons. That was a big thing they shouldn’t do, they say.
Well, now when I take a drink as they forgive me Carrie Nation, I’ve got to have a little drink.
Yes, I helped her smash saloons. Carrie Nation was a woman who lived in Kansas. And in Kansas it was against the law to sell liquor.
And she went around to places and came to Topeka, where we lived. She would get a group of people together, mostly women, and they would go to a drug store or someplace which was illegally selling liquor. By the way, I was 16 years old. It was in 1900 and this crowd of women gathered at the Statehouse and then walked down the street, and of course, the policeman knew Carrie Nation was in town, so their kind of followers and Carrie Nation went up to this drug store, which she had found out was selling liquor illegal.
And she smashed one of the big panes in front and I went and smashed the other one. And the policeman came up and arrested Carrie Nation and broke my heart they didn’t arrest me. I had to go home and go to Sunday school.
There’s nothing dull about gardening I can tell you that. You start the raccoon cage well, for raccoons. That outside fence doesn’t do any good. They just get over that and then eat your corn. They don’t eat anything else but corn and I got so desperate trying to protect my corn that my brother built that cage for me.
I don’t know whether I told you how I finished one of my articles about the raccoons. I finished the article by saying now, of course, the raccoons can’t get my corn, but they’re so smart that when they figure out how to go in there and open the door and go and eat my corn, I’m just going to go back to the house, get on the couch, drink two daiquiris instead of one, and forget it all.
Really, what did you give him a key?
That’s right, didn’t I?
Here you’ll see a little row of lettuce, and here’s a row of carrots. It isn’t acting quite normal. That was normal, huh?
Now the Sweet Spanish Onions are doing very nicely and pepper little potato. Well, it just came up and will let us stay there. Why not? And what’s that? Another potato? Just let it alone.
What the devil is? This? That’s a weed out with it.
It’s fantastic what you can do, growing your own things, it really is. And my rhubarb is just, well, I say to everybody if you want a rhubarb root, please tell me because I’ve got to get rid of some of it. It spreads and grows.
Now I don’t know how many people are interested in soybeans, but they are full of protein as I guess we know, but almost nobody grows soybeans because if you go and buy soybeans in a market, they don’t taste very good, but if you grow.
Your own soybeans they are absolutely delicious.
I’ve had 7000 people from every state and Canada come and look at the garden. I keep a book where they write their names, you see.
I’ll tell you right now, my husband has been dead for 15 years and living alone like this. I don’t know what on Earth I would do if I didn’t have this garden thing to write about, to help people with, to talk to gardening clubs. I don’t know how I could feel that I was doing anything that made it necessary for me to stay alive.
I don’t lecture or Garden Club. I talked maybe for five minutes and then it’s open to questions. It’s not a talk, it’s a conversation.
I don’t think I could have gone through a year after year getting up. Yap yap yap yap yap.
Yep, you know trying to say the same old thing over and over.
They ask what I charge. I say whatever you give your most highly paid speaker. That sounds conceited, but it is because I found out that they give the highest amount to people who tell you how to put flowers in a vase. And I’ve got something more important to tell you than that.
[Comments about flower arranging being an art in Japan.]
It would never never occur to me to tell any other grown human being how to put some flowers in the vase.
Oh, it’s so good.
I’ll bet you’re awfully good cook, are you?
This is so good. These are awfully good. This is delicious.
Well, I’m invited out to lunch.
I never eat a bite of breakfast, so I’m invited out to dinner. I never eat a bite of lunch.
I like to be nice and hungry.
Who would like more wine?
Not too much, thank you, that’s fine.
Not too much, thank you, that’s.
But then of course.
And now I think we’re all going to get a little high on this wine.
I’m a little higher.
Did I tell you that I was 45 years old when I found out that people actually behaved the way somebody else told them to like Emily post? When Fred told me that Emily posted written a whole book about it or I couldn’t wait to read out.
I got hold of that book right away and here I read this book do this do this do this do this. Don’t do this.
And I couldn’t believe it.
Behaving properly for heaven’s sake.
This woman down the road is very rich and invited me to a formal dinner party, you know. RSVP and where and so and so. What do they call a black tie or something like that? I wrote her back. I liked her, but I said I’m sorry I can’t come to your party because if I did, I would embarrass you. I wouldn’t know how to behave. I wouldn’t know what to wear. I would do all the wrong things and you would be upset, and I thought that would finish me with her.
And the next day, somebody knocked on the door and here is one of her servants with a great big bunch of beautiful flowers from her. So at least it didn’t make her mad.
Since I’ve been there a few times since, but not to a formal party, for heaven’s sake. I couldn’t go to a formal party.
I loved my husband very very much. I really mean it when I say that I’m sure that he is the only man in the world who could have stood staying married to me because I always was out of order.
I mean, the things I did, I would go down there to garden and the minute I got down there I would take off all my clothes and garden naked, I’ve always loved the air on my body.
I never said a word about it to Fred. It never occurred to me to mention it to him.
And I came back every evening around 5:00 o’clock and put my clothes on before I came back. And one day I came back at 6 and Fred was out in the barn doing his stuff—he made all these wooden things, and so on. And shortly after I got in, he came in and he said, oh, you worked longer today, didn’t you?
I said, but how did you know I was just curious how he happened to know. He said it was easy. As a rule, as the cars go along the road after five o’clock, they just go on, but up until 5:00 o’clock they kind of go very slowly and look down for your garden (laughs).
So, I knew that you didn’t come up until six cause up until six they still stopped.
I just am by nature at optimist. The pleasant idea comes instead of the depressing one.
I couldn’t admire anybody any more than I admired my grandfather. He always knew exactly the right thing to do and to say with everybody. I don’t mean correct thing. Of course, I mean at the helpful thing.
My oldest brother had a dog that he was crazy about, and the dog died. My two oldest brothers were out where I could see them from the window, burying the dog, and the tears were rolling down my cheeks because I was sorry for my brother, and my grandfather came in the room and he saw what was going on.
And he said, oh come here, Ruth, I want to show you something. He took me over to the other side of the room and he said, here’s the rose bush that you planted yourself and look, it has a flower on it. You can go out and pick a flower off your own rose bush.
I started out and he put his arm around me, he said, thee was looking out of the wrong window, dear.