The Ruth Stout Method for Gardening: What Is It?

Ruth Imogen Stout was an American author recognized for her “No-Work” gardening books and techniques. She inspired many gardeners to exercise better gardening practices and defy the typical orthodox methods of gardening. Her vegetable gardening methods are compared to what is known as permaculture today.

Ruth Stout Books

It has taken decades for Ruth’s work to gain recognition, unfortunately. However, as many gardeners look for easier alternatives when it comes to farming, her work is gaining more attention.

Ever Heard Of Ruth Stout?

There is peace in the garden.”

–Ruth Stout.

Ruth Stout was a gardener whose passion for gardens landed her articles in magazines and was poured out in her books as well, which she wrote from her personal farming experience.  Ruth’s gardening began in the 1930s once she moved to Connecticut. She started with commercial fertilizers, tilling, pesticides, and thorough weeding as many usually do.

Several years later, one day during spring, as she was waiting impatiently for a local farmer to come till the seed beds as promised, she realized that tilling isn’t required at all. If weed seeds grow so readily without it, why not other plants? That marked the beginning of her work-for-maximum-gain gardening methods.

She realized that by mulching the plants with soft hay, they were shielded from the scorching sun and assisted the soil in retaining water, thus eliminating the need to water every now and then. Ruth developed methods that worked brilliantly with free-thinking and untethered convention, trusting her experience over popular advice.

Some of her books include “Gardening Without Work,” “I’ve Always Done It My Way,” and “How To Have A Green Thumb Without An Aching Back.” From her personal experience in gardening, she shared what she thought would be helpful to other people.

Gardening Without Work
  • Stout, Ruth (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 134 Pages - 09/22/2020 (Publication Date) - (Publisher)

Last update on 2024-07-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

What Is The Ruth Stout Method?

The late author wrote a series of books on farming during the late 1970s. In her books, she talked about the benefits of mulching. Ruth Stout was the first to campaign for intelligent farming methods that saved on labor, fed plants with additional nutrients, and helped soil moisture conservation. The concept is quite simple; mulch your crops with debris such as twigs, leaves, straw, prunings, kitchen scraps, and pulled weeds, then let nature take its course.

Instead of the traditional methods of working on the soil (digging, plowing, watering, and weeding), you use a mulch to reduce the cost and energy spent on executing those gardening methods. Aside from the books, she wrote chronicles about this particular approach for the Organic Farming and Gardening magazine between the years 1953 to 1971.

How Does The Technique Work?

The method consists of keeping a thick layer of hay mulch permanently on the soil. Though Ruth Stout did not invent this method, she wrote about it first and publicly campaigned for the technique to be more recognizable and used. She also influenced other recognizable figures in gardening movements, such as Emilia Hazelip, who developed a synergistic gardening approach.

  • Equipment Needed

Your two hands would be quite enough. However, if you need to rake up some leaves or prune overgrown branches, using the appropriate tools for the job will do the trick. You may also opt to use a trowel, a hoe, a spade, and a fork if necessary.

  • Materials Needed

According to Ruth Stout, she bought the hay she mulched with. You can also use materials from your garden as long as it doesn’t decompose too quickly. Old hay, pine needles, grass clippings, straw, corn stalks, seaweed, among others. Needless to say, hay has the best results, and you can never have too much hay. It’s always good to have some in-store just in case you might need to add mulch on some plants later on.

As a complementary source of fertility, Ruth Stout would purchase cotton or soy meal every now and then. She would then proceed to spread about five pounds of the meal over 100 square feet. Were it for the numerous guests who toured her garden, forcing her to ensure that her garden was beautiful and green for their visits, she would have stopped using the meals completely. Other than that, seeds were her only inputs for the garden.

  • Starting The Garden

Ruth Stout always pointed out there’s no better time to start your garden. You can start anytime you wish. She believes the quality of the soil improves and becomes more fertile over time. The results may not be instantaneous, but after a few years, they are pretty visible. The most common question from her readers was, “When should I mulch?”

The simple answer was always, “Now!”

To be precise, the late author recommended starting your garden in the summer or fall. Early in the springtime, when the soil is still cold, mulching it would prevent the soil from warming up. However, during autumn, covering the soil with approximately eight inches of hay would prepare the ground for seedlings during the springtime.

Now, I understand this seems a tad bit too much for mulching, but with the effects of rain and decomposition, eventually, the mulch thins out to a thickness of approximately two to three inches. So the more the thickness, the better it is once it thins out. Stout believed you need twice as much mulch as you think you need. Her recommendation was eight inches, though.

Growing In Hay

The hay can be added directly to the already existing lawn if you’re starting your new garden using the Ruth Stout System. Don’t remove the underlying grass so that it can decompose and add fertility to your soil. That will also provide organic fertilizer, and there’ll be no need to add additional fertilizer. After all, we’re cutting back on the labor needed when gardening.

On the other hand, introducing her system into the traditional type of garden is easy as well. All you need to do is plant your crops as usual and add mulch. Between rows of vegetables, she recommends adding fallen leaves from trees. Leaves are packed with trace minerals trees pick from the soil. They help balance the Nitrogen on the ground, are an excellent source of carbon (IV) dioxide, feed earthworms, and benefit microbes. Most importantly, they help retain moisture which is quite essential in the Ruth Stout System.

  • Soil

Ruth Stout pointed out that the type of soil type doesn’t really matter. Regardless of the pH, she didn’t do anything in particular. She also considered rocky soils as good soil. Mulching is particularly beneficial for sloppy ground because mulch protects the soil from erosion and leaching of nutrients. That unique quality for mulching is what makes it suitable for all soil types.

  • Plant

For planting seeds, ensure they’re in direct contact with soil. You may opt to use the recommended spacing guidelines from traditional gardening methods. Ruth Stout also points out that using her system to plant crops may result in minimal distance between the plants after a few years. Use a trowel or small shovel when transplanting seedlings.

  • Crop Variety

The “Mulch Queen” grew various plants in her garden, including sweet spanish onions, sweet corn, radish, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, beans, peas, strawberries, young soybeans, tomatoes, peppers, parsnips, and carrots.

More examples of plants that grow well using the Ruth Stout System

  • Onions

Easiest when grown from young bulbs.

  • Asparagus

Traditional gardening methods require you to dig trenches when planting this plant. However, when using the Ruth Stout System, you don’t need to dig trenches. All you need to do is ensure that the asparagus crown is in contact with the soil and cover it with mulch. During winter, cover them with an extra eight inches with mulch.

  • Strawberries

Transplant them during the spring with a space of about one foot (thirty centimeters) between each plant.

  • Potatoes

Ruth Stout lived in Connecticut, United States. The region enabled her to plant potatoes during autumn. She planted whole potatoes, leaving an average space of fourteen inches between the plants, and covered them with six to eight inches of hay. Immediately the plants have flowered, the tubers are one to two inches in diameter. For a mature harvest, it’s best to wait until the plant completely turns dry. Her favorite harvest came from the young potatoes of the variety Irish Cobbler.

  • Corn

It’s best if you let the seedlings sprout through the mulch. Simply plant the seeds and cover the ground with mulch. Space the seeds six inches apart, and if necessary, you may opt to use a string to indicate your rows or columns. Varieties recommended by Ruth include North Star, Golden Beauty, and Golden Bantam. Her corn harvests were well above average. With five rows consisting of twenty-five plants each, she’d harvest fifteen dozen ears of corn. After harvesting, the corn stalks were crushed and covered with hay. During spring, you can now transplant the seedlings without a hitch which may give very impressive results.

  • Crop Rotation

In her book, “No-Work Garden,” Ruth’s co-author, Richard Clemmence, recommends a rotation of corn, potatoes, and strawberries. These particular plants are easy to install in the Ruth Stout System and can earn significant income by selling produce from these crops.

  • Cold Weather Crops

When the season begins to get cooler, Stout recommends planting cold-resistant plants like kale that can be harvested regardless of whether there’s snow or parsnips that can be left on the ground and harvested during spring. Just remember to cover your parsnips with hay during winter. Ruth also suggests growing squash, particularly the Buttercup and Blue Hubbard varieties, since they preserve well indoors during the winter.

  • Buying Seeds and Seed Saving

According to her books, Ruth Stout recommends buying seeds from a reliable seed producer, which helps support their business. And since they specialize in the production of seeds, it would be ambitious to think we, as gardeners, could do better ourselves.

Nonetheless, she also recommends that gardeners use their own seeds. The idea here is to benefit from ‘volunteers’ leaving the good quality plants and fruits in place until the end of the season so they can regrow the following spring season. It’s important to note that she, Ruth herself, preferred to transplant the ‘volunteers’ to the place where she’d like them to grow the following year.

Tips When Using The Ruth Stout System

During The Springtime

  • Add hay if there isn’t enough.
  • Sow and transplant.
  • Harvest what’s still growing from last year.

During Summer

  • Stake climbing plants (e.g., climbing beans) and plants that have difficulty supporting their own weight, e.g., tomatoes.
  • Weeding consists of laying the plants down and covering them with hay.
  • Add hay if there isn’t enough.
  • For the cabbage family, she recommends using salt to counter cabbage butterflies.
  • Harvest.


  • Harvest.
  • Plant cultures like garlic.
  • Everything should be left in place, and nothing touched or ripped. Just cover everything with hay.

Advantages Of The Stout System

  1. It’s easy to execute.
  2. If you’re a beginner, it’s pretty easy to comprehend how the entire system works.
  3. No heavy equipment is needed to execute this.
  4. Other than hay and seeds, there are no essential inputs needed unless you see it necessary to add fertilizer and boost the immunity or nutrients of the plant.
  5. Eventually, everything is returned to the soil.
  6. The mulch retains water, eliminating the need to water the plants.
  7. The system gives excellent results.
  8. Most importantly, executing the entire technique doesn’t require much labor because there is no tilling, digging, harrowing, ground cover to plant, weeding, watering, spraying, and no compost to make.


  1. Ruth Stout quickly realized that her system demanded huge amounts of organic matter and was more suitable for smaller surfaces.
  2. What’s more, as much as her garden has an aesthetic look and feel, it was in contrast to traditional gardening methods and could be an aesthetic problem for some people. And even though Stout doesn’t mention it herself, we could consider adding more trees to the system to create a more dynamic system and increase the absolute autonomy of our garden, especially concerning garden ‘pests.’

There is also criticism about weed seed, which could be present in the hay used for mulching; below are a few answers.

  1. When using hay, it’s best to avoid working the soil. If the hay indeed does contain those weed seeds, they will continue to decompose as we pile more hay on top of each other. The seeds will end up being buried, and the chances of them germinating are slim to none.
  2. The seeds germinate only if you disturb the ground beneath the hay. If you disturb the soils beneath, consider doing so when the hay has thinned out, and most of it has already decomposed. Before covering the ground with mulch, ensure all necessary soil disturbances are done with.
  3. If you see weeds germinating and growing, you can pull them out. Ruth Stout gardened with 100% hay, and instead of pulling the weeds out, she opted to suffocate them by covering them with more hay.
  4. In case you get very worried, you may opt to let the hay decompose first before adding it to the ground.

Difference Between The Ruth Stout System and Back to Eden Gardening

Although these two methods of gardening look similar, there are a few differences.

Materials Used

Ruth Stout’s gardening method uses hay as mulch, and Back to Eden uses wood chips as mulch. Since hay breaks down faster than wood chips, the garden needs using the Ruth Stout method needs more maintenance. However, contrary to most people’s expectations, hay won’t contribute as much Nitrogen to the soil as wood chips do.

Using wood chips also has disadvantages, like dye present in the wood may discourage the presence of essential organisms such as earthworms, which are important when it comes to decomposition and adding nutrients to the soil. Ensure to thoroughly check the wood chips before using them.

Other Similar Systems

  • Permaculture.
  • Self-fertilizing gardens.
  • Hans-Peter Rusch.
  • Kurt Kretschman.

Give It A Go!

All in all, the Ruth Stout System has many benefits. It makes the gardening experience relatively easy and pleasant. All you have to do is make sure you have a reliable source of hay and add more mulch if too much decomposition has occurred. It’s also an effortless way to keep your soil fertile and plants healthy. 

Books By Ruth Stout

Bestseller No. 1
The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book: Secrets of the Famous Year Round Mulch Method (Mulch Queen)
  • Stout, Ruth (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 220 Pages - 06/09/2021 (Publication Date) - 12 Sirens (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 2
The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book: Secrets of the Famous Year-Round Mulch Method
  • Used Book in Good Condition
  • Hardcover Book
  • Ruth Stout (Author)
Bestseller No. 3
Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent
  • Stout, Ruth (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 222 Pages - 08/03/2017 (Publication Date) - Martino Fine Books (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 4
If You Would be Happy
  • Ruth Stout (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 190 Pages - 09/02/2021 (Publication Date) - Martino Fine Books (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 5
How to have a green thumb without an aching back: A new method of mulch gardening
  • Stout, Ruth (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 162 Pages - 10/17/2023 (Publication Date) - Echo Point Books & Media, LLC...
Bestseller No. 6
Gardening Without Work
  • Stout, Ruth (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 134 Pages - 09/22/2020 (Publication Date) - (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 7
It's a Woman's World
  • Stout, Ruth (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 214 Pages - 07/29/2018 (Publication Date) - Martino Fine Books (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 8
Greenwoman Volume 5: Ruth Stout
  • Knauf, Sandra (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 72 Pages - 07/04/2013 (Publication Date) - Greenwoman Publishing, LLC...
Bestseller No. 9
The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book
  • Gardening
  • Hardcover Book
  • English (Publication Language)
Bestseller No. 10
The Whole Ruth: A Biography of Ruth Stout
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Knauf, Sandra (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Last update on 2024-06-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API


  • User Avatar

    Author, blogger, podcaster, homesteading and permaculture enthusiast. I have a passion for sharing what I learn and helping others on their journey. If you're looking for me, you'll usually find me in the garden.

    View all posts