The Ruth Stout No-Work Gardening Method

Dr. Helena Gough
By Dr. Helena Gough August 8, 2019 08:07

The Ruth Stout No-Work Gardening Method

Learning how to grow your own vegetables is one of the smartest choices you can make. Not only is it satisfying to know that you can provide for yourself and your loved ones, but you can also be sure that you are consuming healthy, chemical-free food.

Conventional gardening methods can be time consuming and strenuous, but there are some excellent natural alternatives that are well worth exploring. The Ruth Stout ‘no-work’ method is one of the very best.

The Story Behind Ruth Stout’s Method

Ruth Stout was born in Kansas in 1894 and lived to the ripe old age of 96. She began gardening when she was in her 40s using conventional techniques. She didn’t enjoy being dependent on the plowman to come and prepare her land, and she also became tired of the heavy labor that the gardening involved. So, in 1944 Ruth decided to try something a little different.

She stopped tilling, she stopped digging, she stopped watering, she stopped composting and she stopped weeding.

So, what exactly did Ruth do?

The Fundamentals Of The No-Work Approach

Having observed that you never see bare soil in nature, Ruth’s main principle was to cover her garden with a thick layer of mulch and leave it in place at all times. This mulch provided a covering that kept the soil cool and moist, and with a consistent level of humidity.The Ruth Stout No-Work Gardening MethodWith a thick mulch in place, the soil is protected from the damaging UV rays and heat of the sun, as well as being sheltered from heavy rains or strong winds. This mulch also prevents most weeds from growing. Ruth suggested that everyone should begin with a mulch of at least 8 inches thick to ensure that the most resilient weeds cannot break through to the surface. Over time, the mulch breaks down and adds nutrients to the soil.

What Are The Benefits Of The ‘No-Work’ Method?

The no-work method involves minimal raw materials and is a low-cost way to grow your own vegetables. Neither huge quantities of water nor elaborate and expensive watering systems are not needed for a successful harvest.

There is no digging, plowing, hoeing or laborious weeding involved, which makes this an ideal method for those who aren’t able or willing to do long hours of manual work. The amount of maintenance required by this kind of garden is low, so you’ll be saving your back as well as saving some dollars.

It should go without saying that one of the biggest bonuses of having less work to do in the garden is having more time to spend with family and friends.

Mulching Creates A Rich And Fertile Soil

The benefits of the no-work approach for the gardener are many, but Ruth Stout’s method also treats your garden soil with great kindness. Leaving the soil undisturbed means that worm populations will begin to flourish in your garden.

Worm casts are rich in nutrients, and their movement is good for aerating the soil and ensuring good drainage.

As well as this, the fungi and micro-organisms essential to a happy, healthy soil will increase. A rich and fertile soil means vigorously growing plants and a good yield of crops.

Related: 24 Lost Gardening Tips from 100 Years Ago

What Materials Can I Use For The Mulch?

Ruth had a very flexible approach to the materials that can be used for mulching – straw, hay, leaves, wood chips or any other kind of vegetable matter that will rot.

Consider what you have access to in your local area. Let yourself be guided by Ruth’s no-work principles.

What kind of materials are readily available to you for free? Begin by working with these, and make sure your initial mulch laying is laid to the depth that Ruth suggests.

If you see any weeds that are managing to break through, just add more mulch.

How Do I Sow My Vegetable Seeds Into The Mulch?

When it comes to sowing seeds, the process is very simple.The Ruth Stout No-Work Gardening MethodPull the mulch apart enough to be able to see where you are placing the seeds.

Plant your seeds in the ground and cover them back up again with a little soil. Leave the mulch apart.

What About Growing Potatoes?

Ruth’s casual approach to potato growing is very refreshing! Take your sprouted potatoes and simply toss them onto your mulch leaving them at around a foot apart.

Place an additional 4 inches of mulch on top of the potatoes. As the sprouts begin to grow, continue adding more mulch. So simple!

Should I Be Using Any Additional Fertilizers Or Manure?

Your vegetables are constantly being fertilized by the rotting mulch, so you never need to feel that they are not being well fed.

Ruth Stout stated that she only used one additional product, and that was a soybean or cottonseed meal. This adds a little additional nitrogen to the soil. If you find that your garden needs additional nitrogen, both grass clippings and coffee grounds are quick and easy ways of doing this.

Food waste can be composted directly in the garden rather than on a separate compost pile, preferably by being placed underneath your main mulch. Remember that with a heavy mulch that is constantly in place, your soil will naturally and inevitably increase in quality over time.

What Else Do I Need To Know?

Ruth Stout had a deep love for nature and a very light-hearted approach to her gardening. She observed the natural environment and learned from it. Experimenting with her method for yourself can be great fun, especially when this is approached with Ruth’s spirit of playfulness. The advantages of the no-work method are many, and it is well worth trying your hand at it.

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Dr. Helena Gough
By Dr. Helena Gough August 8, 2019 08:07
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  1. TheSouthernNationalist August 8, 13:22

    This is pretty good but I like my “cardboard no till garden”
    I can get all the free cardboard I want at the local $ store.
    The concept is the same, use cardboard instead of mulch but I guess you can use both.

    Reply to this comment
    • The Ohio Prepper August 8, 20:59


      This is pretty good but I like my “cardboard no till garden”

      We also use cardboard on part of our garden using the same techniques under a different name: ”Lasagna Gardening: with the name refering to the different layers of cardboard with vegetable scraps, grass clippings, compost and other organic materials.

      I can get all the free cardboard I want at the local $ store.

      That’s good to know; but, as an Amazon shopper I have plenty. LOL

      The concept is the same, use cardboard instead of mulch but I guess you can use both.

      You can use any organic material including coffee grounds, vegetable scraps, grass clippings & leaves and in our case, composted chicken litter.

      Reply to this comment
  2. headhunter1 August 8, 15:37

    i bought a shreeder to shreed up mail and magazines and when it gets full i pour it into my garden and mix it in the garden does the rest,makes my cabbage grow faster and less wait time for the harvest already have harvested 100 cabbage in the last 60 days andf have now planted 100 more and they already broke ground in 15 days

    Reply to this comment
    • Lisa August 8, 18:29

      Wow, I have sooo much shred. Hadn’t thought of this. I have raised beds, with clay type soil. Want to plant something in late september. also will take the abundance of grass clipping and put that in those beds. Thanks for the ideas.

      Reply to this comment
      • headhunter1 August 8, 22:58

        mix your shred with a little compost and potting mix will break it down faster also im useing raised beds and now i grow stuff year round

        Reply to this comment
  3. lefty August 8, 16:02

    better watch out for slugs and snails if you heavily mulch. You my need need to put Cu wire/screening or CuSO4 in the patch.Rodents etc cn also be a problem.I keep the immediate area around my fruit trees bare for same reason.

    Reply to this comment
    • Old Indiana Farmboy Bill August 9, 07:41

      Good added information, Lefty. A person would be well served by running their vegetable scraps, food scraps, egg shells and other such materials through the full and complete process of being composted in a properly functioning and managed compost pile or composting drum before adding it to their garden under their straw, cardboard, shredded junk mail and/or newspaper compost layers. If there are “neighborhood” dogs, raccoons, opossums or other animals who use their good sense of smell to find a free “smorgasboard”, you can bet they will locate the “delicatessen” you are providing for them in your garden and “dig” right in to eat their fill. Keeping a compost pile working properly, maintaining the internal heat it requires, and turning the compost over on a scheduled basis is a lot more work, but adding that fully composted material to your garden will provide more satisfaction and fewer problems with your garden than using a method that will pretty much guarantee many more opportunities to see and repair the damage and destruction caused in your garden by the wildlife and neighborhood dogs.

      Reply to this comment
      • Kathy August 9, 16:47

        Farmboy, you are so right about attracting wildlife. When we lived in the country the animals would get into the garden no matter what we tried, and tore up melons, tomatoes, and other things. We did use a drum composter there. Now in the city, I have not had animals in my garden YET! My dog or cat are not interested in vege scraps. There are rabbits, squirrels, opossums, and coyotes in the area, but so far no invasion! Birds are my biggest issue. I plant enough to share with them.

        Sometimes to hasten the breakdown of scraps I do whiz them in the blender and simply pour this liquid near the plants, by kicking some mulch aside then back again.

        If I find later that I need a composter I will get one. So far, I am happy doing as I do.

        Reply to this comment
    • bluesky August 16, 12:08

      Just crush your eggshells and continually apply to beds. Or use some dia….earth. slugs will go somewhere else

      Reply to this comment
  4. M Young August 8, 17:02

    This is very similar to how Paul Gautschi developed his very similar method. You can see how it works in his documentary Back to Eden ( I love his explanations. I have already used it and it is working great so far! (4 layers on soil: about 6 pages of newspaper, compost, 6 inches of yard clipping style mulch, with fertilization on top as needed. Water at initial plant in the soil if not damp.) No weeding or watering needed so far!

    Reply to this comment
  5. LOL August 8, 17:27


    I think this is the fifth article I’ve read this month about a woman who made it to such a very, very impressive old age… by not having a man in her life. Some of the others who credited their 100+ years to a no-man policy even smoked cigars and [used to] ride motorcycles.

    I’m doomed, since I’ve had the same hubby for 3 decades though :\

    Reply to this comment
    • Clergylady August 8, 21:44

      My mother was married twice, lived to 95 and had always worked hard and was rather independent. Grandma was married 2 times and lived to 94. But she was alone her last 50 years. She was the president of both the local women’s club and garden club for most of those 50 years and she taught an adult Bible class for all of those 50 years.
      I have no idea how long I’ll live but I will live till I die. I’ve been widowed twice and married three times. I think those single women focused on interests and helping others to live better. We can all do that with or without a mate. Hope its a happy relationship. I’ve ridden horses bareback and built custom motorcycles. I still use the mechanical ability to repair old sewing machines to give away to younger folks who are interested in sewing or repairing clothing. In the late 1960s I helped write a commodity cookbook for things like dried milk and powdered eggs or bulger wheat. Lots of good but unfamiliar things to use.
      Life’s has been a grand adventure and still unfolds with lots of interesting twists and turns. I’m enjoying the overall days that are mine. Prepared to meet eternity with peace. How ever many days come my way I’ll enjoy them All, whatever comes with them.
      I’m 71, so I’m not young anymore but I’m not done done living either. I still build things to make life easier. I’m full of plans. I’m a caretaker but I’m taking care of me too. I grow, dehydrate, can, and forrage our food. I continue to learn. Mom always said, “curiosity makes life worth living”. She was sharp as a tack to the end. Dad died -“failure to thrive”- from a stroke. Till that happened he was remodeling homes for mostly poor older women, grew 2 acres of garden to feed himself and Mom, to sell to supliment social security, and to give to food banks. He lived till he died. I think that’s true of most long lived folks. That and some Really good genes.
      Live long and prosper.

      Reply to this comment
  6. Clergylady August 8, 20:55

    When I can get something like weeds or trimmings and cardboard I use them. I also use a lot of rabbit droppings. They are a cold manure so nothing gets burned. They make green growth quick. I often throw kitchen trimmings and egg shells in a large container full of water. I water plants with that. Its desert here so no lawn trimmings or lush piles of weeds. My few Coffee grounds, trimmings, cut off weeds et. do end up on or mixed in the soil. I’ve even used fermented grain from a brewery but the chickens love it so much it’s hard to keep the free range gals out of the garden so now its strictly chicken feed. Everything adds to build richer dirt, helps retain moisture, draws worms to live there, and I enjoy the garden.
    My parents had Ruth Stout’s books and articles.
    I’m planning to buy hay for the garden this fall and to mulch the new Strawberrys. When I lived here before the garden was getting better and better. It sat unused for 13 years but this years garden is doing well. It was large in past years to feed a large family and many guests. This year I’m starting small. It’s just two of us and rare company. Also I’m working on reestablishing free trees here.
    A lot of what’s coming up that might be called weeds are in fact amaranth and purslane. I eat those and welcome them. Also a lot of puncture vine has been coming up. I’ve been pulling them and letting them lay and dry up where they were growing. Any value in those returns to the garden.
    As I’m able to get it, cardboard is being laid on a new area. It won’t breakdown enough to plant this year but its prep for next spring. Cottonwood leaves will help mulch the strawberries over winter. My fall planting will be where a stack of old corrugated metal is currently stacked. The ground is moist and worms are beginning to show up there. It should be good for planting broccoli and peas…probably lettuce as well. All will love the cooler weather of fall.

    Reply to this comment
  7. Kathy August 8, 21:01

    I read Ruth Stout’s book years ago and never forgot her ideas, even though our country gardens were done conventionally. Finally I am able to do something similar to Stout’s. We bought a small city property in Jan 2017 because my husband’s health was failing and the country place was too much. This is my third year with the small city garden. I started on top of lawn grass on heavy red clay. There were NO earthworms. First season I grew a few things in topsoil bags, with moderate success. I did not attempt to kill or dig out the grass. All over the garden and around the bags I mulched with leaves I had saved from roadsides while were property hunting. So I had 18 bags of nice leaves to start with. I added the season’s lawn clippings, and in the fall leaves from our own trees and those from neighbors. Lots of big earthworms at season’s end. I did put a short netting fence all around mainly to keep the leaves in, also rabbits out. In 2018 I had plenty of veges for freezing and sharing. Last fall (2018) I gathered more than 100 bags of leaves from the neighborhood! I used them around shrubbery and fruit-bearing plants, as well as the vege garden. Gathering those bags of leaves was the hardest thing I have done for my garden! I have never turned or tilled the soil. The condition of it is much improved already. My garden is producing abundantly! I do add fresh vege scraps under the mulch too — to feed the worms and other critters in the soil. No pesticides, very little fertilizer. I do use Azomite to add trace minerals but mainly depend on the decaying matter to feed the soil. Weeds don’t make it but sometimes grass comes through but is easy to pull out. I am very pleased with the results in such a short time! I expect my garden to get better and better as time goes on! Try this method. You will love it!

    Reply to this comment
  8. headhunter1 August 8, 22:55

    i read one comment i recieaved today about fixing sewing machines lmao im 65 and i still have a hand cranked leather sewing machine to do all my sewing with and shoe repairs and im a male lol but on most composting if you will throw a little dirt in with the mix will help it breakdown faster and also useing all that cardboard take and wet it before laying it down and layer dirt on it will help prep it faster

    Reply to this comment
    • Clergylady August 16, 01:24

      That sounds like an interesting sewing machine. My treadle machine will sew several layers of denim or lighter weight leather. Of course I saw my mother in law sew the thinnest fine materials for brides maid dresses on her well oiled treadle machine.

      Reply to this comment
  9. IvyMike August 9, 01:10

    Well, Ruth Stout never gardened on the Blackland Prairie soil of Texas. The weeds here will push up through 3 feet of mulch, root into it, seed it, and just go hog wild. The weeds here break up concrete and asphalt. No matter what gardening technique you use if you don’t pull weeds twice a week you will be in deep doodoo. For vegetables I build keyhole style raised beds so I don’t have to bend over, but my butterfly gardens are ground level, so it’s stoop labor several hours a week. I think the proper definition of Gardener is ‘one who pulls weeds and pretends to like it.’

    Reply to this comment
    • red August 20, 00:59

      Bad weeds. I use cardboard under the mulch and that takes care of most. Chopping them off just under grown level does,, as well, and leaves roots intact to build the soil. If they’re legumes, they can stay and I just cut them back to keep them from blooming and a little extra mulch. Each time they get cut back, a lot of roots die, leaving a lot of nitrogen in the soil. When the roots are about depleted, not growing the plant well, then it’s cut off completely. niio

      Reply to this comment
  10. BigMike August 9, 01:51

    We did the Ruth Stout method this year using left over round bale hay from our goats. We just unrolled it right on the garden. It really works. We could have used even more. Some weeds came up in areas that only got one layer, but the areas that got two layers were perfect.

    Reply to this comment
  11. red August 11, 15:15

    Yes! If you can, get her book, Make Mine Mulch. By mulching, she was still able to garden right to the end of life. Modern agriculture calls mulch armor on the soil. Here, no mulch, forget the garden. The soil dries to brick and most will die. hay bale gardening works well here. place rows of hay or straw bales down with a few feet of space between them and plant in the space.

    Reply to this comment
  12. Pam August 15, 14:06

    I’m 71, and remember that name from when I was a kid, my mom was into organic gardening when I was a kid. We had the usual small yard and she grew stuff our there. It was maybe, 10′ x 14′.. my dad would split a 2×4 and make tomato cages and connect them together on top and we could walk under and in between them. and when we went fishing she would barry the scrapes in the soil around the plants. Any organic matteral would go in the gardn or the compost box my dad built in the back yard. Everything grew great. later we moved to a farm and took bails of hay and took the leaves and piled them up about 2 feet high, anybe 25 feet long and put the potatoes in between the leaves and all you had to do is left the hay off them and you had nice beautiful potatoes and pretty clean. But here in texas you have fire ants to have to watch out for.. I do throw out old potatoes that are starting to grow in the bags and always get potatoes from my compost.. Don;’t let anyone tell you they wont grow right, cause they do…

    Reply to this comment
    • Clergylady August 16, 01:14

      I’m 72. My parents had Ruth’s books and articles, subscribed to Mother Earth Magazine and more. We gardened every place we lived. Dad always dug a compost pit.
      I learned a lot from them.
      This year my husbands Alzheimer’s is too advanced for him to help. I had several injuries and two surgeries. I collected the scraps that should have gone in compost on an old laundry tub. When I did plant a garden I just added water to the tub. Now I supliment watering with the compost tea. The garden is lush and productive. I still like a compost pile or layered garden with scraps in the layers but I did what I was able to do and it’s working. I’m enjoying the garden. And we’re beginning to eat from the garden.

      Reply to this comment
    • red August 20, 00:06

      In damper areas, potato blight caused a lot of deaths because the potatoes weren’t disposed of, but dumped by the fields. That’s how plagues start. Fire Ants!: We’re not as plagued as Texas, but we also have a lot more varieties. Horned toads eat them, but they tend to get out of hand. A cup of cornflour or corn meal over the nest kills most of them. They love the stuff but eat it dry, and can’t digest it, then drink something. Usually have to follow up ever few weeks for a while. But, this is the first year I actually had seeds growing well in the garden. Ants and doves would steal them all. niio

      Reply to this comment
      • Clergylady August 20, 04:20

        I have both red and black ants here near the garden. Black ants never both the garden or me BUT the RED ant when they crawl up a pant leg when you’re working could make a dead man dance. Boy do they hurt!
        I usually feed them baking soda and corn meal. That seems to get rid of them but it doesn’t seem like too long and I find more moving in. TRESPASSERS!

        Reply to this comment
        • red August 22, 06:10

          I’ve been nailed by the black ants, too, and they’re just as bad. There’s one red ant nest left, the horned toads ate the others. Red ants are bad for coming in the house, as well. The black ant nest on the north side of the garden was getting big stealing lost turnips seeds, but after a week with the cornflour, seems to mostly be gone. At least till surviving grubs come out. All the ants I saw were big ones, older, and those are usually guards, not scavengers. No nests left on the east or south side of the house. I need to get out in the morning to check anything north of the fence. niio

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  13. Pam August 15, 14:16

    you can take your compost and put it in a blender and pour it in your garden around your plants and cover it with grass clippings from the mower or whatever mulch you use…

    Reply to this comment
    • red August 20, 00:36

      I’m in south central Arizona. Lawns are only now starting to grow. A lady from Arkansas had a brilliant idea. She has her husband dig holes 3 feet deep in the yard and fills them with kitchen scraps and junk mail. She’s developing a nice garden out of adobe and caliche soil. niio

      Reply to this comment
  14. Clergylady August 16, 02:26

    Ruth gardened in wetter country. I live in high mountain desert. Watering will always be part of having a garden but the better the dirt gets, the longer it helps some moisture.

    Reply to this comment
    • red August 20, 00:12

      The joyful rumble of lawnmowers fills my ears every Saturday now. As for as I’m concerned, the only excuse Round Up has to exist is bermuda grass. But, some get a thrill out of green in good desert lawns. I’ll take Indian Rice, any day. niio

      Reply to this comment
  15. Clergylady August 20, 04:35

    Rice grass is our state grass. I have quite a bit of larger seeded grasses. My chickens love it. I’m going to cut that wild rye this week. I’ll let the stems dry to mulch the new strawberry bed and save the seed. I may try cleaning it and cooking it or grind it for flour. I have two larger seeded grasses making seed right now. Those I usually save for the chickens or younger Ducks.
    I have a lot of the native buffalo grass here. If the land remains untouched that fills and and makes a good ground cover. If land is disturbed it takes years for it to fill back in.
    I keep one are pretty much untouched. Maxican hat and other wild flowers grow there. The buffalo grass is thick. Usually it is green already this time of year.this year it just starting to grow. It gets 6 to 8 ” at the tallest so I never consider cutting it.

    Reply to this comment
    • red August 22, 06:18

      You walk in beauty. Forgive me, but I’ve been up too long. Tomorrow, I’m gonna walk all the way around the fence to the back alley! Be happy when I can get out and walk for miles, again. niio

      Reply to this comment
      • Clergylady August 22, 18:49

        Strength will return. I’m still working on conditioning and strength after the injuries and surgeries. Its slower than I want but I can tell it’s getting better.
        Walk in blessings

        Reply to this comment
        • red August 23, 06:16

          I know, but it’s been months since I could do any real work. Half the garden is empty, most of the seedlings planted died. Then I saw that picture of Bill Clinton in the blue dress and nearly wound up in the emergency ward! Laughter is supposed to be good medicine. Then, the dog had a major horror. Food bit back. I had dropped some pieces of hotdog on the floor that morning and he missed one. He found it early in the afternoon but it bit him! He ran from it scrubbing at his face, and I went to offer it to him, and saw some small house ants. It all evaporated and since then, tho sore from laughing, I feel blessed, again. niio. You’re a strong-heart and an encouragement to all of us.

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  16. Clergylady August 20, 05:16

    Our nearer Wal-Mart is selling off this years garden stuff. I bought My favorite gardening gloves for less than half price, 50 ft hoses were $7, fruit tree feeding stakes were 75% off and fish emulation was also 75% off. I bought several of each thing I usually do use. I also bought a hose to attach water to my little motor home.
    Looks like rain again this week. Starting either Tuesday or Wednesday. I need to pick yellow squash tomorrow. Probably Should pick another gallon bowl of amaranth leaves as well. We’re really enjoying them this year.

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