A few months ago I came across a short video on YouTube called, "Ruth Stout's Garden." The 23-minute video, filmed in 1976, contains an interview with a 92-year-old woman who maintains a 225-square-metre garden (like mine) all by herself. As you might imagine, I was intrigued.
Like many people today, I am a YouTube watcher, and have gradually come to prefer this media format for certain content areas, especially where gardening is concerned.
I consider YouTube a valuable resource for gardeners primarily because you can get advice from people who are not selling anything; or to be more direct, you can get honest advice from other gardeners.
Yes, I know, there are plenty of hucksters pushing useless junk that no one needs on YouTube, or passing themselves off as experts just like anywhere else, but unlike with other mainstream media sources, in among the pitching and selling, you can also find content that has been provided purely for the sake of information — content that would never make it onto a television screen, because there is simply no money to be made from it. Furthermore, it inclines people to make choices that will save them money and decrease their consumer activity.
Suffice it to say, I would include Ruth Stout's Garden on my list of such wonderful YouTube content.
The Ruth Stout Method
Ruth Stout summarizes and exemplifies a permaculture approach to gardening in such a simplified and accessible way that I think every gardener should give it a watch. Her main point is that almost anyone can maintain a garden that can provide all or most of your produce for an entire year in a 15m x 15m space, and that this can be done with far less work than one might imagine.
Ruth, like me, employs a heavy mulch system in her garden, where the soil is never left exposed. Ruth is partial to using hay as a mulch, primarily I imagine because she could source it cheaply and easily. As a result, the weeding, watering and fertilizing are kept to a minimum, and for large stretches at the height of the season (like now), the only activity that might be required in the garden is collecting food.
How do I do it?
I was so inspired by Ruth's example that I made three new 1.2m x 2.5m beds for potatoes using her very simple method, which involved the following:
1) mow down the grass/weeds;
2) put down about 8-10cm of horse manure;
3) space out the potatoes and jam them in the manure;
4) cover the whole thing with at least 30cm of hay;
5) do nothing for two months;
6) pick and eat your delicious potatoes.
Each bed took about six minutes to prepare and plant from start to finish, and they are now growing quite well. While a few weeds have found their way through the mulch, I plan to lay another 30cm of hay down in the fall after I harvest the potatoes, and expect that this will further smother out the weeds, making things even easier for next year.
I have to say, these were the easiest garden beds I have ever built! Even if they are half as productive this year as ones that would have been cultivated, it will have been worth it due to the time I saved in setting them up.
Gardening should not be hard work
Ruth was a champion for the argument that keeping a garden should be easy if you are doing it right. Indeed, this was basically the title of a number of her books (e.g. her 1963 book Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent), and her ability to maintain her garden into her 90s speaks volumes.
In the video, she explains that on any given day, after waking up whenever she feels like it (though usually by 8-ish), then having a leisurely breakfast, answering all her hand-written mail and doing all her housework, her gardening for the day would be done by 11 a.m. In essence, she implies that she spends far less than an hour each day in her garden. I found this to be very encouraging, because I have had much the same experience in my 15m x 15m, heavily mulched garden.
People often tell me that gardening is a lot of work, but like Ruth, I have found that not to be the case. On any given day, I only spend 15 minutes or less in my garden, and most of that time is spent harvesting food this time of year.
I'm amazed that this and other similar information has been out there for years, and people are still growing their food in bare earth, with the perpetual watering, weeding, and fertilizing that is needed with such an approach. These chores are all dramatically reduced or eliminated when you start working with nature to build healthy soil, and that means laying down a cover of some kind.
If you missed getting a garden in this year, I recommend that, now or later in the fall, you source out some hay or grab some bags of leaves and cover the area where you want your garden to be next year. It will be ready and waiting for you next spring!