The famous gardener Ruth Stout did not invent mulch. By her account, God did.
Leaves that fall — and other organic materials — feed the soil through their decomposition, protect it from erosion and drought, and sustain soil creatures that aerate it. By placing such materials around plants, a gardener can smother competing weeds as well. That’s mulching. It’s almost a religion among some gardeners, with Stout their patron saint.
Stout’s life story is interesting, and the first 60 years of it have nothing to do with mulch. Born in 1884, with Quaker parents and eight siblings, she had ambitions of being an actress or a writer. At 16, she smashed saloons with the prohibitionist Carry Nation, then worked as a bookkeeper and business manager, owned a tearoom in New York’s Greenwich Village, hung out with Socialists, did famine relief work in Russia, and booked lectures and debates for freethinkers. Her stories were published in magazines. In 1929, at 44, she married a man named Fred, and the two retired to Connecticut. She took up gardening, and he made wooden bowls.
For 14 years, she ran a large and perfectly conventional vegetable garden, applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides and having a man come by in spring to plow it up. But each year she was frustrated when he turned up late, with seeds needing to be sown.
So one day she looked at her asparagus, which, as a perennial, was all mulched and going about its business, and had an epiphany. As she later wrote in a book: “One never plows asparagus and it gets along fine. Except for new sod, why plow anything, ever?” She went ahead and sowed her seeds.
As usual, she’d left a lot of cornstalks and other debris in the garden over winter, and when she brushed it aside, the ground underneath was moist and easy to make furrows in. The seed sprouted, the plants thrived, and because she left the decaying plant waste alone, it provided a mulch of sorts.
As the years went by, she never plowed, spaded or even made a compost pile. Perfecting her technique, she knew it would work better with a thicker mulch, the better to deter weeds. She rounded up more organic materials: hay, leaves, straw, seaweed, pine needles, sawdust, weeds, garbage and rotting vegetable matter. To sow or transplant, she just pulled some mulch aside, then put it back when the plants were big enough. Aside from a little lime and cottonseed meal, the garden needed no fertilizer other than the decaying mulch. As that became part of the soil, she mulched some more.
She started writing articles for Organic Gardening magazine and a book about her method, which her publisher titled “How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.” Along with its sequels, it was aimed at “the aging, the busy and the indolent” or anyone else who wanted more vegetables with less work. It won thousands of converts.
What struck me most about Stout’s great mulch revelation was the paragraph that followed it, where she experiences it as “a deafening roar” and the culmination of her entire life of radicalism.
That made me curious, so I read some of her other books, which are autobiographical and cover a wide range of subjects. They’re all guided by a philosophy of self-determination, instilled by her mother, who “had the habit of letting everybody follow his own inner light without any remarks from her.” Though opinionated, Stout was trained to be broad-minded, and offered her own late-life joy in gardening as an example, not an imperative. When she died at 96, she was still gardening.
For a glimpse of that, watch Arthur Mokin’s 23-minute documentary on YouTube, “Ruth Stout’s Garden.” You see her at 92, planting potatoes she has just brought up from winter storage, with long white sprouts. She rakes away the mulch, tosses them on the ground and puts the mulch back. Done!
She is wearing a housewife-y dress and cardigan, her usual garden outfit, but describes to the camera her former daily habit of gardening in the nude: “I’ve always loved the air on my body.” Then, sitting in a lawn chair, she lifts a glass of wine, with apologies to Carry Nation.
I often follow Stout’s advice in the garden, though I’m too much of a mosquito magnet for the naked part. But my hat’s off to her — if not my T-shirt — for her gumption.
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