I have a lot of respect for Ruth Stout. She was quite a person, as a glance through one of her books will rapidly reveal. Her book “Gardening Without Work: for the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent” has been a cult classic since the 1950s, and the method has come into new popularity recently thanks to author Patricia Lanza and her book Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding! The inspiring recent film Back to Eden also features a variant of this method as used by farmer Paul Gautschi. (Read my review of that here.)
Proponents of deep mulching brag that this method requires no tilling, no weeding, and almost no work – but does it? Let’s take a closer look.
What is the “Ruth Stout” Method?
The deep mulch garden uses layers of mulch to crush weeds, keep the soil moist and add organic matter. If you’re gardening on clay, it also has a major loosening effect over time. Stout’s preferred mulch was straw, rotten or fresh, but she advocated using whatever organic matter you could scavenge. If you go for the modern “Lasagna gardening” incarnation, you put down a layer of cardboard or newspapers right over a patch of weeds or lawn, then stack a foot or two of varied organic materials on top of that, including compost, manure, straw, leaves or whatever you have available. Plant into that and… instant garden! As weeds pop up, if they pop up, smother them with straw. Bam! Dead!
Why is this Method a Godsend?
The great thing about this method is what it does for your soil. As an example: I had a few red oak trees removed from my yard a couple of years ago. When the men from the tree company took them down, they chopped up the trunks and larger branches and started raking great big piles of smaller sticks and leaves together. That gave me an idea. Why not pile those in a corner of my yard and let them compost? The tree crew happily obliged and we stacked them up. The next spring, the debris had settled. Curious to see what the ground was like beneath, I started digging. What had formerly been dead grey sand was now a rich, black loam, filled with earthworms and soil life. That dirt is now some of the best in my yard. No tilling, no fertilizing or adding of amendments. Just a big stack of organic matter left to rot in place and I was looking at grade-A soil.
Imagine doing the same in your garden plot. I’ve done it multiple times now and I can assure you that the results are impressive. If you’ve got bad soil, sandy soil or even clay, a deep layer of mulch will fix it.
Another benefit of this method is that it’s easier than traditional composting. Just chuck your leaves, kitchen scraps, cardboard, etc. into the garden and bury them as needed. The soil life that results is impressive. When I lived in Tennessee, sheet mulching transformed a patch of hard clay and Bermuda grass into a rich patch of garden. Over time, the clay darkened and loosened beneath my beds. I was amazed by the transformation. Tilling would’ve been a nightmare – this gave me something amazing to work with.
One final benefit of this method: water conservation. Over time, the ground becomes so rich with humus that it acts as a sponge. Even during long dry spells, the layers beneath the surface are cool and moist. You can see in the Back to Eden film as well – the comparison to the dry baked dirt elsewhere on Gautschi’s property is astounding.
Why is this Method of the Devil?
And now for the downside: sheet mulching is not an easy alternative to double-digging, despite Ruth Stout’s assurances that it’s “no work.” Why? Because you spend all your time scrounging for materials. This is not something you can do half-way. Getting lots of wood chips, straw, stable bedding, leaves, pine needles, straw, compost and other mulching materials isn’t easy. If you don’t own a truck and don’t have friends with large farms or livestock, finding enough material to cover a large garden is a pain. You don’t want to just put down an inch or two of mulch, either. You want to put down a foot. When you do that, the weeds don’t have a chance. If you skimp, you’ll pay for it. Ever try hoeing in mulch? It’s a royal pain.
Another downside: back in Ruth Stout’s day, straw and manure weren’t contaminated with long-term herbicides like the infinitely evil “Grazon” from Dow AgroSciences. When you lasagna garden today, you’re often relying on materials from outside your homestead – materials that may end up killing your garden for the next five years. That’s a risk I’m not willing to take. I don’t trust hay, straw or manures anymore. I got nailed once – that was enough.
Additionally, I listed one of the benefits of sheet mulching as being its ability to foster worms and other soil life. Unfortunately, this also carries over to slugs and snails. The second year I had a mulch garden, I ended up with an incredible amount of slugs. After a week of trapping and killing them, I was free; yet they never would have been a problem without all the nice, moist mulch they’d been breeding in.
Finally, sheet mulching simply makes no sense if you’re going to garden on any kind of decent acreage. The materials are simply too tough to acquire in quantity or to deal with. If you had a modest 1/4 acre garden, covering it with mulch would be a full-time job. This may be a good method for small spaces – but it’s a non-starter for larger plots.
How to Sheet Mulch
First, pick your garden plot and mark out the edges. If it’s full of tall grass or weeds, mow it down, leave the clippings in place, and water thoroughly. You want it wet before you cover the ground with mulch. Next, get yourself a bunch of cardboard or newspaper and cover the entire space, overlapping to make sure nothing comes through. The same applies to newspaper: a nice thick layer is best. Though some will say you can get away with a single layer of cardboard or roughly six sheets of newspaper, two or three times that is better. Some of our Florida weeds are hard to crush.
After this weed-block layer is down, wet it thoroughly and start adding mulch. A good mix is best. Basically, you’re composting in place, so if you can mix grass clippings with pine bark, straw with manure, leaves with coffee grounds, etc., things will break down better. But the main thing is: stack it high with whatever you can get – and water as you go.
If you want to plant right away, you can pull back some of the mulch, add pockets of compost, then plant seeds or transplants. The best results, however, come a year or so after you’ve established your garden patch. By that point, the cardboard has rotted away and you’ve hopefully added mulch on top a few more times as the previous layers have settled. The ground beneath is now full of life and compost… and your plants are strong and healthy from the abundance of moisture in the soil. See some weeds that managed to peek through? Throw yesterday’s bad news on them or suffocate them with mulch. Once you’ve done the groundwork, the deep mulch garden is pretty easy to maintain. Just don’t ever till it under or you’ll undo all your hard work.
Final Thoughts On Deep Mulching
There’s plenty to love about the deep mulch/Back to Eden/Ruth Stout/Lasagna gardening method of piling on organic matter. There’s also plenty to loathe. After multiple years of fiddling with the various incarnations of “stack and forget” gardening, I still occasionally use it when I have some materials – but as my plots have expanded, I find less and less reason to pile tons of organic matter into my annual gardens. Rather, I put my leaves, cornstalks and other “waste” directly on the ground around my long-term perennials and trees… or drop them into the compost pile.
Don’t think that means I wouldn’t give Ruth a kiss on the cheek if she were still with us – anyone with that much passion for gardening is tops in my book, even if her method isn’t for everyone.