No-Work Gardening?

I picked the last of my vegetable garden today, and that upon the urging of two horrified girlfriends who spotted tomatoes literally rotting on the vine this weekend.  The truth is I grew weary this year before my garden did.  Usually around the end of July it succumbs to the tropical humidity we are infamous for in the South, and by the time the weather is lovely again in early fall, there’s nothing left to tend but a few tenacious marigolds and pepper plants that have finally come into their own.  But this year was a different story, and I have a woman named Ruth Stout to thank. 

I came across a battered volume entitled The No-Work Garden Book in early winter, just in time for the ritualistic planning and perusal of seed catalogues.  The name appealed to me at once, as the memory of the previous season’s heartache was still fresh in my mind, and I eagerly flipped through the dirt-smudged pages in search of the secrets that would render my passion less arduous.  What I found was a great surprise—not a host of tricks but one great mantra proclaimed by an elderly organic gardener in the 1970’s: Year-Round Mulch.  At first I couldn’t get my mind around it.  No tilling.  No watering, weeding or fertilizing.  Only planting and harvesting and enjoying.  It sounded too good to be true.

More research proved that Ruth Stout had been a respected name in the garden world in her day, and that her fully organic methods are embraced with an undying loyalty among backyard enthusiasts and farmers alike.  Her quiver has only one arrow, but it is an able one, and its efficiency has stood the test of time.  For this is no coverlet of pine needles or scattering of bark which she promotes, but a heavy-handed six to eight inch mat of organic material, replenished as needed over the entire year.  Hay straw, which she delicately refers to as ‘un-composted manure’ is a staple of the soil’s diet in her regimen, and this I layered with abandon last fall upon my tired beds.  It was certainly worth a try.

According to her promises the mulch effectually preserves moisture and continually breaks down into its own top-dressing of fertilizer.  And the sheer thickness discourages weeds.  I couldn’t wait to see if it would indeed make a difference. 

My garden work this year was comprised of pulling back the mulch into little trenches to plant the seeds, plucking slugs off of my bean plants (yuck!!), dead-heading the marigolds, attempting to train the most rambunctious tomato plants I’ve ever had, and picking vegetables.  Once every so often as I passed among the little beds I’d stoop to pull a weed that had worked its way up—or I’d simply turn a handful of mulch over it.  And even though our summer was much less dry than it’s been in recent years, it’s still worthy of note that I can count on one hand how many times I turned the sprinkler on.  On the eve of our summer vacation, as I stood perspiring over a hot stove putting up more tomatoes than I’ve ever seen in one place, I groaned to Philip, “This ‘no-work gardening’ has got some hidden costs!” 

In short, I loved my garden more than ever, and savored the summer mornings when work was a delight and an opportunity to commune with God in the sweetness and stillness.  Everything else I’ve ever tried seems way too hard now.  And as an added blessing my perfectionism has been dealt a satisfactory blow.  It’s been a release and a reaping in one.

I pulled the gate to behind me this morning with a happy sigh.  Josephine rolled in unconcealed glee among what she and the other cats have left of the catnip, and Calvin blinked contentedly from a bed of straw with empty trellises above.  In a few weeks I’ll tidy things up and tuck my dear garden in for the winter with a golden blanket of sweet hay and let it begin to dream of the spring.          

6 Responses to “No-Work Gardening?”

  1. Melinda says:

    I just ordered this book through inter-library-loan for my mother, who loves gardening. :-) Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Josie Ray says:

    I wonder if you would please comment on this older post and let me know how the Ruth Stout method smells downwind. A neighbor simply threw all their grass clippings on their garden one summer and we often smelled rotting grass every time we opened the window. Personally, I don’t mind a little compost smell in the summer, but I wouldn’t want neighbors to be inconvenienced.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Hello, Josie! I have never noticed anything ‘malodorous’ about this method. πŸ˜‰ I haven’t used grass clippings, at Ruth’s suggestion, as they break down too fast to be an effective mulch. The straw and waste hay that we use from the barn does not give off any odor at all and it lasts for months with only occasional replenishment necessary. I don’t , however, hold with Ruth’s once-mentioned idea of putting compost-able kitchen items directly on the beds, even under the mulch. πŸ˜‰ I still use my compost pile…that’s a little much, I think. πŸ˜‰

  3. Josie Ray says:

    Lanier, thank you very much for responding. As I was out digging a new tree/shrub/flower bed today–a small, mixed, woodland bed–I commented to my mother who was working beside me, after describing Ruth Stout’s method and my question to you, that I feel like I have a gardening friend in Georgia. And someone who isn’t completely absorbed in veggies, as many of my friends are, but who loves flowers just as much or more. We often plan to do both, but by time the flowers are all planted for the spring, it’s hot, late in the season, we’re tired, and the veggies go hang for the year. :-)

    We have hopeless clay. It’s probably going to be raised beds this year, and hay mulch next year.

    Thanks again.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      You are sweet, Josie. You definitely have a gardening friend in Georgia. :)

      And I hear you about the clay. We have raised beds in the kitchen (vegetable/herb/flower) garden. And I should confess to you that the aforementioned is rapidly being invaded by primroses and creeping jenny which I haven’t the heart to restrain. πŸ˜‰

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