Deep Mulch Gardening

Ruth Stout’s Deep Mulch Gardening is more of a garden maintenance method than a method to get a garden started from scratch.

Deep Mulch by Midwest Gardening.JPG

It is really unknown how Ruth Stout prepared her gardens when starting from scratch, but it seems that from documented gardens in her life she implemented her deep mulch systems with existing plowed gardens.  In any case, her deep mulch system is easy to incorporate no matter how you started your garden.

The concept is similar in many ways to lasagne gardening, the Ruth Stout system starts with at least an 8 inch layer of compostable matter on your chosen garden site.  She liked to use large volumes of spoiled hay.  This thick mulch is simply maintained year round with any compostable material as it is acquired.  The material rots and enriches the underlying soil over time.  You don’t need to compost anything, it all goes right on top of the garden as is.  Like the lasagne method, if you use the deep mulch method to start a garden it takes a few years to develop ideal soil and hardpan will still exist.  At a minimum I would suggest that the soil be well loosened with a garden fork before piling on the mulch.  You should also first prepare the garden in fall to allow settling and decomposition.

Ruth Stout’s method worked well for her for a number of reasons.  When she developed her system she did not have much for financial resources, but she could easily scrounge huge volumes of free spoiled hay and trimmings.  So her methods were really born of necessity.  As she aged, the no dig maintenance was even more important to her.  In these times you will likely have to spend a good deal of money on straw and manure and a fair amount of time begging plenty of branch prunings, plant trimmings and even kitchen scraps.  The whole concept of this system is wonderful for organic gardening and permaculture, but it is hardly cheap or for that matter work free.  But after a few to several years your soil will be rich with good texture.  

Once established the maintenance is fairly cheap and easy, just keep adding compostable materials as well as a basic organic nitrogen fertilizer.  You can decide what you would like to do about weeds, because yes, you will have them.  I routinely do a shallow cultivation, but that is difficult if you have a deep layer of rough mulch.  Or you can just turn over the composting straw and scraps.  Can’t say that’s no work no dig, but certainly light work!

When it came time for planting, Ruth Stout was very casual about her methods.  Potato chunks were simply thrown on the ground and covered with an armload of hay.  Seeds, she insisted, could be patted into the soil surface and covered with deep hay and still sprout through the hay.  I do plant some annual flower seeds that way, but I really want my vegetables exposed to the warm sun in spring to speed things along.  Deep mulch is added after plants are fairly well established.  But each gardener prefers different methods, and I am sure we do things different up here in the frozen tundra than gardeners in more temperate regions.  So experiment a little and find what works best for your situation.

As for maintaining the nutrition of your garden soil, Ruth Stout was a believer in just “tossing your garbage” (kitchen scraps and plant trimmings) into the garden and continuing to heap on armloads of spoiled hay.  I would suggest burying kitchen scraps so you don’t attract animals and unwanted critters, but basically, yes this works fine.  The smaller the scrap pieces the better for quick decomposition.  Anything you normally put into your compost pile can be “buried” right into the garden.

Like me, you may want to adapt this method for maintaining your gardens.  Deep mulch feeds the soil, eliminates the composting step, minimizes weed growth and helps the soil to maintain moisture.

Sharon Dwyer