No Aching Backs Here: Mulch gardening, care of the wise and wonderful Ruth Stout

In her book How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, Ruth Stout expounds on the virtues of mulch gardening instead of all the nasty tilling, weeding, composting, and exhaustion involved with most gardening advice.

Here at Better Farm, one of the biggest deterrents to agricultural pursuits is the extremely high level of sand and clay in the dirt (I broke a trowel in half yesterday trying to move a small shovelful). So Stout's perspective—that instead of killing your sweet self to convert your soil, you can throw a bunch of stuff on top of it that will give you better results—resonates. Thank goodness for Corinne, who tipped me off to this lady.

Basically, Stout advises plotting out a square of land where you'll be planting. I did this yesterday, starting small with a plot 20 feet long and 24 feet deep at the edge of our lawn and just inside one of the fields that gets plowed once or twice a year. This is a lot of hard soil and stiff, tall grass. Here I am hard at work, in totally inappropriate farming gear (including flip-flops):

Photos/Eric Drasin

Once you've staked out your plot, it's time to start treating the soil. This can start now, and will continue even long after crops are planted. The idea here is to avoid the cost of buying fresh mulch, and the maintenance of a compost bin that needs regular attention, turning, and so on. What Stout recommends is essentially turning your plot of land into an ongoing compost/mulch pit. That means raked leaves, grass clippings, a little wood ash from a fire, and food scraps can all get dumped directly on the soil and left alone. So long as you don't throw stuff like meat scraps into this ongoing mulch situation, you can rest fairly assured that you won't have too many critters contending for these scraps. I'll keep you posted on that. But for now, we started with some beet scraps, garlic and egg shells.

Now, we also have a small compost bin that we keep stocked with worms. This is great for making topsoil for houseplants, and will be a fabulous, nutrient-rich supplement for our crops next spring. Yesterday I sifted some fresh compost and added that to the mix as well.

If you keep adding to your plot until the first frost, by springtime you will have some serious mulching/decomposition to celebrate. Rule of thumb at that point is to head outside with your seeds in hand and turn some of that rich mash-up over. And, Stout promises, you'll be presented with unbelievably healthy, wonderful soil that will send your plants soaring sunward. You can also choose at that point to bring in some additional topsoil if needed. As the plants begin to grow, Stout advises continuing with the mulching process (adding lime and other supplements to plants requiring a little extra kick). If you feel like leftover noodles and apple skins are unsightly spread around the base of your tomato plant, go ahead and put a light cover of soil over your pile.

Stay tuned to see how we do...

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.