Strawberries planted in a wire mesh compost bin - Garland Community Garden

Gardening the Ruth Stout Way

I’ve known of Ruth Stout’s methods for years.  Ms. Stout was known as “The Mulch Queen.”  Ruth Stout was born in the United States in 1884. As early as 1920, she realized that all traditional methods of working with the soil (digging, weeding, watering, plowing, hoeing) could be replaced by simply adding layers of hay on the ground. She wrote about this particular organic approach from 1953 to 1971. Stout emphasized the simplicity of her methods, and the way the gardener benefits from extra free time and rest. It’s easy to see with the titles of her books: Gardening Without WorkI’ve Always Done It My Way, and How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back. 

I’ve also known how composting works—at least for a small-scale garden. If you have some partially rotten (untreated) wood, lay on the bottom.  You put a layer of brown organic matter such as leaves, straw or hay (about four inches high) a layer of green (about two inches high). A thin layer of fresh produce such as carrot peelings, cabbage gone bad in your bin, rotten tomatoes, etc. Then start all over with a layer of brown organic matter and continue until the compost pile is as tall as you want.  If you do it this way, you do not have to turn the pile.  You make holes with your hands in the pile about 18 inches deep and 8 inches in diameter, fill with rich soil, and insert your transplants or your seeds.

The missing element to Ms. Stout’s method is an enclosure for the compost.  I like an enclosure because it discourages animals, makes it easier to tend your plants as you don’t have to bend over, and it looks nice.

You want a wire mesh enclosure so the compost can “breathe”.  With a solid enclosure, heat will build up within the pile and it may get too warm for your plants.  You may also want to make a wire mesh cylinder for the center of your enclosure to increase the aeration.  You can also use this cylinder to continue to feed your bed by tossing rotten fresh produce into it (covering each time with hay or other brown organic matter such as leaves so you don’t attract critters).

How to make your own wire enclosure:

As you can see from the photo (and in person if you visit the Garland Community Garden) I’ve used some wire compost containers that we donated to us.  However, you can make your own enclosures easy enough:  1. Four rebar about 4.5 feet tall 2. Steel gauge wire mesh. --  Mark off equidistant four spots to form a square.  Drive the rebar into the ground at each of these four points.  Wrap the wire mesh around the rebar, folding at the corners.  Use tie-wraps to connect the wire mesh at the final corner.  Make your wire cylinder (about 10 inches in diameter and a little taller than your bin) and place in the middle.  Then make your layers.


1. a bed that is easy to tend
2. a bed that requires little watering
3. a bed that grows great edibles
4. a bed that is easy for people in their 80’s and 90’s to tend.

NOTE:  To make my garden bed even more carefree, I will slide cardboard (about 6 inches wide) around the sides to prevent grass or weeds from growing along the sides of my bed.  Thus, no weed-eating for me.  After the first planting you won't need to add composted soil to each plant.  Just add about a four inch layer of composted soil to the top before planting and more hay and organic matter as needed.  (Always cover the ripe material with the brown organic matter.)

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