Around the Island

Gardening with Galligan: Introducing an unusual gardener…

COURTESY PHOTO Ruth Stout planted her first garden in 1930.
Ruth Stout planted her first garden in 1930.

The weather has been so abysmal that I’ve been driven indoors for most of the last few weeks, which is both a plus and a minus; the plus is that it gives one time both to review and reassess.

I’m struck and a bit surprised that my thoughts keep going back to a gardener which many of you may never have heard of, but who is one of my all-time favorites and must-reads: Her name was Ruth Stout.

She was born quite long ago, 1884 to be precise and yes, she was related to the novelist Rex Stout, famous for the Nero Wolfe detective series; he was her brother. She moved to New York when she was 18 and worked at many small endeavors including the ownership of a small tea shop in Greenwich Village.  She married Alfred Rossiter in 1929 and the couple moved to Poverty Hollow, Redding Ridge, on the outskirts of Redding, Connecticut. There they owned a 55-acre farm. In the spring of 1930, she planted her first garden.

In the beginning, she employed conventional techniques but that strained her somewhat impatient disposition since she was continually waiting for someone else to come and do the next step, which was too difficult for her to manage. The manual labor involved in traditional procedures taxed her physically and its repetition taxed her patience. In the spring of 1944, she decided no longer to stand about waiting for the plowman so she could plant, but to plant anyway; she covered the seedlings, waited to see what would happen, and “discovered surprising success.”

As the years went by, she refined her techniques and eventually adopted a plan of year-round mulch. This, she pointed out, virtually eliminated some of gardening’s back breaking chores since the ground remained friable at all times; no more the wait for the plowman, predictably too busy to come when she wanted him. Her original approach was first recorded in a long-running series of articles in “Organic Gardening and Farming.”

Her books, which I can’t recommend more highly, followed and if you read them, you will be, I think, enchanted with her humor and lack of conceit. For many years they were out of print, and the Shelter Island library had to track them down for me, which, happily, they did. When I went online yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to find that apparently there has been something of a renaissance because there they were, easily purchased. Their titles alone speak to who she was, her humor as well as her values; one is called “How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back,” another “Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy and the Indolent.”

You will see if you read them, where my endless advice to you for heavy mulch, year-round, comes from. I immediately adopted her method, quite literally the moment I read about it. She, as a farmer, cared little about appearance, and hence used anything (including coffee grounds) as mulch material.  We, as gardeners of “beds to be viewed” must be, of course, much choosier. But any heavy-duty mulch will work. I must caution you against using “unbagged” produce. It hasn’t been sterilized which is really what you’re paying for, and consequently is full of seeds that you don’t want, namely weed seeds.

So go on line or beg the library, but don’t miss Ruth; you’ll enjoy her, I promise.