The Whole Ruth, Part One
It’s 1975 and Ruth Stout, in her early 90s, is being filmed at her home. She’s explaining her daily schedule, how many hours a day she works to maintain, harvest, and freeze food from a 45 x 50 foot vegetable garden which grows enough food for two people. (She hasn’t been in a grocery store for 14 years.) She also has a few flower beds to take care of, does all her own housework and cooking, and because she’s a well-known author, answers a lot of mail.
The show-stopping remark is that she says she never does any of this after 11:00 in the morning:
“Now your hands are going to go up and ask me what time I get up. My answer is to that is sometime between six and eight, according to when I feel like it and when I want to. And the first thing is a long, leisurely breakfast, Roman style, stretched out on the couch; but I’m all through with all of this by 11:00 in the morning.
And then she reveals the secret, a secret that has made her a household name:
“The reason [I can do this] is that I never had to plow, or spade, or cultivate, or weed, or hoe, or use fertilizer, or use a poison spray, or use a compost pile, or water. I just plant and pick. The reason that I can do all this is because I keep the ground covered all year long in hay mulch—which rots, fertilizes the ground, keeps down the weeds, keeps the ground soft, and that’s all there is to it.”
In one paragraph, that’s Ruth Stout’s famous “no-work” gardening method. Of course, it isn’t quite that easy—one would have to buy and bring in hay, and there are other gardening chores (maintaining structures, dealing with wildlife, plucking out the occasional weed, etc.)—but Ruth Stout’s “no-work” garden method is very close to that claim.
I first discovered her method in the 1990s, when I became interested in gardening. I didn’t have a garden yet, but I was eager to learn. Having no mentors, I trolled the libraries and used bookstores for instruction (this was pre-YouTube) and found Ruth Stout’s books—in abundance. I learned her first book, How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening (first published in 1955 by Exposition Press) was reprinted for decades and sold tens of thousands of copies. She wrote two more books on gardening, the second expanding on the first, and the third a compilation of articles and essays she’d written over the years for Organic Gardening and Farming magazine.
Digging into Ruth’s work, I discovered not only sage instruction, but a kind mentor. She was, like her method, 100% natural, plain-spoken, amusing. She did it, so could you! I was hooked.
I’ve incorporated her mulching methods into my gardening ever since.
Ruth Stout’s first book came out when she was over sixty years old, during the 1950s, a time when industrial farming and American consumerism was kicking into high gear. Imagine that period—Mad Men style mass marketing, food becoming less about nutrition and more about new-fangled products (like Cheez Whiz, Eggo waffles, Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, and TV dinners, all which came out in that decade). Backyard gardening focused on what new chemical fertilizer, bug killer, or new gas-powered machine could make your tasks easier. You can bet Ruth had her detractors, those who found her simple ways as too out-of-touch. America wanted to go forward, not backward.
I wanted to write about my earliest gardening heroine’s life, and so I re-read Stout’s gardening books and dove into her books on other subjects. (She wrote a total of nine books over twenty years, all autobiographical, but only three on gardening, for which she was best known.) Through her work, I finally got to know my first mentor.
Ruth Stout was one of the best-known authors in American garden writing in the last century, but, more than that, she was a free-thinking, self-reliant, original. For those of us who have been around a few decades, I ask: can you think of any other woman, born in the Victorian era, who would declare she wasn’t into the Women’s Movement (of the 1970s) because she felt that “she had been liberated from birth”?
I give you Ruth Stout.
Ruth Stout was born in Girard, Kansas on June 14, 1884. She was the fifth of nine children born to Quaker parents John Wallace Stout and Lucetta Elizabeth Todhunter Stout.
Stout’s father was a teacher, then a principal, and for many years the County Superintendent of Schools in their area. Ruth’s parents were college educated and the family was middle class, but with so many children, they were not very comfortable financially. John Stout did, however, indulge in a library of 5,000 books, something that all the Stout children would benefit from. Ruth said her mother once commented, “John never has had anything but books or children,” which Ruth said was close to the truth.
Ruth was clever and smart, but her older sister May was the leader, her younger sister Juanita got the attention for her beauty, and then there was baby sister Mary. Ruth said she knew from an early age that she would have to distinguish herself in other ways. She enjoyed writing and said that as a high-schooler, she was a “pushover for doing essays for several of her classmates.” She tells a story where one girl asked her so often to help her out that she became “fed up, and wrote one for her about how ignoble, dishonorable (and a few other adjectives) it was to submit a theme you hadn’t written yourself.” Ruth was sure that would end the problem, but the girl used the essay, thinking it was funny, and even pestered her for more.
Without a doubt, the person who had the biggest influence on Ruth was her mother. Lucetta Stout is mentioned in several of Ruth’s books and is the subject of her 1975 biography As We Remember Mother. Ruth says her mother was an “indifferent housekeeper and cook” (a trait Ruth would later admit sharing, along with her mother’s vegetarianism) who never scolded her children but knew how to use reason and gentleness to make them behave. Lucetta Stout was deeply religious, non-judgmental of others, and vehemently anti-war. She did not attend church often and never pushed her beliefs on others. Ruth said she simply adhered to the Quaker belief that people would do well if they followed their “inner voice” (conscience). This “voice,” the Quakers believed, changed and grew as individuals headed (hopefully) towards “fuller understanding” in their life’s journey.
Ruth’s mother nurtured the creative spark in all of her children, encouraging them, for example, when they became obsessed with theater, to recreate skits they had seen, and even write and produce their own. The children’s plays became so popular that when they lived in Topeka they would put on several performances of each production, seating 50 people at a time. The family continued putting on their own productions for their own amusement for decades and many of the children remained interested and active in entertainment in adulthood. This early environment spurred several of them to write professionally, and Ruth’s younger brother Rex Stout became a famous mystery writer (he authored the Nero Wolfe mysteries from 1934 to 1975).
While the family grew up in the infamously rigid Victorian era, Ruth’s mother did not have problems with other activities that raised eyebrows—such as card-playing, or dancing. Wrote Ruth, “One had to know Mother rather well to realize that she followed nobody’s rules, not even God’s, without giving them some thought—to find out if they made sense to her.”
On the Way to NYC
After graduating high school, Ruth considered joining a traveling vaudeville group whose show included a fake mind-reading act. Although other family members were alarmed about this possibility (especially since the man who wanted Ruth as an assistant seemed like he might have dishonorable designs on the young Ruth) her parents did not intervene. When a friend of Lucetta Stout’s confronted her, Mrs. Stout said if she couldn’t trust her own children then who would? She also reportedly laughed and added: “Anyway, you don’t need to worry about Ruth; she isn’t going to let a man even kiss her until she’s safely married to him.”
Ruth heard this and said her “mouth dropped open in amazement.” It was true, she had never even kissed a boy, but she was shocked that her mother knew about that particular pledge she had made to herself.
Ruth didn’t join the act, but two years later decided to head to New York when her brother Rob and his wife Esther came through town. The couple had worked their way to Topeka reading palms (which Ruth acknowledged was a scam that everyone in their family was aware of, including her mother, who, again, “didn’t say a word.”)
The trio ran out of money in Kansas City and Ruth found work as a nursemaid. There she received her first lesson on America’s class system. The first day at work she got the baby to bed and asked if she could help the cook. The cook asked her to set the table but Ruth made a huge mistake that stunned the lady of the house—she set a place for herself and the cook at the family table. Ruth wrote that another time she was running a bath for herself and her mistress knocked on the door, telling her must not use the bathtub. Ruth apologized and asked where to find her bathtub. “That threw her, since I didn’t have one, and after clearing her throat a few times she said I could use that one, if I left it very clean.”
Before too long the group left Kansas City and it was around Christmastime when they got to Indianapolis. Here again, they ran into a money-snag when they discovered it wasn’t easy to sell fortune-telling during the holiday season (amazingly, people were more concerned about buying presents). Ruth found work in a department store, and after the Christmas season, a position at the phone company. Not long after that, her father, who had quit his school work and became a traveling salesman, and her mother, her brother Donald, and little sister Mary came to live in Indianapolis as well. Ruth notes in a book written later in her life that her scam-artist brother, who was constantly pawning his wife’s engagement ring during the journey, turned out to be in later years a “wealthy, upstanding citizen.”
The pilgrimage to New York City would be delayed in Indianapolis for the next five years. In 1909, the oldest child of the Stout family died. May was eight years older than Ruth and Ruth considered her a “second mother.” “One day we got a telegram saying May had died in her sleep. I have never loved anyone else quite the way I cared for her, and that’s all I want to say about that.” In another book Ruth confesses that she was devastated by not only loss, but guilt. May, who had recently visited Indiana, had asked Ruth to help her get a job at the phone company so she could move to Indianapolis too. Although she had recently started practicing medicine in Colorado, she was having trouble with the doctor she was working with and knew the partnership would soon be dissolved. Ruth, making the judgment that her gifted sister needed to stay in medicine, and not wanting her to move in with them, refused to help. Hence, Ruth blamed herself, until her mother talked to her. Lucetta Stout told her daughter that even if a person didn’t believe in immortality surely they believed that good memories kept a loved one alive in their minds and hearts. She said that it would be a shame if the many good memories of May were overshadowed by this misunderstanding. Ruth wrote, “That straightened me out.”
Courtesy of GREENWOMAN BOOKS
Published by Greenwoman Publishing, LLC
Greenwoman Publishing, LLC, P. O. Box 6587, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 80934-6587, U.S.A.
Copyright © Sandra Knauf, 2013
All rights reserved
First published in the United States of America