The Whole Ruth, Part Three
Country Life with Fred
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 hit everyone hard, including the newlyweds. In early 1930, they moved to the outskirts of Redding, Connecticut, to a 55-acre farm for their retirement. They, like many during that time, felt they could live cheaply off the land.
That spring, Ruth planted her first garden and she and Fred adjusted to married life. Ruth had lived an unfettered life for decades and now had to get used to another’s routine and preferences; on the other hand, Fred had married someone who admitted she had little skill or interest in the domestic arts and who was also happily oblivious to the many “rules” of society. As an example, when Fred told Ruth about Emily Post, the leading authority on socially correct etiquette in America, Ruth was flabbergasted that people actually read books telling them how to behave. Fortunately, Ruth’s “eccentricities” were ones Fred found charming.
The couple was very social, and for many years they invited all of their friends to join them out in the country whenever they pleased. They renovated a huge barn, installing no-frills bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. (Later, a painter would turn the barn’s loft into a studio, and, for a while, a writer worked in a shack he built himself in the woods on the property.) Ruth said the visitors changed constantly and included artists, writers, a sculptor, dancers, and a slew of what their neighbors referred to as “Foreigners.” The visitors came non-stop during the summers and there was always a “deluge” during the weekends.
The couple didn’t ask guests to pitch in for upkeep. Ruth wrote that she and Fred discussed it and worried that if they did, visitors would make demands. This arrangement worked fine, for a while. After some years, it began to get frustrating, though, especially when things got broken and no one offered to help replace them. (Ruth dryly noted that one man did take it upon himself to screen in the barn’s porch, so they wouldn’t have to sit out there all the time “slapping mosquitoes.”) Needless to say, they were pleased when on the spring of the 8th year, someone put a bank in the barn kitchen with a note asking for donations. Ruth wrote that she figured if every guest put in a dime for every night they stayed they would receive about 90 dollars by the end of the summer. By the end of the summer they received exactly one dollar and fifty-five cents.“Our first feeling when we opened the bank was astonishment, then some indignation, and finally tolerance.”
Ruth reveals more about those years in her second book, Company Coming—Six Decades of Hospitality, which also covers her mother’s experiences as a hostess. Open and honest, Ruth probably made more than a few former guests squirm when the book came out, but wrote that what she ultimately derived from those years was sharing their lives with others was a highly enriching experience.
Ruth didn’t shy away from giving her opinion of the over-privileged, either. She and her husband held several charity events at their farm, until she said they had so many frustrating experiences with the millionaires who were “helping” arrange things, that they quit doing them. In several of her books she disparaged the lack of the practical abilities of those born into privilege. “For help in any situation which takes something more than an adequate bank account to solve, don’t give me a person who has never been obliged to earn his bread and butter, his place in the world.” [Italics are Stout’s.] Elsewhere, she wrote, “People brought up with money are completely blind to the biggest problem the majority of humans face, which is the job of somehow getting enough to eat in order to stay alive, and of getting a stove to cook it on, and a chair to sit on while they eat it and a bed to rest on so that they can conserve their energy and be able to join the daily struggle for bread again tomorrow.”
In one of her books, Ruth shared some information on her husband’s past, namely that he had come from a wealthy family and was reared by a “narrow-minded” English governess. (Fred’s mother claimed that she knew nothing about bringing up a son, so didn’t.) Fred described his father as good-hearted but lacking in intelligence, and said that snobbishness flourished in the family. Ruth deduced that was why her husband took an opposite path as an adult. “All he needed, in later years, was to come in contact with a laborer who had never read a book to try to make a pal out of him,” she wrote, “or at least to have him to dinner, and try to get acquainted with him.” Aside from entertaining visitors and doing upkeep on the farm, Fred spent his retirement years following his passion for woodworking, making a studio in another barn on the property.
After Ruth’s father passed away, her mother came to live with them in a separate cottage, along with Mary, Ruth’s youngest sister. Lucetta Stout was by all accounts very happy there until World War II got underway. As someone who hated war, as Ruth described, in her “heart, mind, bones, and in her very soul,” another world conflict proved too much to bear. Ruth related that almost overnight her mother began to show she wasn’t really interested in staying in a world rife with senseless violence. Lucetta Stout drew the curtains at her cottage, ate only under protest, and stopped tending to her flower garden. She died five months later, and the family, especially Ruth and Fred, took it very hard.
Ruth’s Big Gardening Break-Through
It was during WWII that Ruth started on a path that would ultimately and completely change her view of how to garden. She said this new vision came about from her own impatience. Every spring she would be eager to plant, and every spring she had to wait for the plowman to turn over the earth first, as that’s how it was done. The growing season was short in Connecticut and with plowing delayed, well, it was slightly maddening. Ruth grew a lot of their food, had a huge garden to plant, and wanted to get to work. While she was in great health, she was growing older (in 1944 she’d turn 60), and it was beginning to seem like too much work.
She relates that that early April day, in the spring of 1944, after 14 years of gardening, she went outside to the garden “to shed a tear,” because she couldn’t plant yet. While there, she asked the asparagus, “We don’t have to plow for you, why do we have to plow for the other vegetables?” She said the asparagus replied, saying, “You don’t. Go ahead and plant.” She decided to plant her vegetable seeds then, with no plowing, and waited to see what would happen. Ruth would discover that with her method, annual vegetables and flowers could thrive without plowing. All they needed was straw mulch.
Her first experience was successful enough to encourage her to do more, but it would take a few years to develop and refine her “no-work” method.
A Garden Writer is Born
Excited about her findings, Ruth decided to write a book. She sent a proposal to an editor at Scribner, but he turned her down, saying that they liked the idea but had a professor who was writing a book about mulch.
Ruth thought it highly unlikely that their books were similar, and soon found that to be true—the book by Dr. Pratt of Cornell was not about no-work gardening. She decided to strike out on her own. Now in her mid-sixties, she self-published her very first book. Later she’d write she didn’t know how she got the money, but that “Fred didn’t give it to me because he thought I was crazy.”
Fred was mistaken. His wife’s self-published book proved successful enough that in 1955 Exposition Press in New York re-published Ruth’s book as How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening. Ruth said she thought the title was rather silly, but went along with it. She also kept her maiden name as author, although she was known as Mrs. Rossiter to her neighbors.
She wrote about her first book: “Not only did it sell several hundred thousand copies in hardcover, but is now also in paperback, selling many thousands more. And whenever I go on the air and talk about my way of gardening the station is flooded with letters . . . not that the book is outstanding, but that just people are happy to be told how to accomplish something they want to do but haven’t the time for.” For many years she said she received hundreds of letters a year, and the ones she liked best were from those from people with a full-time job, a medical condition, or small children, who testified that her method made it possible to garden when otherwise it would have been impossible.
A few years after the first book came out another New York publisher persuaded Ruth to write a second one. Ruth said her sister Mary (who still lived there) made the remark that the whole method had been fully explained in about fifteen hundred words—in the first book. Ruth agreed. The publisher insisted that surely Ruth had learned a lot since then. After some reflection, Ruth agreed; yes, she had more to share.
Ruth once heard from a woman who, after learning of her method, wondered about simply tossing some potatoes out in the several-feet-high tall grass meadow near her house and throwing hay on top of them. Ruth said she’d never tried it, so she didn’t know whether it would work or not. The woman tried it and wrote, “I had never had such fine potatoes in my life. Nor so many.” On this matter, an acquaintance of Ruth’s remarked, “Do you know something? At least nine out of ten people would have told her, yes, that was wrong, if they hadn’t tried it themselves. You don’t make conclusions about anything you don’t know about from personal experience.”
Ruth replied: “Well, I try not to, for I am always ‘putting down’ the so-called authorities who do just that. . . And because I’m so against people giving advice about things they don’t know about personally I’m very glad that I waited several years before I wrote about year-round gardening . . .”
Another insight she had was that by using hay for mulch, which would eventually break down and feed the soil, you were going one-better than those who bought manure for the garden—what’s left after the nutrients of the hay are processed by the animal.
Her common-sense, try-it-out-and-see-for-yourself approach spawned a long-running series of articles in Organic Gardening and Farming magazine (1953-1971). These would later be made into her third and last book on gardening, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book (co-authored with Richard Clemence).
Life Without Fred
Fred died on Thanksgiving Day, 1960, after an extended illness. Ruth wrote that he spent five months with an oxygen tent, under the care of the most “inefficient nurse in the world . . . Me.” She wrote that he wanted “desperately to die and would have handled that but now that he had gone overboard for Yoga he thought it was wrong to kill himself.”
Ruth wrote in her second-to-last book, I’ve Always Done It My Way, that she believed only in two kinds of killing—taking someone’s life in self-defense, and mercy-killing (not only for dogs and cats, but for people). She added that she believed that a person should be able to choose suicide.
The year of her husband’s death marked the publication of her third book, It’s a Woman’s World, by Doubleday & Co., Inc. Five more books would follow, with Ruth publishing three in her tenth decade.
Though now in her mid-70s, Ruth was fit and had many years ahead of her. A decade later she would relate the story of a doctor telling her after an examination (at age 84), “Well, you’re a good healthy 48-year-old.”
In one of her books she listed the four things she attributed to good health: good genes, good food, exercise (though she said she never over-did it and found walks boring) and, last, but not least, keeping a positive mental attitude. She said that we couldn’t do anything about our inheritance but we could do something about the other three, especially food. Although she was thrifty, she special-ordered some food by mail and wrote that “. . . a person who doesn’t fool around keeping up with the style and the Joneses can afford to be a spendthrift when it comes to being in good shape. Besides, food is cheaper than a doctor and more enjoyable.”
She wrote that she was lucky because keeping a positive mental attitude was easy for her. “I just am, by nature, an optimist. The pleasant idea comes instead of the depressing one.” Nevertheless, those later years were a time of loneliness. Ruth wrote that she was glad she had her gardening, writing, and lectures in those later years or she wouldn’t have had anything to live for after her husband died. She found it vital to be useful and contributing in the world.
Over the years she had over 7,000 people visit her garden, coming from every state and Canada. Ruth admitted that she was sometimes inconvenienced by these often-unannounced guests, but also happy to see them.
She would continue on at Poverty Hollow with her sister Mary. Mary died in 1977 at age 88 (living at Poverty Hollow for 40 years). Ruth followed her three years later, leaving this world in 1980 at the ripe old age of 96.
A Last Word on the Lovely, Naked Ruth
Ruth’s belief in doing exactly as she pleased was shown in the way she lived her life, and it was certainly the force that enabled her to envision a “no work garden” and to bring that vision to best-selling book form. But there was one more area in which Ruth did as she pleased, and this little biography wouldn’t be complete without mentioning it, her nude gardening.
She wrote about it in one of her books, but that day in the garden, in her tenth decade, she told about it on camera in Arthur Mokin’s award-winning film, Ruth Stout’s Garden:
“I loved my husband very, very much. I really mean it when I say that I’m sure that he is the only man in the world who could have stood staying married to me because I always was always out of order—I mean the things I did!
“I would go down there to garden and the minute I got down there I would take off all my clothes and garden naked. I’ve always loved the air on my body. And I never said a word to Fred about it one way or another, it never occurred to me to mention it to him. And I came back every evening around 5:00 o’clock and put my clothes on before I came back. One day I came back at six and Fred was out in the barn doing his stuff (he made all these wooden things and so on) and shortly after I got in, he came in and he said, ‘Well, you worked longer today, didn’t you?’
“And I said, ‘But how did you know?’ (I was just curious, how did he happen to know.)
“He said, ‘It was easy. As a rule, as the cars go along the road after 5:00 they just go on, but up until five o’clock they kind of go very slowly and look down at your garden area. [She laughs heartily.] So I knew you didn’t come up until six because up until six they were still stopped.’ ”
In Ruth Stout I found not only a gardening mentor but a mentor on living. In a difficult century for women she followed her bliss, doing the best she could with what she had, and she made sure to have some fun in the process. It made sense to me that it took someone unencumbered with “rules” to see things differently, to create a small no-work gardening revolution all on her own.
A revolution that perfectly reflected her grand philosophy: “If you live your life to suit yourself, how can you possibly fail to make the most of it?”
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