The Ruth Stout or “no dig” method to growing potatoes wins compared to traditional potato planting on our homestead!
The legendary Ruth Stout was quietly born in 1884 to Quaker parents. She would later become famous within permaculture circles for being a pioneer in regenerative agriculture. She didn’t set out to be a pioneer however and one of the most interesting things I’ve learned about her is that she didn’t even start gardening until she moved from New York to Connecticut at the age of 45. For almost 15 years she did the gardening the way everyone told her… the traditional way. She was often waiting on the “plow man” to be able to plant her garden in the spring the traditional way. So at the tender age of only 60, she decided she was having no more of it and tried something new. That’s when she developed the method that she would use for over 30 more years and help start a permaculture revolution.
Ruth was a prolific writer over several decades, penning numerous books and regularly published articles in the Organic Gardening and Farming magazine. She was considered either eccentric or brilliant depending on who you talked to, but one thing that everyone agreed on was that she had a passion for how she did her work. Her unique “no-nonsense” dry humor stood out in older videos of her explaining her approach, and example of which is in the quote below. She continued to garden into her 90’s, until her passing in 1980 at 94 years old.
“If ‘heartache’ sounds exaggerated then surely you have never gone to your garden one rare morning in June to find that the frost, without any perceptible motive, any hope of personal gain, has quietly killed your strawberry blossoms, tomatoes, lima and green beans, corn, squash, cucumbers. A brilliant sun is now smiling at this disaster with an insensitive cheerfulness as out of place as a funny story would be if someone you loved had just died.”~Ruth Stout – “How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening” (New York: Exposition Press, 1955)
Lazy gardening (she didn’t set out for “no-dig” potatoes)
Some traditional gardeners might be tempted to label her method as “lazy”, and in some ways they might be right. She often mentioned in books and videos that her version of gardening is “very little work”. She described her typical day as lasting between approximately 8am (as early as 6am some days) and 11 am. During that 3-5 hour window, she would do all her gardening, preserving, cooking, housework, and answer mail from people asking about her methods. Incredibly, during that short time she was able to essentially get all her primary work done for the day!
Her method involves laying a thick layer of hay or straw (she used hay) down in the garden year round. She observed that the hay and manure (digested hay) naturally enriched the soil in pastures and suppressed weeds. It kept the soil soft and moist, encouraged earthworm activity, provided natural fertilizer, and actively amended the soil. She would routinely add additional hay in the fall and just continue the process. Her results got people’s attention and she wrote several books about her method over the years. While many people use her method today, there hasn’t been much improvement on her original design. I guess the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage solidly applies here.
Why is it also called the “no-dig” method?
While many people (including Ruth Stout) brag about how everything in the garden can be grown this way, most people focus on things that thrive in moist soil as highly suitable to the method. Anything from beans to pumpkins, garlic, onions, and even tomatoes are all prime candidates for the this method. However, the most common crop grown using it is potatoes.
That’s what we decided to try in our garden this year, because unlike traditional methods, there’s no digging. That’s right… it’s a “no-dig” approach to planting these little tubers. There is just something super satisfying about lifting up the hay and seeing your potatoes just lying there. I almost feel guilty about not needing to dig up the potatoes and get dirty.
What would we do different?
We’re totally sold on the value of the no-dig method for our potatoes. However, we’d still do a few things differently next time. Frankly, these are mistakes we made in the process and not changes to to the overall approach. Watch the video for the full list, but here are some of the lessons we learned.
- Add way more hay. Seriously… way way more! One of Ruth’s famous quotes was around the amount of hay you should use and she frequently said “twice as much as you think you need”.
- Spread the hay out in the fall. We put ours out in the early spring and it was too late. We should have put mounds of hay in November and let it decompose all winter long.
- Check for uncovered potatoes more often. We had a few seed potatoes that became uncovered by wind or animals but still rooted. Those potatoes turned green and we lost them all (solanine poison).
- Keep track of our replants so we can harvest at later times.
So what next?
Now you have to consider what to do with all that hay once you’re done growing your potatoes. Should you clean it up? Burn it? Cart it off to your compost bin? Hopefully by now you know the answer to that question. Assuming you’re going to replant next year, you should just leave it right there. That hay will decompose over the rainy (or snowy depending on where you live) winter months and you’ll have an amazingly rich place to sow your seeds in the spring.
The fall is a fantastic time to add to your hay bed. This is the time of year (in many locations) where trees are dropping leaves like crazy and you can get some really great grass clippings and mulched leaves in abundance. If you live in or near a subdivision, ask your neighbors if you can have their grass clippings and leaf bags. Just make sure that you only grab those from people who don’t use herbicides and pesticides on their lawn. The last thing you want to do is have this amazingly organic garden only to throw poisons in from other people’s yards.
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