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The Ruth Stout Method Experience

 
Posts: 4
Location: zone 6b Weed, KY
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Jimi Hendrix had his experience, but we're having a Ruth Stout one as well. ;~)

We're entering our 1st growing season using the Ruth Stout Method... Is this permaculture?.. Anyone have experience with using the method on a large scale?

We've been market farming using swales, and no till techniques for a few years now.  recently moved to a new piece of land and decided to try Ruth's Method of deep mulch / hay composting in place.
We're taking this to the extreme; building swales up with deep mulch instead of digging.  We probably have an acre or more covered in deep hay.

Can anyone point me to the pitfalls of this method?





appreciate it,

https://wildartfarm.com
 
pollinator
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Ruth Stout is one of the pioneers of permaculture. If we had saints, she'd have a halo.

Swales are typically designed to accommodate water, to slow it's progress overland until it can sink into the soil.

Unless you dig a depression for the water and your organic matter to sit in, or structure your mulch layer in some other way to keep it in place, the first rain event that oversaturates it will pick up your mulch, and all the good things that have come from it, and wash it downstream.

This depends on what your land looks like, specifically, and what heavy rain looks like in your area, though.

By the way, the pictures you linked to appear broken. Could you take a look at them? I would love to see what you've posted.

-CK
 
master pollinator
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A couple potential downsides:

1. If one buys in hay instead of growing their own, it could be contaminated with persistent herbicides.  http://www.thesurvivalgardener.com/category/aminopyralid/

2. Some people get slug or other bug problems.

I agree with Chris about the mulch possibly washing away in heavy runoff.  
 
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When we lived in the Denver metro area, we used the Ruth Stout method out of desperation due to the packed clay soil being virtually untillable. It was a good experience overall and there were benefits and downsides of course.

We built 5 50x4' raised beds by putting down whole flakes of straw or hay to kill the persistent grass and start to form some friable soil when the straw broke down. We'd do this in late autumn. It did kill the grass underneath but every year the grass would move back in. You may not have this problem.

Eventually we had 6-8 inches of raised beds with pretty darn good soil. The worms were our tillers and they brought up clay into the beds. We had a lot of small, black spiders in the straw which kept down pests. The spiders would scatter when I'd start weeding or planting so they weren't a problem.

As someone else mentioned, getting straw or hay that isn't contaminated with pesticides or herbicides is a big concern. I plan to use wood chips from our new property even if this will take longer to break down, and it's cheaper.

The straw/hay kept the soil moist but it also kept it cold so we'd have to pull it back from the tomato and pepper plants so they could get warm soil. Also, when we planted seeds, we'd have to pull back the mulch, plant, then re-scatter the mulch. Not a big deal on a small scale but a pain in the butt on larger scale. I did experiment with scattering the seeds in the spring onto the mulch and let them work their way down to the soil, but this was not hugely successful. Although, when we scattered garlic cloves in the fall into the loose mulch we got a ton of garlic the next year. This may be due to putting cloves in at the beginning of the cold season so they didn't grow until the spring, and in the mean time, winter snows, wind and breakdown of the mulch created the right environment for natural growth when it got warmer. Since that's the way nature does it, that might be a good experiment for the future with seeds too. Now that I think about it, plants that went to seed in the fall had lots of volunteers the next year.
 
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Ruth's techniques are the best.   They work.  Or, at least, they did work.   Things changed.   Now, nearly all hay and straw is loaded with persistent herbicides.   Unless you are attempting to grow some type of grass, you might not get much of a garden.

Here is a video I made where compost was loaded with persistent herbicides




And then wood chips:  a lot of people spray the persistent herbicides and then when their trees die they think "the tree just died - for no reason" and don't make the connection that the tree is not a type of grass and was, therefore, killed by the herbicide.  So what do they do?  They chip it.  


If you want to do the ruth stout method, I suggest that you grow your own hay and straw.

ruth-stout-card.jpg
[Thumbnail for ruth-stout-card.jpg]
the ruth stout playing card
 
Robin Katz
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Paul,

Thanks for the reminder about contaminated chips. That didn't occur to me since we haven't ever sprayed around our trees at our old house and the chips we will use at our new place is from forest patches that we are thinning for fire mitigation. Some are dead of natural causes and some are alive but living too close together so they have to go. This makes me even more concerned about bringing in anything to our site since we won't know where they came from and what's been added to the mix.
 
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paul wheaton wrote:Ruth's techniques are the best.   They work.  Or, at least, they did work.   Things changed.   Now, nearly all hay and straw is loaded with persistent herbicides.   Unless you are attempting to grow some type of grass, you might not get much of a garden.



Region specific perhaps. I know a lot of the hay farmers around us are going organic. As one of those organic hay guys told me, "There is so little profit anyway that reducing input costs just makes sense."
 
paul wheaton
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The half-life of persistent herbicides is 7 to 11 years.   So it is possible that they went organic ten years ago, and there is still enough persistent herbicide in there to kill a garden.

 
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When I teach through the PDC, I call out these persistent herbicides by chemical name, trade name, and company that produces them, but I don't know what the official policy is here on the forums to calling out companies and their registered trademarks by name.

The persistent herbicides that I am running into most often are designed to basically kill any broad-leaf plants while not affecting monocot grasses. This means they can be applied to lawns or pastures to knock out everything except the grass.(Which, by the way, is not at all healthy for grazing animals, who do much better on a rich polyculture of grasses, forbs, and legumes.)

The big problem here is that the active ingredients used in these herbicides are very chemically stable and almost impossible to get to break down. They will survive a trip through the gut of a ruminant animal and come out in their manure, making it toxic for gardening. They will also survive the heat and microbial activity of a thermophilic compost pile, so hot composting won't take them out.

This means that you could have a pasture sprayed with these compounds where a cow eats the grass and then produces manure that is put through a hot compost pile, where the resulting compost still has more than enough herbicide to contaminate your garden to a degree that it won't be good to grow vegetables for more than 5 years.

The only real way to make sure you don't end up contaminating your compost is to make sure you know the source of every component of your pile all the way back to the photosynthetic source. There have even been a number of cases of commercially purchased compost being contaminated.

I am now to the point where I am very careful of everything I bring onto a site, not accepting anything that I don't know for certain its source and history.
 
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Mollison said that mulching is basically just vermiculture (the lazy, in situ method) despite the other ways it benefits soil.

The only caution is that deep mulch can boom insect populations in the short term.
 
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Another thing to watch out for with Ruth Stout's methods or any deep mulch technique is that it can make a really great habitat for some pretty destructructive vermin.  Not just snails and slugs but mice and voles as well.  Over time the predictors will move in, but in the beginning steps should be taken to minimize those destructructive little creatures!  Having a heavy border of course wood chips surrounding your beds helps quite a bit with the file problem.....
 
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Dave Dahlsrud wrote:Another thing to watch out for with Ruth Stout's methods or any deep mulch technique is that it can make a really great habitat for some pretty destructructive vermin.  Not just snails and slugs but mice and voles as well.  Over time the predictors will move in, but in the beginning steps should be taken to minimize those destructructive little creatures!  Having a heavy border of course wood chips surrounding your beds helps quite a bit with the file problem.....



Having ducks and cats solved the vermin/slug issues. Without them, I had shrews eating my potatoes and slugs and pillbugs eating my plants as they sprouted. I couldn't garden without my flock of ducks and my two cats. The duck poopy bedding makes good mulch, too (I use pine shavings, though I would love to grow my own bedding so I don't have to reply on exterior inputs.)
 
paul wheaton
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Can anyone point me to the pitfalls of this method?



Now this thread is starting to be my kind of thread.   Delicious.

First and formost, the ruth stout method is the very best.   Unfortunately, most people will read the four color brochure without taking a moment to contemplate the pitfalls, so they will utterly fail.   Mostly due to issues that have cropped up since Ruth died.

That said, I wish to augment Ruth's stuff and I wish to comment on the photo.  

That place looks mighty flat.  If it were here in montana, I would feel a powerful need for some 15 foot tall berms every 200 feet or so.   And a collection of hugelkultur beds.



Further, I would wish to add diversity to the deep mulching materials.  Some areas would be straw and some would be hay.   And some would be sticks and some would be rocks.   And some would be wood chips and some would be sawdust.  Some would be "Ruth Stout Composting" and some would be without.    Some places would get a bit of wood ash.    As the years pass there would be more and more diversity.  

All of that with a wild mix of polyculture.

This is not exactly exposing "pitfalls" as much as it is my own ideas on how to augment ruth's recipes.  What I see in the picture is a lot of monocrop, frost pockets and the potential for wind.  

Also, that land looks a bit "zone 4".  How far away from the house is it?






 
Alan Booker
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To continue on Paul's thought, I have often found that when I run into something I at first consider a "pitfall" that is usually turns out to simply be where the environment doesn't want to do what I want it to do at that moment.

In other words, I find it possible to fall into this design flowchart:

   Figure out what I want to do --> Pick a bit of space and try to impose my design on it --> figure out that it doesn't work too well --> complain about the result

What it seems to me that Paul is wanting to do it more like:

   Create lots of different ecological niches --> feed and strengthen those niches --> observe what those niches want to support --> work with what wants to grow in each niche --> enjoy

This is one good approach to letting the problem become the solution. I agree with Paul on the idea of planting lots of stuff and observing what wants to grow where.

Of course, if you are starting out from an unbalanced ecosystem, this can take some time to work out since it can take a while for all the trophic layers to reestablish and get all of the pest/prey interactions happening.
 
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I ran some experiments last year to investigate how I might incorporate more fungi into my garden because in my zone 3 everything tends to break down slowly, and the bacterial activity seems not quite what I would have expected despite years of effort to get them going. I noticed that fungi in cold climates tend to be dominant decomposers since all my pea and bean frames fall apart in only one season.

I wanted to compost in place, and I have a lot of grass pressure so I ultimately used a combination of sheet mulching and Ruth Stout style deep hay mulch that incorporated used coffee grounds, oyster mushrooms, newspaper, and either hay or straw.

This will be the second year for the system so I'm interested to see how it goes after 6 months of solid freeze. Last year went well. I didn't have to water the garden as much. Some plants loved it while some others not so much. I did harvest mushrooms which was a bonus because I traded some for vegetables I didn't grow.

I did get a slug explosion. where they came from I have no idea because I usually don't get slugs at all. But they moved in en-mass. However they left my plants completely alone and so I spent a few months watching them to see what the heck they were up to in there.  It turned out that the wet newspaper was the perfect diversionary food crop for the slugs. I'm not sure how much of it they ate exactly but they sort of herd grazed the stuff, and left lines of holes all the way through into the lower layer of used coffee grounds. The mushrooms then used these holes to pop up through which I thought was a pretty cool dynamic going on.

I still got grass poking through, but it was a relatively small job to remove it. Although garlic, kale, lettuce, and other leafy greens loved the system, direct seeding into it this spring is going to be a major headache. I'm not sure what I'm going to do about that exactly. Peas and beans didn't really enjoy the experience. Carrots were a no-go and so were onions.

Ruth always stated that the system doesn't really come into its own until year 3 so it needs time. Like any system it's well suited to certain types of plants and others less so. But that's OK. I personally think having many different types of systems mashed together in a garden just increases the ecological diversity because you're creating multiple habitat zones.
 
Gianni Lazuli
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WOW. this was much more information than I was expecting. Thank you all for the great tips.

Our hay is from our land and has not been sprayed or fertilized with anything for about 20 years.  We have embarked on this deep mulch swalling and Never Till methodology because the land we are on is heavy clay and rocky.  I felt that tillage or trenching could break a lot of equipment and end up being very expensive.  It is our 2nd growing season here. Last year we covered with heavy black plastic and planted manly diakon radish (which were not harvested) and other beneficial cover crops.  The plastic eventually began falling apart so we had to find a new way.

We also spread kitchen scraps about because we don't like turning a compost pile (and we don't create enough to make a pile worth while)

I really like the idea of berms or the trademark Wheaton massive hugelkultur beds.   The area pictured is the flattest part of our land.  It is roughly 30 x 200 covered in hay down to the red thing in the background; this is designated for croppy crops. It is about 50 yards from the house (there is virtually nothing plant-able around the house).  It's where we are putting most of the standard annual veggies & herbs, not a mono crop, but definitely the least diverse/perminant area of the farm.  Further down the field we'll have companion planted sorghum / beans.  Wind is a serious consideration this is ridge land.  


We have other areas Hay berm swaled for berries, perennials and we are currently planting about 300 native fruit and nut trees and bushes on contoured hay swales.  We've been rolling the bails out and basically folding it over to create an very thick heavy berm.  Our region has had a 100 year rain fall this fall and winter and 40-60 mile wind gusts... we have not seen any migration of the hay once it's matted down.

We are also using Straw on our garlic instead of hay (but we have to buy that), saw dust, leaves, wood-ash, there are a few areas where we are edging areas with small trees and sticks, and hopefully getting some wood chips soon (having a hard time procuring them).

We have a dog for the big vermin.  There are a few feral cats that seem to hang out here a lot, we are getting some chickens to rotate and some free ranging Guineafowl soon. Hopefully these friends will help with the lil'critters..

I'm not sure I know what you mean by frost pockets.


Map of this area of the farm.  We intend to build wwoofer quarters and harvest processing station in the flat part of the berry swales.





 
 
Gianni Lazuli
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For direct seeding into the hay we discovered that using a edger attachment on the weed eater we could cut a line in the hay to easily expose a small sliver of dirt.
 
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I believe she added cotton seed meal every year.  Ten pounds per 100 sq feet.  
 
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I did some reading on the Ruth Stout method before we worked on our last property and we had the good fortune of being friends with the local tree removers and every once in a while they would back their dump truck onto our suburban property and dump giant piles of wood chips. We used cardboard, our own compost and a thick wood chip mulch to create almost all of our permaculture beds and a thick layer of straw from a friend’s farm for our annual gardens. It was an amazingly productive yard and the envy of our neighbors.

But can I ask another ruth stout question without hijacking the thread? (New here and probably committing all sorts of Permie faux pas!) Now I live in an urban apartment but I’ve recently been given an allotment. No compost or straw or wood chips easily available and compacted earth. Likely I’ll have to double dig to start, but my partner is a wooden boatbuilder and they are building almost exclusively with oak right now so I have an endless supply of sawdust. From my reading I don’t think I can really “Ruth Stout” my new gardens with sawdust right? But other than compost, paths or mushrooms, any other innovative uses?
 
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Wow, I saw this thread and thought I would see what to add.
Lots of great advice on one of the best methods around, by a great lady I would add.

 
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Brooke Bell wrote:From my reading I don’t think I can really “Ruth Stout” my new gardens with sawdust right? But other than compost, paths or mushrooms, any other innovative uses?



You may not be able to "Ruth Stout" it per say, but sawdust decomposes beautifully. As long as it doesn't get compacted, you should be good to spread a decent layer over the allotment in the fall. If you are able to get shredded leaves you can mix that with the sawdust to help fight compaction and add variety to the food available for fungi and invertebrates, who will help improve your soil structure over time. If you have friends who raise chickens, rabbits, pigeons, etc. you could ask for their used bedding and spread that periodically, as well.

I used no-till methods like this (in my case, it was lasagna gardening with cardboard and wood chips) to turn an area of compacted sand in my back yard into our tomato bed, blackberry patch, pollinator garden, and three-tree backyard orchard after one overwintering. All of this in an area that used to be an above-ground pool and deck for the previous homeowners. I've since topped it off with leaf litter, chicken bedding, and decomposed sawdust. I'm in my second year of growing on it (third year since starting the bed) and I still have to weed, though.

 
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I read somewhere that oyster mushrooms can break down herbicides. Maybe mr Redhawk can find the paper since he is a scientist. If I seeded the hay and straw with oyster mushroom spores it might allow use of any material. Oyster mushrooms (from my bit of experiments growing kit mushrooms) are not picky about their substrate. A fellow on youtube got them to decompose cigarette buts and Paul Stamets got them to eat petroleum.
 
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Update on our Methodology.

We have experienced some blow away and have had to add more hay to many places.  Our Hay swales have held well and have not migrated down the slope with the rain.


Seed plantings in hay - Lines sliced with an edger - small amount of compost added to the row with seed.


transplants into hay


 
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