Growing potatoes in hay: Ruth Stout gardening

Growing potatoes in hay: Ruth Stout gardening

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For years, try as I might, I could never get potatoes or onions to grow at our homestead. Our property is heavy clay and just isn’t made for veggies that are supposed to expand underground. While looking at how to amend our soil, and we came upon the Ruth Stout method of gardening: growing stuff in a bed of old hay.

Ruth Stout, rebel, author, and gardener extraordinaire, didn’t see the need to complicate things. Her “no-work” gardening method came about because she didn’t have the tools or ability to plow her own land, so she went to work figuring out a way to do it without relying on others. Through her trial and error, she figured out a method that is no-till, no weeds, and—except for the very beginning and the very end—no work.

Ruth Stout used old hay because that’s what she had available, but the theory is that you can use any kind of mulched material to grow your vegetables in.

Wait a minute, Ms. Stout. You’re telling me that if I put some seed potatoes and some onion sets in some hay, they’re gonna grow?

I was doubtful.

But with a hayloft full of some decades old hay that was here way before we even bought the farm, we decided we might as well try the Ruth Stout method—at least to say we did it, right?

How do you plant potatoes using the Ruth Stout Method?

The first year, I threw a deep layer (8ish inches) of old hay on half of our unplanted giant garden, and then I put the seed potatoes in the fluffy hay. I think I went out once the first year and spread more hay because it was sinking down so fast and I got worried that I hadn’t used enough hay.

And then weeks later I looked out and thought what are all those things popping out of the hay?

They were potato plants.

WHAT? It works?

I did not prep the soil. I did not prep the hay. I did not add anything to the hay or soil. I spread the hay. I put down what I wanted to grow. I covered the stuff with more hay to make sure the seed potatoes were not exposed to the sunlight—don’t want those potatoes to get sunburned, you know—and then I waited.

(Video below shows our 4th year of planting potatoes and onions via the Ruth Stout method. Now that the patch is established, I just put the potatoes/onions right on the ground/hay that’s already broken down over the last several years and cover the potatoes/onions with another layer of hay.)

@farmishlife Do what you love. And get those potatoes and onions planted. #ruthstoutgarden #homesteading #diygroceries #farmishfolk ♬ original sound – Farming Central Queensland

You plant and then go inside and wait for Ma Nature to do her thing.

And she does!

@farmishlife Checking on potatoes in the Ruth Stout patch never gets old! #homesteadtiktok #farmishlife ♬ In Hell I'll Be in Good Company – The Dead South

The first year I was like a little kid on an easter egg hunt. I’d plunge my hand into that hay and come up with potatoes and you wouldn’t have ever thought there could be a more exciting thing. It was a no-dig treasure hunt!

Dork level excitement, y’all.

The cool thing about potatoes in a Ruth Stout garden

The second year we didn’t do anything with the patch. Meaning, we didn’t even plant the potato patch. Life happened and time got away from us. But guess what? We still had potatoes anyway. The potatoes we hadn’t cleared the prior year (or had flat out missed in the hay) had continued to do their work and netted us with several more potatoes.

A much smaller harvest than the year before, but I’d. done. nothing. How cool is that?

We planted again the following two years, and had potatoes through two years of drought—and I didn’t even water.

The Ruth Stout garden method works for onions, too!

We’ve had a lot of luck using this method for our onions. Just set the onion sets down, cover with hay, and wait for Ma Nature to do her thing.

It’s pretty awesome. Magical really. I’m so glad I… um… never doubted that this would work. 😉

The Ruth Stout method doesn’t work for everything

I think the Ruth Stout method of gardening is awesome. The hay/organic mulch keeps the weeds down, fertilizes the soil, keeps things moist, and cuts my work by a LOT.

Will this method work for everyone? I don’t know. I’ve heard if you have a lot of slugs, this might not be a good method for you because the hay keeps everything so nice and moist, the slugs end up having the time of their life.

Also this method doesn’t really work for things you’re direct sowing as seed, although people have had a lot of luck mulching with the old hay after that seed has sprouted.

In any event, if you’ve got access to old hay, I’d definitely give the Ruth Stout method of gardening a try! There’s nothing like homegrown potatoes and onions, and this is our go-to way of making that happen

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