I have been gardening for decades and have built some fairly remarkable outdoor spaces in the various places our family has lived. However, it was not until we relocated to Florida that I discovered two approaches to living in harmony with the environment that have radically changed my worldview. Those would be permaculture and deep mulch gardening.
Deep Mulch Gardening
The deep mulch gardening philosophy was popularized by American writer Ruth Stout. Stout lived from 1884 to 1980, passing on to her great reward only a couple months after I was born. She had a very bizarre and interesting life, too:
[She was] the fifth child of Quaker parents John Wallace Stout and Lucetta Elizabeth Todhunter Stout. Her younger brother Rex Stout, also an author, was famous for the Nero Wolfe detective stories.
She later claimed to accompany Carrie A. Nation in a ‘joint hatchetation’ where the saloon was smashed up as a protest against public sale of alcohol. Nation was arrested, but Ruth Stout, a 16 year old was not, though doing more damage. Later, on March 9, 1965, she went on I’ve Got a Secret to elaborate on the account.
Stout moved to New York when she was 18 and was employed at various times as a baby nurse, a bookkeeper, a secretary, a business manager, and a factory worker. She was a lecturer and coordinated lectures and debates, and she owned a small tea shop in Greenwich Village and worked for a fake mind-reading act.
In 1923, she accompanied fellow Quakers to Russia to assist in famine relief. She married Fred Rossiter in June 1929 at age 45. Rossiter, the son of an American businessman, was born in Germany in 1882. His family relocated to New York City in 1894. In March 1930, the couple moved to a 55-acre (220,000 m2) farm in Poverty Hollow, Redding Ridge, on the outskirts of Redding, Connecticut. Rossiter, a Columbia-trained psychologist, followed his passion for wood turning and subsequently became known for his wooden bowls. Stout decided to try her luck at gardening, and in the spring of 1930, she planted her first garden.
Stout came about what she started to call her “no-work” method of gardening by serendipity:
During her first year of gardening and for many years after, Ruth employed conventional techniques and practices in her garden with mixed results. She had to wait for someone else to come and plow the fields before she could start. This gentleman was frequently late or delays would occur due to mechanical failures. Wasted time lessened the already short growing season and tried her patience. Furthermore, the manual labor involved in planting a traditional garden became more than she could handle by herself. In the Spring of 1944, after following the advice of other gardeners who used commercial fertilizers, “poisonous sprays” and plowing for fifteen years, Stout decided that she wasn’t going to wait for the plowman, nor was she going to plow on her own. Instead she planted the seeds and covered them, waiting to see what would happen, and discovered surprising success.
Stout claimed that to be successful her system required a thick mulch of at least 8 inches. She suggests that if starting a new garden in poor soil it is beneficial to plow manure in the first year and then proceed with the mulch, which is to be left on the garden year-round. After the first year, plowing is no longer needed and compost piles are not necessary either – the “compost pile” is maintained in place in the seed beds and garden paths. Mulching material is a combination of what ever one can find at hand, similar to the same materials that one might find in a compost heap.
As the years progressed, Stout refined her techniques, eventually adopting a year-round mulch which virtually eliminated the labor associated with traditional gardening. Her minimalist approach spawned a long-running series of articles in Organic Gardening and Farming magazine as well as several books.
I can tell you “no-work” is a bit of a misnomer, at least on the front end. In the past year, I have put about 37 cubic yards of cypress mulch on my gardens. I get pallets of mulch from local wholesalers delivered to our driveway and haul them back in my wheelbarrow five bags at a time. (I tell folks that gardening is my cardio.) By the end of the day, my back hurts and I fall asleep as soon at my head hits the pillow. And, frankly, I am still not sure that is enough mulch yet. But I have been putting about 8 to 12 inches of mulch in the beds, and it is glorious.
The thing is, Stout’s method is an incredibly successful approach to building good and healthy soil. And here in South Florida, it is the fastest route to the ideal of all soils: sandy loam. Sandy loam is a combination of sand, organic material, and clay, each of which fill a specific role in maintaining a healthy garden. The sand is a brilliant medium for allowing plants to stretch out their roots, the organic material feeds them, and the clay helps the soil retain some amount of moisture.
Being right on the ocean, our “soil” was not really soil at all, just sand. There were some bits of clay here and there, but not a whole lot of organic material. It is difficult for most plants to live in super sandy soil, but some tropical plants are troopers about it. I have found that by dumping excessive amounts of organic material on the ground, sandy loam is about a year away. Our soil is now so soft you can dig into it with your bare hands and so rich that it is full of earthworms.
Even better is the fact that you don’t really need to fertilize plants that are living in high-quality soil. If you go to a garden center that is in the business of trying to sell you gardening accoutrements, this statement I have just made will be regarded as blasphemy. But the Fertilizer Industrial Complex that we’ve all grown up in (and have deeply embedded in our psyches) is exclusively a post-WWII phenomenon. The surplus of chemicals produced during the World Wars was remarketed as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides – thus setting into motion a decades-long cycle of nuking the ground and then dumping fertilizers on it. Before this era, most gardeners and farmers used organic materials to boost production (fish, manure, and compost, for example). They weren’t worrying about things like the sudden disappearance of pollinators, either. (In my militantly organic garden, I host a ton of bees and butterflies, while in the manicured HOAs you get almost none. Really kind of a common sense problem that somehow only a minority wants to fix.)
It takes a lot of organic material (and a considerable financial investment) to make beds that are 8 to 12 inches deep in mulch. But once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. You can simply keep adding smaller amounts periodically to maintain coverage. And once you are at that point, you are not going to have even a small fraction of the weeding you used to do. Weeds do not stand a chance.
(The only other “method” of controlling weeds that I have had success with is to plant so many plants that weeds cannot even begin to compete. This is why I tend to plant flowers in large drifts. Not going to lie, that’s also a big investment – but tremendously satisfying to look at.)
Soil is not simply these elements, however. It also contains billions of micro-organisms, which is something you will never be able to replicate by developing a reliance on chemical fertilizers. There are more micro-organisms in a tablespoon of soil than there are human beings living on this entire planet. Most of the antibiotics people take to treat illnesses were harvested from the soil. We need these things to flourish, and plants do too. Once you find yourself in the nuke – fertilize – nuke – fertilize cycle, you have started destroying intelligent systems that are difficult to salvage or recreate. Organic cultivation – based on a respect for soil as an entire ecosystem and not simply some inanimate medium to be thoughtlessly manipulated – is not some hippie bullshit, but good science.
(Laying off the chemicals is also an excellent idea if you care about having wildlife around. In our case, runoff from our neighborhood goes directly into coastal wetlands and the Gulf of Mexico. There are highly endangered manatees 50 yards away from my backyard. When people in our neighborhood use chemical treatments on their lawns, they are contributing to the manatees losing their habitats, as these guys feed exclusively on sea grass. Florida wildlife officials have been struggling to teach the manatees to eat lettuce, because they are literally starving to death as agricultural pollutants destroy their primary source of food. Not to mention the fact that they are stuck swimming in those pollutants, as are the human Floridians who get out on the water for sport. There are very serious ethical issues to the use of chemical treatments.)
Here is a video from a chap in England that uses the deep mulch / no-dig approach to growing vegetables (for me, it’s almost exclusively about ornamentals and fruit trees). He has a teaching nursery where he shows people how much more productive this approach to cultivation is than more labor- and chemical-intensive approaches. But you can see that from the squash plants that are as tall as Michael Jordan.
Okay, permaculture. Permaculture is another way of thinking about your garden as a cooperative, functional whole rather than isolated beds. It is a way of reducing labor as well.
I was introduced to the philosophy of permaculture when I started following blogs, YouTube channels, and books published by homesteaders and “food forest” types. (I am not a homesteader, obviously, but I have discovered that I really like the way many of these folks live and think, with an emphasis on conservation, building real communities, and personal responsibility.) Much like the deep mulch gardening approach, this is something that is mostly applied by people who are trying to grow their own food or working the farmer’s market circuit. But I had a bit of an a-ha moment that it could also be applied brilliantly to ornamental spaces.
Permaculture is a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” and it emerged as a critique of industrial agriculture practices much like deep mulch gardening did. The idea here is that you grow plants in the same manner that they would be found in nature – in layers. These layers will protect and feed each other, such that your food production is sustained across decades, not discrete seasons.
If you think of a forest, you have basically seven layers of vegetation: the canopy, the understory, vines, shrubs, herbaceous plants, groundcovers, and the rhizosphere.
In my gardens, I have all of these layers represented by plants of different sizes, habits, and sun/shade requirements. I plant them as closely as possible and let them grow into each other.
Canopy: We have thirteen royal palms on the property and a mango tree. These are all immensely tall trees that, when growing in proximity to each other, produce a forest canopy.
Understory: A step down from these giants are smaller trees. This consists of all our other fruit trees (avocado, limes, lychee, bananas, guavas, papayas, among others), many varieties of smaller palms, about 35 plumeria trees, a royal poinciana, song of India, and jatrophas.
You can actually fit a lot of trees on an urban lot if you are selective about growing habits and do not plant them in neat little rows like you’ve seen at an orchard. A piece of advice I received from the food forest folks is don’t plant trees of the same species next to each other. You will still get the ramped-up production from pollinators doing their thing (even ostensibly self-fertile trees benefit from having sexy friends), but you will make it harder for species-specific pests to inundate your forest. The monoculture we associate with industrial agriculture (i.e. growing a lot of the same plant in the same space) is vulnerable to pests in ways that permaculture is not. You can avoid pesticides simply by planting strategically. Work smarter, not harder.
Of course, something to consider with having a canopy is that it is not going to work with a suburban TruGreen lawn. Most grasses will not work well in the shade. You are committing to having areas where the bottom layer will be shrubs and smaller plants that thrive in the shade or partial shade (which is a lot of tropical plants, but not necessarily true for other climates). Personally, I would rather look at masses of gingers or caladiums than grass, but your mileage may vary.
Vines: In this category, I would include bougainvillea (though not really a vine), which we have trained up our fences, passion fruit, cape honeysuckle, two trained bleeding hearts, jasmine trained up a trellis, and allamanda. I will probably add in some kiwi vines and mandevilla at some point. (I go back and forth on mandevilla and trumpet plants because they are highly poisonous. So is oleander. Mandevilla, however, is part of the wolfsbane family, which screws with your heart. I mostly worry about having plants like this around our dog, who loves eating hibiscus flowers, and the free-range bearded dragon. Anyway.) I would almost consider my dragon fruit cacti in this permaculture category, too, since they have air roots that help them climb almost like orchids. We also have massive philodendrons trained up the trunks of some of the royal palms.
Shrubs: I have entirely too many tropical shrubs to list at this point, but we are looking at Hawaiian ti, crotons, birds of paradise, crinium, philodendrons, hibiscus…. I am packing in a lot of tropical plants in four distinct garden rooms, depending on whether they require shade or sun.
Herbaceous: I have planted an epic ton of what would be considered annuals up north (impatiens, pentas…) but which tend to reseed themselves and carry on indefinitely down here. I look for vivid jewel tones in these plants to offset the dramatic foliage that tropical shrubs have.
I also have a lot of bromeliads, including pineapple plants. I have several pineapple plants, including a super sweet variety and one where the pineapples are red. It is very difficult for me to pass up pineapples when I see them.
Rhizosphere: I have a lot of tropical bulbs and rhizomes. Canna lilies, elephant ears, caladiums, of many varieties. These are all plants that grow from bulbs, crowns, etc. underground and spread underground too. Gingers are also that way. When you plant these, you have to love the location. You can’t change where they are located by simply digging up what is visible. I am hoping to get into mushroom farming at some point too, but that’s a big thing to research first.
Soil surface: I do not do a traditional ground cover, but instead rely on the deep mulch to protect the soil. I would not recommend growing ground covers in Florida unless you really love snakes. (Not that they won’t climb.) Meet my garden friend. She comes to visit me nearly every day I am out there. (Harmless black racer snake.)
This layered look, to me, is also what separates “landscaping” from the look of a garden. If you look at the way communities tend to use landscaping, it’s usually in artificial formations – hedges, flowers planted in linear patterns, etc. But when you think of a space that you’d describe as a paradise, you want layers, drifts, diversity, and complexity. When something is organized in a pattern, your mind looks at it and dismisses it, because your mind was created to autocomplete. A garden takes those algorithms and plays with them.
In that sense, what makes a garden flourish from a biological perspective is also what makes it beautiful.