Friends, I've been interested in permaculture for a few years now. Mostly reading things on the internet and sometimes buying books. Permaculture is a philosophy of land management where you try to work with nature to develop a healthy, productive, beautiful environment. Because everything in a permaculture system is living its best life - worms worming, bees buzzing, all kinds of plants growing, humans walking around noticing things and harvesting ripe stuff - once the system is established, it tends to be much more low-maintenance and resilient than a traditional monoculture farm. That's the dream that I read about on the internet, anyway. I was excited to talk with Lara Richardson, who with her family owns Lane Creek Reserve in Oregon, about the reality of running an actual permaculture farm. Lane Creek Reserve grows hemp for a line of CBD products as its main cash crop, plus a huge variety of other herbs, vegetables, and flowers in the same beds to maximize the health of the system. The garden beds themselves are hugelkultur raised beds, mounds of dirt with logs buried underneath. As the logs decompose, they act as water-retaining sponges for the plant roots, and build beautiful soil.
I think those are the main jargon words we use here. Our conversation is below this stunning picture of Lane Creek Farm.
Jane: You started in 2018.
Lara: We bought the farm in 2017, and then everything started full steam ahead in 2018. In 2017 we took a step back and really tried to envision what this land was going to become. And then very quickly the projects begin to emerge.
When we took over the space and purchased the farm, we outlined where our cash crop was going to be. We started to work and develop and put in beds for water retention, sourcing all of the material required to start building our natural fertility, and building up mounds. It's definitely an on-going process, an on-going application, and forever your goal is to be building topsoil and providing fertility.
That's when the commitment really began. With a permaculture system, it’s not like you can go to your conventional farm store and purchase everything you need and have a fruitful year. It’s time and dedication and rotation to make sure you have the correct plants in place to provide happy environments for everything that will be growing, and on top of that combining the nutrients that soil needs. We have our original plot plans that are all hand drawn and laid out. Watching it actually come to fruition has been incredible.
J: You said at the beginning it was a lot of moving manure around. (chuckles)
L: Haha, it really was how much poop can you move! We found out quite soon.
J: So, if you’re growing hemp for CBD, is it sort of like the terroir of a vineyard? Is it the specifics of what you would put down at the bottom of your hugelkultur bed and what plants you’re growing on the side and the water conditions that influence the product you get?
L: Yes! Also, the genetics and everything else in the plants that you’re putting in. It goes hand-in-hand for sure.
J: So does it matter what type of wood you start with in the bed?
L: Honestly, you want something that you have access to. You’re going to need a lot of it. For example, any fallen shrubbery or tree. You want to be able to pack it in there and create that foundation for the years to come, you don’t want something that’s obviously going to deteriorate very quickly. You want to keep that foundation solid.
J: That makes sense that you don’t want it to sink too much. So I always wondered with chop-and-drop [permaculture technique of cutting down beneficial plants and leaving the cut pieces in place to improve the soil] - is there any worry if you have any plant diseases or pests? Do you worry about reinfecting the soil or the environment with whatever diseases, or are there no diseases because it’s just so healthy? How do you manage that?
L: There’s definitely insects, there’s definitely pests, there are all walks of life that you don’t necessarily desire. What we have done and what we continue to do is create an environment that will keep those pests happy so they turn away from what our cash crop is. Does it always work? No.
J: Do you give them decoys?
L: Yes! For example: to keep our underground critters happy, we – (shuffle) sorry, it’s like when the tiny child is sleeping you try to become this superhero –
J: Yes! you do every errand, and everything!
L: It’s like okay, go! Anyways…
So, for instance, to keep the underground world happy we plant garlic and potatoes. All of those wonderful members of the onion-garlic family: the ones that help the soil and help the critters in the soil too. In addition to that we also plant dahlia tubers, peony tubers, tulips – all different types of bulbs and tubers that would be a very attractive treat for the underground world. What that does is allow them to eat on those roots, bulbs, and root vegetables so to speak, and then they’ll stay away from other roots of our plants.
J: I see.
L: It doesn’t work all the time, but in general it does seem to be working! But again, there is no pest management, it’s really just keeping them happy. Do locusts come every few years and ruin stuff? Yes. All you can do is try to either accept it and keep them happy and in their avenue, or you can’t really grow in this fashion because there’s no killing it.
Dealing and growing in somewhere where you’re holding and retaining moisture and creating a very fungal environment, you’re going to have the potential of mold. Things of that nature will depend on how it’s growing - you have to really watch your crops and manage it, and be very, very in tune with how it’s growing and what’s going on so you can keep an eye out for problems and then immediately respond. To answer your question, it is a very healthy environment, but just like in a healthy stomach you have the yeast and you have all the bacterias because that is what is eating the bad. You have to have the bad to have the good.
J: It’s sort of more additive than reductive. It’s not like you want to eliminate everything, you want to balance it.
L: Exactly, it’s finding that happy medium and allowing the environment to be.
J: Here’s a very basic question: do you guys get a freeze, or a more rainy winter?
L: We do get a freeze! Not for a very long time, this part of the state has a very Mediterranean feel. So yes, you can get the cooler temperatures for a max of 30 days. We definitely get two springs. Right now where everywhere else in the county is usually lush and green and beautiful, we’re dead. Everything is dry and in a dormant state in the heat. Unless you irrigate, and you have a very serious hydration system. Another main reason that we do this [permaculture farming] is because our water retention is saved from the rainier times here, and then through our own irrigation system–we’re using a drip process this year–we can offset the dry season to keep the cash crop beds irrigated. But everything else on the property is parched right now. I would say this is kind of the winter, but we don’t always get a freeze.
J: Got it. Interesting, I ask because I was wondering what your advice would be to people who just want to put a hugelkultur bed on their land anywhere in the country.
L: I think that it would be fine because really what it is about is the underground. The above ground would cover crop or heavy application of hay. Hay is going to keep everything warm. If you have something you are trying to protect from cooler temperatures, or from drought, you’re going to put hay on top of that and then you can put mulch. Ultimately you are just creating a barrier between the soil and the exposure of the cooler temperatures. That’s also how we kind of play some tricks! Because we’re in a zone 8, potentially 9, we can sometimes get annual plants to behave like perennials, if we can keep them from freezing.
J: Just keep it mulched well with hay.
L: Exactly. Some of the roots of them will really be heavily covered, which can also backfire because if it’s covered too heavily then they will never receive that warmth and penetration in the Spring. Then it becomes a very cool, dormant, worm mess where they will be like – wow, look at all these rotting bulbs and look at all this yummy food! Which again, will be fantastic for your soil but that trough will never come back.
You have to watch what your application is and the intention is behind it! And not going hard because you think it’s right. We lost a tulip bed that had 3,500 tulips in it. I was using it as an incubator bed where we were just using it to duplicate and increase our bulb count. Well, we didn’t increase. We lost. Too much hay count. The return is really nice now, but it really took a turn then.
J: It sounds expensive.
L: Yes, but we learned from it! That’s what a lot of this is about. You learn a lot. Sometimes it’s an expensive learning lesson.
J: Oh yes, we’ve had plenty of those haha.
L: I’m sure. It’s like, make sure nobody does that again!
J: It’s hard on the ground I’m sure because the circumstances are quite different every time, so it’s hard to tell which lesson applies where.
L: I would say that there’s changing and consistently learning projects because again you’re not just picking something up, applying it, and getting a great result. It’s a lot of trial and error - it’s a lot of work, and you have to consistently maintain an environment. Watering and all that other stuff is adding to or depleting what you did a week ago. You have to be dedicated to building it up.
Once you get to a point where your fertility is thriving you’re going to get payback - the crop that you’re growing out of that style of farm is so happy. And obviously and whatever it is does - whether it’s a flower, or a produced crop, or a fruit or whatever it is - you’re just going to get that much more. It works out.
J: It works out.
L: Do you have outdoor space? Where would you do this?
J: So we have in the back of our store a little backyard, but it doesn’t get great sun. It gets maybe 3 or 4 hours of strong sun, and then it’s covered by building shadows the rest of the time. When we moved into the space my dad helped me put in some raised beds. I guess it was kind of hugelkultur, I hadn’t become obsessed with it yet. We put down a brush pile and then covered it with compost, topsoil, and peat moss, and built retaining walls. Then, we planted it in what you could charitably call a polyculture of many things. At this point it’s more of a weed festival but it’s okay.
L: Weeds are good! Weeds help out.
J: Some more than others, I guess. We have two American hazelnut trees and now it’s been seven or six years for them.
L: We want hazelnuts so bad
J: They produce these beautiful crops of nuts now. This year I was so excited, I was watching them get bigger. A few weeks ago I checked again, and they are all gone. I don’t know if they were squirrels, or rats, but somebody got them. Every single one. I guess that’s only fitting if we’re such a fan of woodland animals.
L: Okay my fairytale story is coming to life!
J: They claimed their rightful due I guess.
L: It's like the story you would write for real life! That’s great.
J: It’s only fair. And we have raspberries and serviceberries that are pretty good. We used to have tomatoes that were re-seeding, but I think they got outcompeted by weeds. Ever since I was pregnant and then I had my baby, I haven't been tending to it so well.
L: Yeah it definitely gets hard when you have another tiny human.
J: Yeah, we kind of have a garden. It’s funny before I knew I was pregnant - that’s when I was deep down the permaculture rabbit hole learning about all of this stuff. I love it. I love thinking of all the good we can do for everything by rebuilding soil.
L: Yeah, I mean it’s absolutely incredible. You also kind of do some fun research. I try to add some sort of information that could be helpful on Instagram at least once of week. One of the posts I did not too long ago was about Shasta daisies. As beautiful as they are, they serve so many purposes in the garden. When they die you don’t have to cut them back because they provide a home for the bees in the winter. They burrow down into these amazing tall stalks, and start to inhabit them. They serve this secondary function, they keep that attraction for pollinators for your beds even in the off season.
J: They make them think it’s a good place to be.
L: It's so incredible to keep on learning and keep on adding different types of plants and different types of root systems into your soil. It all manages to work hand-in-hand. The more diversity that you have, the more diverse your underground make-up is going to become. It’s just fascinating to us as well. Keep on going! This year alone I have got so many seeds, the diversity is going to be tenfold next year
J: That’s so exciting. What are your biggest plans?
L: Moon carrot one that’s really on my list. One because it’s a beautiful addition to fresh-cut flowers, but also because it is so prolific and it has the root. The roots act as if it’s a carrot so there's that foot underground. Aboveground you have these beautiful flowers. If you plant your moon carrots and plant the marigolds right next to each other, the counterbalance between those two is an attractant and a deterrent. So these two plants together create this harmony. It’s the attractant and deterrent that you’re looking for, so I’m going crazy buying these ridiculous seeds, but we have this massive greenhouse. I have basically from late Fall all the way until early or late winter to start my germination for all of the flowers and the plants that we would be putting in. It’s really exciting!
J: Wow! I love all of this topic, and got all these library books about regenerative soil farming. I’m a big fan. It’s great talking with you. You said you had questions for me?
L: I was just curious how this came to fruition and how your business works. Who makes all these dolls and how do you keep up?
J: Haha, it’s an evolving question. When I started I made them myself in my front room in my apartment in Crown Heights. And then in the attic of my friend’s house. After about a year I quit my day job and got a little office in Gowanus and just kept making them. We found fair trade sourcing, first in India, then in Nepal and Cambodia. We’re working with these social enterprise places that have great communication and do beautiful work, and have a social mission of who they hire. That’s who makes most of our stuff now. We have a full-time sewing team in Brooklyn making most of the limited-edition doll clothes. Actually as I speak to you I’m lacing doll shoes.
We definitely all still make stuff in different ways. The way we can get volume out the door at a sort of reasonable gift price-point is through these partnerships overseas. It was a lot of foolishly saying yes to things and then scrambling and undervaluing my labor to make the things happen. And now it’s sort of relying on minds more organized than mine to somehow build a structure behind that.
L: Yeah it takes a lot. As the owner, you just want people to be happy and excited about something that you’ve created - but in turn you still need to support yourself. Well, thank you again!
J: I’d love to see your farm.
L: There’s a lot of moving parts, I’ll tell you that!
J: Yeah, join the club.
L: Alright you have a wonderful day!
J: Same to you!
Follow Lara and Lane Creek Reserve @lanecreekreserve on Instagram.
Links to support the surrounding community of Lane Creek Reserve devastated by wildfires: