Local Edible Landscapes Thrive Organically
Mar 27, 2018 03:36PM
● By Elisa Smith
Richard Mitchell has a degree in Environmental Science from St. Michael’s College in Vermont, but he credits Mother Nature with being his first teacher. The proprietor of Bear Creek Organics remembers spending much of his childhood in nature, where he applied his talent for observation to looking for patterns related to how green things grow.
His Ukrainian great grandmother had sold her sheep farm to immigrate to America, and her son, Mitchell’s great uncle, had an urban garden here in the states – one Mitchell was paid an allowance to help tend. Still, growing conditions were different in Mitchell’s home town of Bear Creek. The rocky soil and cold mountain climate made growing a challenge, so he began problem solving at the age of 10, and over the ensuing years became an expert on edible gardens in Northeast Pennsylvania.
Why edibles? “Food is family,” says Mitchell, noting that food was the only aspect of his ancestors’ culture that remained. “Food was central to every family gathering.” At a young age, he determined to translate his love of growing food into a viable business. Now, in addition to running a successful edible landscape business, Mitchell teaches at The Graham Academy, where he instills a love for organic gardening in special-needs children. His passion and commitment for community education and environmental stewardship earned him the coveted Environmental Partnership Award from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council in 2016.
Because composting was something his great uncle had taught him, Mitchell learned at young age the importance of viable soil, and found it was key to nourishing plants organically. While in college, he ran a landscape business during the summer breaks, which further developed the skills necessary to design, install and maintain aesthetically pleasing, viable landscapes. The organic worm compost he’d developed over the years helped his clients’ plants grow better and live longer, with less maintenance.
At college, Mitchell discovered what he calls “Vermont’s amazing organic food culture, a social structure built around local, fresh, organic food,” which only served to feed his passion for growing healthy food. College provided another pivotal experience, the opportunity to work with world renowned soil microbiologist Dr. Elaine Ingham, when he was hired as a regenerative research technician at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown. The Institute first coined the term “organic agriculture” and remains among the world’s foremost pioneers in organic research and education. “I worked for a year alongside the best of the best in organic agriculture. I became a specialist in the soil-food web,” says Mitchell.
Upon graduation, Mitchell returned to his hometown and started Bear Creek Organics, a worm composting company dedicated to using organic compost to restore damaged soil, a method he found far superior to chemical fertilizers. He was able to grow trees rapidly, even in the worst conditions. He describes his company’s compost as an “artisanal product,” but despite his success, Mitchell realized that he’d strayed from his true passion, growing plants for food. So, a few years ago he shifted his focus back to his original interest. Though he continues to produce compost, he now uses it to create edible landscapes for a variety of clients including schools, communities and individual homeowners. His commitment to offering hardy, low maintenance trees and bushes led him on a nationwide search for rare heirloom varieties bred to thrive in the Northeast Pennsylvania climate, a search that took three to four years to come to fruition.
“You won’t find our trees and bushes at big-box nurseries,” Mitchell maintains “For one thing, virtually all nursery trees have been treated with chemical fertilizers. Our trees and bushes are established in 100 percent organic compost soil and are ready to grow. The soil has been inoculated with microorganisms that make them far superior at withstanding drought and other stresses.” The fruit and nut plants have been selected for superior taste, high yield, vigor, cold hardiness and disease resistance, and proven to excel in the local climate.
Over 50 antique, heirloom and disease resistant apple varieties are available - “Why grow varieties of apples you can buy in the grocery store?” he asks - in addition to pears, plums, and peaches. He also offers cherry trees and bushes, along with blueberries, pink lemonade (blue) berries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and currants, and several varieties of the most disease resistant and productive chestnut trees and hazelnut bushes. He also offers two fruit trees, which he says most are surprised to learn are native to the area: the paw paw and the persimmon.
“The paw paw tastes like a combination of mangos and bananas and it has after tones of vanilla and citrus with a custard texture,” says Mitchell. “It’s also the largest native North American fruit, tastes amazing and is very healthy. As a bonus, the trees are very beautiful, extremely shade tolerant, pest free and deer proof.” As to the persimmons, Michell says the “fruit of the gods” is very ornamental, shade tolerant, and pest free.
All of Bear Creek Organics’ nut trees are seedlings from grafted chestnut varieties, and are blight resistant, large nut producing, high yield and high taste. Mitchell notes that hazelnut bushes grow very well in Bear Creek in partial shade. There’s also a pecan-hickory hybrid called hicans, which is extremely cold hardy.
Citing the Chinese proverb which states that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second-best time is now, Mitchell insists that people should not be intimidated by the thought of planting trees, especially these. “Trees grow bigger, stronger and hardier every year,” he says. “Unlike annual vegetable gardens, they are extremely low maintenance, and less work as time goes on. They require minimal care for one to two years, and that minor investment lasts a lifetime.” Clients should expect berry bushes and nut trees to produce fruit in one to two years, and fruit trees to mature and bear fruit in two to five years.
Mitchell’s says his typical client recognizes the value of the healthy food these trees provide, along with their ability to beautify the landscape and provide shade and/or wind buffers. “Many local residents believe our soil isn’t right for growing these trees, that the climate is too cold, that they’ll fall victim to disease and/ or wildlife, but solving these problems is my specialty. I only offer well-adapted trees that produce tasty fruit,” he asserts.
Mitchell does sell trees separately, but encourages customers to take advantage of the range of expertise his company offers as a full-service ecological company that designs, builds, installs and maintains edible landscapes and gardens. To encourage local residents to take advantage of the spring planting season, Mitchell is offering a free initial consultation, including a site visit, for a limited time. He encourages clients to work cooperatively with him, noting that his happiest clients work closely with him to tailor a plan that works best for their goals.
Mitchell’s design plans are careful to incorporate the social aspect of outdoor space, and complement outdoor living rooms, fireplaces and cooking areas, creating the aesthetics that encourage homeowners to spend more time in their backyards.
“You don’t have to want a full food forest to hire me,” says Mitchell. “I can help even if it’s just a couple of apple trees, or a berry patch, a bee or butterfly garden, herb garden or vegetable garden. If it grows in soil, I can help with planning and planting.”
Bear Creek Organics is located at 80 Chapel Road in Bear Creek. For more information or to set up a consultation call 570-582-0615 or visit BearCreekOrganics.com.