Bear Creek Organics: Cultivating Land and Relationships
Aug 31, 2020 10:20AM
By Sheila Julson
Richard Mitchell, owner of Bear Creek Organics edible landscape company, takes pride in working with the land instead of from a playbook. He takes a holistic, individualized approach toward landscapes and life design that brings out the best in the land while considering the lifestyle of the homeowner. Bear Creek Organics also has its own nursery with a full palette of native, organically grown fruit and nut trees, bushes and plants that he can effectively implement into landscaping plans.
Mitchell has interacted with nature since childhood. He developed an entrepreneurial spirit when his grandfather had paid him to help him with his gardening. During college, Mitchell started his own landscaping company while pursuing his environmental science degree. He also started a worm compost company, Bear Creek Organics, the genesis of what became the landscaping business. Mitchell had the opportunity to work with renowned soil microbiologist Dr. Elaine Ingham at the Rodale Institute, where he learned about soil ecology and regenerative agriculture.
Mitchell also designed, installed, and managed an extensive school garden program for The Graham Academy. The project involved creating two edible schoolyards by installing vegetable gardens, fruit and berry bushes, greenhouses, native flowers and a food forest. Every student had gardening and cooking class once a week and were involved every step of the way. Mitchell realized how difficult it was to acquire all of the unique fruit trees and bushes he needed for the school’s edible landscape, as well as for private clients.
“That motivated me to start building my own edible landscaping nursery,” Mitchell says. In five years, he’s built a collection of unique varieties of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and native plants that he’s tested and used on jobs. “Each year, it gets bigger and more customized to Pennsylvania’s climates and microclimates.”
He notes that fruit trees sold at many commercial garden centers or big-box stores are brought in at the beginning of the season, usually from Southern states, and thus not adaptive to Pennsylvania’s climate. “Our trees are organically grown, and are stronger, healthier, and produce safe, healthy food, which in turn produces safe, healthy families and environments.”
Bear Creek Organics’ custom design-build approach also includes education and management to help clients maintain their landscapes and be good stewards for future land users. He uses tools such as a detailed questionnaire so he can gauge the client’s lifestyle, likes and dislikes and goals for their outdoor spaces. Recent projects include a two-pond system, connected by a stream and a system of swales and drainage ditches that all work together.
“The two ponds and the stream run continuously on a pump, so there’s an ornamental effect, but it’s also holistically connected to the land, so every time you get a big downpour, water is managed in a way that excess water from other parts of the property fill the pond. You never have fill with a hose,” he explains. “It’s a functional water management system hybridized as an ornamental pond. It’s also self-cleaning, so it doesn’t require herbicides or chemicals.”
Mitchell designs whole systems that work together, incorporating berry bushes, native plants, herb gardens, raised garden beds, rain gardens and swales. The holistic approach to landscape and life design solves problems like drainage problems in yards, helping not just the homeowner but also the entire community’s water issues by taking pressure off downstream systems. He notes that his detailed process helps avoid problems down the road.
“Our process allows us to avoid problems before they happen,” he says. “Many times, we’re fixing problems created by other contractors or previous homeowners. There’s a certain order of doing things that a good design process will bring out. This saves clients thousands of dollars in the long run by avoiding those types of mistakes.”
Because landscapes need to be managed extensively during the first couple of years after installation, Mitchell’s process involves client education. He offers workshops, talks, private classes, maintenance packages, coaching and other educational tools for the property owner.
“That’s the biggest key to our success, passing the torch—or the apple—to the homeowner, teaching clients how to maintain their landscape to the point where they don’t need us anymore,” Mitchell concludes. “Natural solutions are all around and connecting with the land starts in backyard. We’re literally standing and living on top of solutions, by growing healthy, organic food while enhancing how we work with the land.”