Gardens of Love: Laurisa Rich

Permaculture in the Chilmark fog, and some tea.


It’s always a pleasure to drive up to Laurisa and Tim Rich’s home above Squibnocket Pond. Although I’ve known Laurisa for many years, I’ve never actually been in her garden before. We met on a foggy morning in May. She has a large collection of potted house plants; many had just been moved to the deck outside. Laurisa’s family ties to the Island go back to the late 1800s in Cottage City. In fact, she inherited a family cottage from her aunt, which is what originally brought her to the Island full-time. Before we head down to her garden she sprays our feet and ankles with the homemade tick and bug formulation that she created for her sister’s horse business.

Laurisa grew up on Kodiak Island in Alaska, where she helped her mother’s mother in the garden growing up, but never had her own garden until she moved to Chilmark — in part because she spent many years working on fishing boats. We walk down a rolling hill from her home to the “mandala-shaped” garden protected by high mesh deer fencing. The garden is situated near the pump house, so it has always had water available. Laurisa explains, “I built it on permaculture principles — primarily nature’s way of building soil, sheet composting, where you layer and layer and layer; the worms come in and break it down and you make new soil. That’s how this started 15 years ago.” She goes on, “I really concentrate on the vitality of the soil. During those years it’s been in fallowhood two times, where I just let it rest for the season where I fold in cover crops,” which act as a nitrogen fixer, like a vetch (a fodder crop) for summer. “You let it grow into youngsterhood, then fold it in, and it rots into the soil and adds a lot of organic matter, nutrients, and often nitrogen.” She makes use of eelgrass throughout her garden, and describes it as “a wonderful blankie for the garden. It’s a lot of organic matter and minerals, and depending on how fresh it is, nutrients as well. It lasts all season and is sustainably harvested.”

Laurisa started with the circular center garden and then added more planting areas around the outside, but it became too big, so she has scaled back and focuses on biodynamic treatments for the soil, like nettle and comfrey tea, which she brews in a large rain barrel, as well as warm compost tea. Ideally she feeds these brews to her garden every three weeks. There are many stations outside the garden for her to work, including a garden hutch, a worm composting station, a four-bucket salad growing station, and various composting troughs and areas. There’s “no meat, no dairy, nothing baked or cooked, just raw” for the compost. There are lots of nettle patches, and a white lilac bush, a gift from Bert Fischer, is planted just outside the garden gate, and is growing its first blooms.

Because Laurisa does not have a covered garden shed, she has repurposed metal garbage cans on their sides, as well as metal mailboxes, to hold supplies and tools. Other upcycled finds from the dump and sides of our roads include bases of antique sewing machines to hold compost containers, a café table and chair, and much more. She has a series of “germination bins” where she puts in carrots and beets and stuff before transplanting them to the garden.

Laurisa uses a water wigwam around a volunteer tomato plant. In the very center of the garden is a glass jar with her Alaskan grandmother’s ashes, as she’s her main garden inspiration. Surrounding that is her “culinary herb circle,” with chives, sage, and oregano visible at present, but it will also have basil, thyme, and more. She changed her planting areas from pie shapes to having a perimeter planting bed for beans, peas, and any vine that needs support to grow, and then a series of circular raised planting beds all ensconced in eelgrass. Right now there is a happy volunteer Swiss chard showing off lush green leaves. She rotates every year, so Laurisa “basically lets the garden decide,” changing the families of vegetables from the different areas. To deal with her shrew issue, Laurisa employs a root basket which she lines with cloth and will sink into the ground. Her squashes are being moved to an area in front of her home due to squash vine borer worms, because, she says, there’s no way to handle them organically. The flower beds fronting the house make a great cutting garden.

Laurisa Rich has had Island garden mentors, including Marie Scott and Liz Gude from her first three years on-Island working at Beetlebung Farm, and Judy Worthington. Also Abigail Higgins and Lynne Irons, whose columns are the first thing she reads in the Island papers. Of course she credits her husband Tim Rich with being “the fence guy; he hooks up the water every year, and has a tractor that can dump the eelgrass over the fence.” One interesting fact is that a line of her family is credited for developing Boston lettuce for the Boston market.

Laurisa has decided to stop using media while gardening so she can really listen to her garden. New this year are goji berry bushes near the new squash patch. In her medicinal patch she grows motherwort, elecampane, lemon balm, mint, catmint, santalina, turmeric, and ginger in pots so she can bring them in to winter. Most important is keeping the garden low-maintenance.

Laurisa Rich has always been an inspiration to me, and her garden exemplifies her independent spirit and her love of the earth. I look forward to visiting when everything is in bloom.

Compost tea

Compost tea, a probiotic brew, is made by steeping compost, sugars, nutrients, and organic matter in a solution of water for 24 to 48 hours of oxygenation and circulation. The result is a living brown tea — chock-full of water-soluble nutrients and beneficial microbes necessary to healthy soil and healthy plants.

Beneficial soil microbes include aerobic bacteria, fungi, protozoa, inoculants, and nematodes, and they all work in partnership with plants. They break down otherwise inaccessible organic matter into a form \plants can use. They protect plants from disease.

A thin film of compost tea sprayed on your soil is comparable to two inches of microbe-rich compost — and much easier to apply. Sprayed on the foliage, it feeds the plants and helps deter pests. A simple recipe follows; the proportions can be multiplied for larger batches and other ingredients added to suit your soils needs.

1 oz. blackstrap molasses
1 oz. fruit juice
1 oz. fish emulsion or a mushed can of sardines
5 gal. nonchlorinated water (preferably our nitrogen-rich rainwater)
1½ cups compost, or ½ cup worm castings
¼ cup kelp meal, or 2 cups fresh seaweed
¼ cup chopped feed hay or alfalfa pellets

Mix molasses, juice and fish emulsion in small amount of hot water. Stir into your large vessel of water. Place compost and dry ingredients in a mesh bag, pillowcase, or stocking, and submerge. Oxygenate with a small aquarium bubbler (or a household plunger) for 24 to 48 hours, stirring occasionally.

How to use

Simply dilute (4:1 for foliar feed, 8:1 for soil drench) and apply ASAP with a watering can or, well-strained, thru a pressurized sprayer. UV rays can kill microorganisms, so it’s best to apply in morning or late afternoon, or on a cloudy day.

For more info and recipes