Cannabis stands for compassion, connection, and community. The plant symbolizes the regeneration of Earth and her myriad lifeforms. As commercial cannabis operations become more massive and more sterile—monuments to profit margins—the soul of cannabis cries out to her consumers. Regenerative farming answers the call.
I recently spoke to Karla Avila, owner and operator of Flowerdaze Farm. Flowerdaze is the “regenerative farm of a slightly reclusive, enigmatic family of renegade backwoods award-winning artisans.” On three acres in the Emerald Triangle, the farm commands awe for its pristine vision and healing mission. Flowerdaze not only produces terpene-rich, terroir-inspired cannabis—it rejuvenates the land, the ecosystem, and the surrounding community.
First and foremost—what kind of techniques and strategies do you use at Flowerdaze Farm?
We have a few cornerstones to our regenerative practices. We take all our fertility from animal systems as well as plants cultivated in our garden. So, we have soil building on the farm. The most important aspect of regenerative farming is that you’re building your own soil onsite from the resources of the land. All inputs come from the farm
Our integrated animal systems include cattle, goats, rabbits, chickens, and ducks that rotationally graze. We collect their manures for fertilizer. We are also a biodynamic farm and integrate biodynamic practices. For example, we create soil with the organic matter from farm waste (e.g., garden clippings) and collect brush from fire protection efforts to use in hügelkultur beds. Using organic matter and waste from the gardens as well as the manures from animals, we build our own thermophilic compost piles and layer those on the garden. By building compost piles, we’re sequestering a lot of carbon because we’re not burning anything.
With living soil, you’re basically feeding the soil. That’s different from hydroponically feeding the plant. Living soil does not involve formulating exactly what the plant’s going to eat on every given day of its lifecycle. Rather, it’s about building soil with fertility that’s bioavailable. From there, plants select exactly what they want. Our goal is to create the most optimal setting for biological intelligence to use its own controls. This contrasts with putting plants in a blank medium where everything they need has to be fed. We’re feeding our soil rather than feeding our plants.
We do like to give our cannabis water-soluble feedings to enhance important characteristics. We love to work with biodiverse companion plants, and we find that certain plants near cannabis help with terpene profiles. We also use a lot of fermentations to feed plants. These enhance the biological activities of the soil, but they also feed the plants with direct bioavailability. You can make water-soluble inputs right from your farm and not buy anything. That’s our goal—how can we make everything that we need and regenerate the fertility of the site?
We have a completely closed-loop farming system. When you get to that stage, your whole farm is an interconnected living organism and part of an ecosystem. Everything from the microscopic scale up actively participates in fertility management and the activation of the ecosystem. That’s sustainable land stewardship—putting back more than you’re taking. It’s the ultimate definition of regenerative farming.
When you say companion plants, do you mean cover crops? What are companion plants, exactly?
Cover crops come before companion plants when ‘setting the stage’ in soil and fixing the elements that you want, especially nitrogen. Companion plants are planted alongside or in the vicinity of our commercial cannabis. We have over a hundred different plant species bordering/in-between the cannabis. Those that are really important we plant near the vicinity—not right at the base to give the cannabis root ball room to expand—but along the edges of the bed rows.
One of my favorite companion plants is marigold. Marigolds are perennials, so they grow year after year. Make sure they’re just on your borders (not too close to the bed). They’re amazing for helping control nematodes in the soil and for deterring harmful nematodes. Marigolds pull nematodes towards their own roots and deter them away from cannabis roots. They’re like a cleansing agent in the soil for balancing nematodes and fungus.
I also plant alliums, garlic, and onions on the borders. These are excellent pest management tools that deter all kinds of pests.
Many companion plants produce habitat for beneficial insects. Stinging nettle is hugely important. It deters pests and provides habitat for beneficial insects. It’s also an amazing feeder. If you have only one plant to make ferment/tea to feed cannabis all year round, it would be stinging nettle. It has enough NPK [nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium] and all other essential nutrients for the whole season.
We plant comfrey right near the cannabis; we’ll have a row of cannabis and a few feet away a row of comfrey. We’ve done tests where the cannabis planted next to comfrey is the brightest green and the richest in chlorophyll—just absolutely stunning in health.
I have many other biodiverse species, especially perennials, that I plant around cannabis because of the biodiversity from beneficial insects. Our version of integrative pest management is this biodiverse ecosystem where when you build it, they will come. Whenever you start to see even a hint of a certain pest, immediately you will see beneficials that feed on that pest. Predators react and become present in the garden. It’s not optimal to import insects; it’s most optimal to create a habitat and let the ecosystem thrive.
Hemp aphids came down from Oregon into Northern California a few seasons back. They literally arrive overnight on the wind. That year, we saw insane amounts of ladybugs. They had habitat. If you’re focused on being sterile, you’re not going to achieve integrated pest management. If you build it, they will come. Other than just general garden maintenance and pruning, we don’t battle pest pressures. We’ve got this army of billions of organisms working for us. They see things before we do.
Many fear taking steps against monocropping. But there are really efficient ways to design your garden where you integrate other important plant species. Re-designing your model is worthwhile. Yield, productivity, and quality all go up. We achieve all this on a three-acre farm, so it’s achievable on all scales.
Do you conduct tests? Or do you let the ecosystem take care of itself?
We do initial soil tests and check in. Typically, we can tell what’s going on, and the test is confirmation.
We enhance with Cal Mag during certain times of the season; it’s more about timing rather than quantity. Growers tend to lean towards overfertilizing. Legume cover crops fix nitrogen, and cannabis won’t consume more than they fix. You can fix phosphorous too; I like phacelia for phosphorous. We just chop and drop our cover crops.
For young cuttings and good root growth, I apply willow tea. As we get about a month to six weeks out from flowering, we add phosphorus (via animal manures) because cannabis increases its uptake of phosphorous right before flower.
We do our own preparation of cow-horn manure where we bury manure in a cow horn. It’s kind of an esoteric process. Cows eat the grass. They eat from the land all the crude fibers. They double digest it. But their horns are also hollow spirals connected through their sinuses and digestive tracts; the horn is like their antenna. It has a special kind of energetic connection. We fill it with cow manure, plant it into the ground, and wait half the year. Then we dig it back up for a fully finished, beautiful, dark, rich humus. It’s the most incredible humus!
We dilute this humus heavily at a ratio of 1 to 500 and water the soil. It enhances the soil life and increases the speed at which soil composts into finished humus. If you don’t have finished humus, you don’t have bioavailable nutrients.
It’s fun to discuss with farmers from different backgrounds. There is a lot of science that we might miss just because it sounds like witchcraft. Rudolph Steiner, the founder of biodynamic farming, was an esoteric philosopher inspired by Goethe. It’s a different vein than the traditional scientific approach.
How does community play into regenerative farming?
No man is an island. No ecosystem exists in a vacuum. Without our larger community, it’s impossible to thrive. It’s not just about the land. It’s all the living organisms working together, and the goal is to build resilient communities.
Ecosystems are bigger than one’s self and bigger than one’s farm. They extend outward from the farm.
We’re surrounded by national forests in California. We’ve had crazy wildfires for the last decade. Fire has been suppressed for over a hundred years in our public lands. That’s not how forests should be managed. They need to burn; it’s essential to their health. Now, we’re in a situation where all the trees are tiny, all the same size, and way too close together. It’s basically a huge box of kindling waiting to be struck by lightning.
There have been efforts made to put control back into the hands of communities within public lands. For example, there’s a big movement to create a community forest where the wild forest meets our community. That zone then becomes managed by the community rather than by the National Forest Service, which really does very little other than deal with fire at this point.
The goal is to take private land and the immediately surrounding public lands and integrate them with each other into a more cohesive forest management strategy. We bring in grant money and grassroots resources to facilitate the management of forest ecosystems. That includes controlled burns in the winter and sustainable timber harvests. You can’t just suppress fire and leave all the trees up. That’s a recipe for disaster. We’re reinventing forest management because the 20th century version landed us into the predicament we’re in now, which is extreme. We face extreme fire conditions every season.
As a community, we must empower ourselves with local control to some degree.
Do you have issues with water?
It’s bad in California this year. Farmers have had their allotments cut across the state.
With cannabis in California, there’s already a regulation that you cannot draw surface water from any surface water source from April to October (the entire season). You have to store water in reservoirs or tanks ahead of the season. We don’t draw any surface water. We had a rainwater catchment system installed with large, off-channel ponds not connected to any natural water source. All structures on our property are catchments. Roofs and gutters lead to plumbing that leads to the off-channel reservoirs.
In the winter, about 3 million gallons of rain fall, and we catch about an acre-foot (~326,000 gallons) of water. That’s what we use for irrigation. However much water is in the reservoir, that’s how much we’re going to grow. We do have surface water and a well, but we know that they’re tied to hydrological sources that need every drop. We’re on a mission to not draw water other than from rainwater systems.
Drought is less of an issue for cannabis farmers than for other types of farmers in California who haven’t adapted to water regulation requirements. Those farmers have water they can draw from, but because it’s such a low year, their allotments are cut severely.
How can the home grower practice regenerative farming?
Look to farmers’ markets or natural grocery stores. Support people who put out natural products and grow with regenerative practices.
Korean natural farming—which we’ve utilized a lot at Flowerdaze—is a great method for the home grower. In Korea, they don’t have large animal systems. They’re working with natural plant ingredients and limited space. You need a good sugar source. I recommend buying Sucanat. Demerara is good too. These are whole sugars where none of the sugar has been separated. Raw sugar is not the same; it’s already been through processing. You can also grow sugar beets. With the sugar, you can make yourself a gallon-sized ferment of stinging nettle.
You can decide what you’re going for—that’s part of the creativity for the home grower. What flavors are you growing? What terpenes would you like to see? You could do combinations like lavender and lemon balm. Besides stinging nettle, you could do comfrey. These work as basic teas or ferments.
You can also make plant manures by composting plants in a bucket of water. It could get stinky, but you’re actually using a very small amount and diluting with water. It’s effective for giving the plants bioavailable water-soluble nutrients right away.
I encourage people to find a local soil source and a local composting source. Support your local farmers’ market. Do the best you can where you live. I know that in some parts of the country, it’s difficult. Wherever you are, try to support your localized community. It’s worth the effort. We all need that resilience in our local communities.
The momentum of the movement is growing, so I think the home grower is starting to find more resources. You don’t have to go to the grow store and buy ‘veg’ and ‘bloom.’ You can make your own. You can also choose inputs to enhance what you want to come out of your plants.
We wrote our book, The Flowerdaze Farm Regenerative Guide to Cannabis, with the home grower in mind. It has all these concepts of regenerative ag and soil building. But it’s designed to be easy to use regardless of experience level. You’re good to go with a pot and some organic soil.
What would you say is the biggest challenge to regenerative farming?
Getting started is the biggest challenge. The steps to fully closed systems might take a few years. The first couple seasons, you’re building a biodiverse ecosystem that’s all about balance. You might initially have imbalance and pest pressure. You may need to do sesame oil or other natural applications to keep the bugs off. It becomes more hands-off over the years.
The setup is site specific. This requires looking at your site and figuring out what kind of systems make sense with that space for closed loops. How many animals are appropriate with this space? How much fertility will I get from those animals? These kinds of calculations can require somebody with experience although there are great books out there. The Biodynamic Association has excellent textbooks that give, per acre, information on different animal production, feeding, and rotational grazing techniques.
It happens faster than you think. Within three years, we were in really good shape. Now, after seven years on three acres, which we started from scratch, everything is thriving and working as it should. It’s around seven years where you hit the magic. We’re able to be hands-off with a lot of things that used to be more labor intensive, like pest management.
How do you see cannabis intersecting with spirituality?
For me, they’re very closely integrated. Plants, animals, and the whole biological system have always been about spiritual connection. They are hard to separate in my mind. I started out cultivating cannabis in the medical days. I was asked by friends and neighbors to grow medicine; a lot of people were given a death sentence and wanted to find the most graceful way to live out their time. In that respect, cannabis becomes incredibly important spiritually. The plant heals people in so many ways.
The way we talk about spirituality now in our modern society is very compartmentalized. Across different people and different epochs on Earth, this plant was right there, hand in hand. It is a spiritual connector. Physically it heals a lot, but its dimensions are broad. It’s hard in Western terms to talk about it. We separate all of these things. In the plant world, they’re all part of the same vitality of life. It’s all connected.
Karla Avila has been celebrated for her accolades in the worlds of fine cannabis, regenerative agriculture, and the musical arts. She is both an international award-winning concert musician and multi Emerald Cup award-winning cannabis farmer and breeder, a dedicated teacher of artistic process and performance, traditional farming practices, permaculture and closed-loop Regenerative farming systems, and co-author of The Flowerdaze Farm Regenerative Guide to Cannabis, a season-long recipe book for the beyond-organic gardener. Together with her husband Jacob Johnson, she owns and operates Flowerdaze Farm, a family farm and homestead committed to the preservation of natural farming traditions from around the globe, and specializing in regeneratively-grown, artisanal cannabis. Nestled in the heart of the Emerald Triangle, in an idyllic and remote valley along the South Fork of the Trinity River, Flowerdaze Farm’s goal is to showcase their distinctive terroir by maintaining an interconnected farm organism that creates abundance via closed loop, sustainable systems of fertility, utilizing only hyper local and onsite resources. By hand crafting everything that nurtures and feeds their gardens and native soils with the abundance of their locality, a singularly unique representation of Place is achieved in the experience of tasting their exceptional, one-of-a-kind flowers.