January 23, 2019

Sustainable Topanga: Growing Green on Cross Bull Ranch with Lisa Cianci


Cross Bull Ranch proclaims healthful living, sustainability, beauty and a higher calling.


Sustainable Topanga: Growing Green on Cross Bull Ranch with Lisa Cianci

Chickens—rescued and pedigree—are the show stoppers at Cross Bull Ranch. Above, Cianci holds one of her rescues. The stars of the clutch are two black-and-white Egyptian Faumi that retain their feral instinct to survive, making them a practical choice for the Canyon.

Every nook and cranny of Lisa Cianci’s Cross Bull Ranch in Topanga, a co-op she created and runs, declares her dedication to sustainably living off the land.

“I haven’t been to the grocery store in over a year,” she remarked. A proponent of permaculture, she covers the nutritional basics with 25- and 50-pound sacks of garbanzo beans, and invites Topangans to join her in ordering bulk dry food.

She also grows sprouts, calling it farming in the kitchen, where organic seeds transform into nutrient-dense fresh food. Any conversation about food in her home soon leads to the outdoors, where she has an array of good things growing that end up on her plate.

The show-stoppers are the chickens. Her hens typically provide an egg a day per hen unless they are molting. Some of the chickens are rescues, but her stars are Isis and Ra, two black-and-white Egyptian Faumi, that still have the self-protective instincts of their feral ancestors, making them practical in the Canyon. When threatened, they blend into the shadows and “freeze” in place.

Cianci built a wooden tractor-coop that allows the chickens to be moved around from site to site in a garden or the lawn, where they harvest bugs and acorns and leave behind world-class fertilizer.

She and Ben Lawson make chicken tractor-coops to order in case anyone is looking for a great holiday gift.

Heading into the garden becomes a tasting spree as we sample candy-sweet green tomatoes, arugula, amaranth, nasturtium leaves, basil...the list goes on.


Sustainable Topanga: Growing Green on Cross Bull Ranch with Lisa Cianci

Above, children gather in a keyhole garden, just one of the sustainable features that make Cross Bull Ranch in Topanga a unique example of living off the land. Ranch owner Lisa Cianci has applied for certification as a permaculture center and plans to promote the ranch as a Bed and Breakfast.

What makes it intriguing is that she uses classic permaculture techniques to make it work, such as “lasagna-ing” (as in lasagna) by placing a layer of plain cardboard, then organic soil, then seeds, repeat ... and repeat. Plants are allowed to go to seed and then the garden becomes self-sustaining. Compost can be added at will. Her herb spiral will be filmed for the “Joan Rivers Show” next year.

Last year, she put in a stone-and-tile stage at the base of the garden for events such as weddings, ceremonies led by Native American shamans and talks held by permaculture experts.

It is beautiful, but what is even more impressive is that most of the labor was done by Cianci, Lawson and an array of volunteers.

More interesting is the seating arrangement along the contours of the slope facing the stage.

Designed on the principles created by permaculture leader Sepp Holzer, she describes this as the world’s first inverted, buried hugelkultur bed—a curved, stepped terrace of plants intermingled with young trees, each designed to catch and hold water as it runs down the hillside.

On each step of the terrace, alternating with the plants, are evenly placed broad tiles that invite guests to sit down, turning the garden into a leafy amphitheatre.

She fertilizes her plants from a “worm farm” that creates prolific worm “juice.” Unlike typical commerical worm bins which look like large plastic trash containers, these worms are housed in a large terracotta pot. Lisa’s background in design makes her approach to permaculture aesthetically enticing.

She has a portable introduction to permaculture kit that she brings to schools for kids to learn about worms, chickens, “lasagna-ing,” conserving water, conserving energy and living a more sustainable life that she teaches in the guise of play.

The ranch is in the process of being accredited as a permaculture center and will be hosting a two-day Introduction to Permaculture class March 23-24, 2013, led by permaculture expert Warren Brush.

Lisa welcomes inquiries from Topangans looking to start herbal spirals or apply water conservation methods and permaculture on their own properties.


I have known Lisa since our now teenage boys were adorable kindergartners at Topanga Elementary.

Lisa remains as beautiful now as she was then. She did point out that she no longer uses sugar, alcohol, caffeine, red meat and only very rarely has dairy. Clearly, her diet and her outdoor lifestyle keep her glowing.

I admit that while I sit here considering making these kinds of epic changes in my own life, I am, in fact, enjoying a cup of tea and my day started off with home-brewed espresso. One step at a time, I presume.

During our interview, she tried to convince me that neither the corporation that manages my apartment nor my neighbors would mind if I put two hens and a rooster on my balcony. I’m tempted.

Obviously, a big part of her approach to being sustainable involves opening her ranch to the community—but she has extended that community to promoting the ranch as a Bed and Breakfast.

No doubt her guests will be served home-grown eggs and salads pulled from her garden. She makes growing food locally look like fun. And fun will, perhaps, drive people to pick up a shovel, buy non GMO organic heirloom seeds, drive to Santa Monica to save orphaned chickens and go completely sustainable.

More than growing good food and saving the environment, Lisa is a radiant being whose spirituality underlies every contact I have had with her.

Growing up Catholic, offering yoga retreats at the ranch, becoming a member of the Native American church, she is connected to something in her soul that drives her towards building community through growing healthy food, healing the earth and providing venues for permaculture classes and spiritual teachers, starting with her ranch.

Suffice it to say that this good magic is something that stayed with me long after I left the ranch, an intangible element that makes Cross Bull Ranch of Topanga not merely sustainable but inspirational.

For more information: www.crossbullranch.com.

Melina Sempill Watts, is Santa Monica Mountains Watersheds Coordinator for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains.