Q&A with Caitlin Bergman of Copia

edibleExtra by Leah Wolf

Dan and Caitlin of Copia

Dan and Caitlin of Copia

We are excited to introduce Caitlin Bergman, The Seasoned Farmhouse’s new gardening instructor! Caitlin is teaching four gardening classes for home cooks at our school this summer. She is co-owner at Copia, a 40-acre holistically-designed farm in Johnstown. Recently moved from California, she has a Botany degree from the University of Hawai’i and has spent more than a decade designing and installing edible and medicinal gardens. She also served as the Los Angeles Arboretum & Botanic Garden’s Garden Curator and Plant Propagation Specialist and designed the first permaculture garden in a public garden in the United States! We’re thrilled to have her share her expertise at our school and encourage any of you interested in learning more about the garden side of food to attend one of her classes.

Leah Wolf: What drew you to permaculture?

Caitlin Bergman: As a professional horticulturist, botanist, and farmer, I work on the plant care side of plants quite a bit. A wide range of techniques and beliefs can be imposed on plants, but they all need variations of just a few basics - air, soil, water, and sunlight.  

When it comes to plant design though, I find there is an enormous gap between the ideas behind placing a plant into a landscape and the landscape itself. Designed landscapes usually have little thought to them other than aesthetics - 'I will place a rose bush here because it looks pretty,' - end of story in conventional design. Permaculture offers a rich design toolbox and set of ideas that go far beyond working with pretty plants and colors, though these are the dessert in a landscape, always to be served in plenty!  

In permaculture, we are always observing the natural world.  We're looking for the connections, because nothing is separate.  That rose bush has basic soil, light, and water needs, but there are other connections that are much more far-reaching. For example, a suitable variety can be chosen for its rose hips, an almost citrus-tasting source of vitamin-C, or for its petals, which can be used to create delicate flavors needed in a dish such as Egyptian Rose Cake. We would also learn where roses fit into unhindered nature - usually on forest edges, along with other plants. With this natural placement of the rose in mind, we could design a grouping of plants that mirrors these larger over-arching designs found in nature. Why do that?  Well, these are the designs that are most resilient, as proven over time; they synergize with each other in fascinating ways as well.

The beauty in permaculture is that it extends to everything.  Everything has a design, it's not just landscape design. The word permaculture itself relates to sustainable cultural and agricultural systems.  But everything is designed, whether we recognize that or not. Our morning routines, our kitchen cupboards, parking lots, our lives in general. Permaculture is about working like nature to give way to a deeper-than-ever understanding of our land, food, soil, and people webs. It's about designing our lives, gardens, and farms with purpose and the intent to allow all of these components to flow more creatively and sensibly, thus cutting down unnecessary work, building soils back up, restoring health to our food system and culture. "Permaculture is a process by which we adapt as human beings to the earth" (Unknown).  

LW: What is your favorite part about working with gardens?

CB: Plants are easy to understand, once you understand key basics. I enjoy providing them with the right conditions, watching them flourish, and seeing gardens spring to life. Planting a few bulbs, sowing some seeds - these are such simple actions that have profound effects on a landscape, and they return from year to year. Permaculture gardening is like working in Mother Nature’s kitchen on a fabulous meal together.  

I also relish designing gardens that captivate with year-round interest - fragrance, flowers, grasses, color blocking, fall foliage color, combined with food plants and herbs, animals, along with Andy Goldsworthy-inspired structural elements like woven willow fences, earth mounds, water features. Farming and gardening are beautiful art forms.

LW: Can you tell us more about Copia?

CB: We're a 40-acre farm in our beginning stages. A previous owner of our property was a landscape designer who specialized in trees. Left untended for decades, the trees, ponds, creek, sunsets, croaking frogs make it a very special, diverse refuge, excellent for walks and is complete with various plant “rooms.”  We have mature stands of oaks and apples, perfect for finishing pigs, a la spanish Iberian prosciutto. Currently, we're producing pasture-raised heritage pork, pasture-raised heritage eggs, an array of biointensively-grown, uncertified organic vegetables and culinary herbs, raspberries, apples, as well as log-grown shiitake mushrooms. We also are etching out our earthworks, production-scale food forests, and fragrant blooming fields. In the future, we hope to become a destination farm with an on-farm market.

LW: Much of your work has been done on the west coast – what brought you to Ohio?

CB: What Los Angelino doesn't want to move to Ohio? I'd say it had to do with deep soils, four seasons, my sweetheart, and farm dreams.

LW: Have you experienced any challenges or surprises since taking root in Ohio?

CB: Spring and bulb season was quite a nice surprise. A challenge we worked through was figuring out an efficient way to start thousands of seeds indoors in late winter, and sustaining them with necessary heat, light, water, and nutrients until the delayed last frost date in mid-May. Today we're reaping the benefits from having started our transplants so early. As of the solstice, June 21st, we are already harvesting the first tomatoes of the season. We've long been harvesting cucumbers, parsley, kale, chard, basil, and several others. Our breakfasts of green smoothies, eggs benedict, garnished with a quick stir-fry are absolutely tasty and nutritious, sustaining us working on the farm all day until dinner.   

LW: Do you have some words of advice you’d like to share with beginning gardeners?

CB: Grow the plants you enjoy most. What are your favorite flowers? What do you like to eat? I always like to combine aesthetics and edibles in my surroundings, placed into the landscape similar to nature's design. The bright pink, yellow, and orange hues of rainbow chard combined with rambling watermelon vines underneath a tropical-looking banana plant, along with pink peonies as an understory plant is an example of a mini food forest system with a beautiful impact and a bountiful harvest. One of the benefits of growing your plants in this forest-like, natural design is that the art of plant growing becomes much more forgiving. The shade offered by the banana plant and watermelon vine protects from summer heat extremes, and that means you can pay less attention to watering. Utilizing vertical space allows you to grow many plants in a small central location, thus maximizing efficiency and space. Plus, putting all of these plants in a small vertical space creates a big impact for a small cost. Instead of filling out your entire garden, and possibly getting overwhelmed, you can focus on strategic focal points, making it easier for the beginning gardener. 

LW: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

CB: At first glance, melding cooking classes with gardening classes could appear to be a bit of a stretch, but the two are quite intertwined, especially for the home chef. Building your edible gardening skills will directly benefit the dishes you produce at home.  

It's simple to calculate, for example, your family's potato needs for the year. Once you know that, you can actually plan for and grow all of your potatoes at home. As daunting or ambiguous a task as that might seem, growing your own food is actually very do-able. I once did a study for the Rodale Institute, the organization that brought organic farming to the US.  The study was to find out how much land it would take a family of four to grow all of their own food (complete with oils, dairy, protein, grain, fruit, and veg), based on the USDA food pyramid.  It turned out to be only about 1/3 acre.  With that perspective, you can see that growing even one of your cooking ingredients is very manageable.  Not only is it manageable, that ingredient you grow yourself will be the finest in your kitchen!  When you cultivate a garden and produce some of your own food, you also start to get woven into the seasons.  This will give way to even more fabulous seasonal flavors in the kitchen and on-going inspiration for cooking.  

I can help get you started on your plant growing path and/or hone it to a new level.  We will flesh out all of these concepts of design, plant care, soil health, and sustainable, small-scale food production more deeply in my classes.  I look forward to meeting you at The Seasoned Farmhouse!

Check out all of our cooking and gardening classes at theseasonedfarmhouse.com