As we enter the Spring season on the Central Coast, blossoms are populating our fruit trees and seedlings are sprouting in the garden, but these are not the only places on the farm where the promise of a diverse and healthy harvest can be found. A cornucopia of wild greens, fruits, and mushrooms are emerging after a cold, wet winter; and we have been enjoying the addition of these healthy treats into our daily meals. From salads made with fresh, juicy greens like Lamb’s Quarters and Miner’s Lettuce to hearty soups made with Chanterelles, everyone here on the farm has caught the foraging bug. Here we share some tips and beginner guidelines for responsible foraging around your own home!
Forage only from abundant, clean sources
When collecting plants or other food from the wild, make sure that you harvest from sources that are widely available. If the plant you are looking for is fairly common and you find an area where it grows in large quantities, by all means help yourself. If, on the other hand, there are only a handful of this type of plant growing around your area, it is best to look for this treat elsewhere to ensure that you don’t accidentally eliminate the plant from your area by over-harvesting.
It is also absolutely necessary to harvest from clean environments only. Plants draw their nutrients from the soil, and if the soil they grow in is full of toxins or pollutants, such as on the side of a busy road, then the plant may have absorbed some of those bad chemicals. To make sure that your wild diet is healthy, not harming, collect your plants from pristine and familiar environments.
Leave your source alive and healthy
The best way to make sure that your favorite wild treats are there for you and future generations in years to come is to leave your source in good health. This means not only harvesting from abundant sources but also helping the plant continue to thrive where you found it. One way you can do this as you forage is to take only what you need from the plant. For example, do not pull a plant up by the roots if all you need are the new leaves, seed pods, or fruit. Leave the plant as whole as possible.
Another great way to be a good steward with your favorite foraging spots is to be a propagator, like the birds and animals of the forest who spread seeds and pollen so that plants continue to grow year after year. For example, if the plant you are harvesting has seeds try collecting some and scattering them around the area you harvested from. This way, not only will the plants you’ve discovered be there next year but you will have also helped create new ones. This is a great way to create even more abundant sources of wild food for yourself and others in the future.
Go at the right time
Early morning is a great time to go foraging for most plants, as many tend to wilt on warm afternoons. Foraging early also gives you time to clean and prepare what you’ve harvested at home on the same day so that everything is fresh and delicious! Dry weather is also ideal for harvesting most plants. If the weather is too wet, there is always the risk that the extra moisture will make your harvest start to rot before you get home—not to mention the mud!
Besides considering the weather and time of day, the time of year also matters a great deal. To get harvests of the highest quality, it is always best to know the growing cycle of the plant you are looking for so that you’ll know what part of the plant all of it’s energy is being used for. For example, in Fall and Winter most plants concentrate their energy into their root system to make it through the dark season until Spring. Likewise, you wouldn’t be able to harvest wild blackberries in Spring because the plant won’t bear fruit until late Summer. When figuring out what you can expect to get the best of from a plant for any time of year, remember this general rule:
In SPRING, the new SHOOTS; In SUMMER, the FRUITS; In FALL, the ROOTS!
Have the right tools
Whenever we take a foraging trip on the farm, we always go prepared. This means plenty of bags or buckets to carry all of our wild goodies home in, as well as keeping them separate and organized. Small garden spades, clippers, or other tools can make harvesting easier and cleaner. Tools help us harvest with more precision and allow us to take only what we need, like any good forager is mindful to do.
Gloves and long clothing are also a good idea, as foraging in the wild around the farm means sometimes swimming through a patch of poison oak or stinging nettle to get to a sweet spot on the other side. Keeping our skin covered helps ensure that our experience collecting from the woods and fields stays a positive and healthy one!
Keep it legal
If you are lucky enough to have something wild growing on your own property, then it is a lot easier to make sure that your foraging is legal. When venturing off of your own property, legal foraging can be more confusing. Here are some general rules for taking a foraging trip on to public lands, like neighborhoods, forests, and parks.
When foraging in urban areas, keep to the sidewalk. Fruits or other plants that hang over or grow on public sidewalks may be collected legally but stay off of lawns, driveways, fences, or other private property. For free maps of public urban foraging spots in your area, check out FallenFruit.org.
If your foraging trip takes you into more wild settings, remember that just because you are on public land doesn’t mean that it is legal to forage. Most state parks and forests prohibit any foraging whatsoever. National forests, on the other hand, usually allow foraging up to 1 lb. of plant matter by an individual. These guidelines may vary from location to location, so be sure to check PublicLands.org for any bans or foraging suspensions, as well as for locations that are more lenient about foraging amounts per person.
Prepare to process before you forage
The greatest sin of a forager is to over-harvest but perhaps the second greatest sin is to waste a harvest from neglect. Many a forager has spent a day collecting prizes in the wild only to return home tired and unprepared to clean, use, or preserve what they have harvested. Greens, fruits, and other plants then rot and waste in their collection bags due to neglect.
When planning your foraging trip, remember to factor in the time and energy required by your harvest AFTER you leave the woods. Have everything you need to clean and process your plants ready at home before you leave so that you can get the most from your harvest.
Share and enjoy!
The only thing more fun than foraging is sharing your wild treats with friends and family. When you share your harvest, be sure to let the gift receiver know that you foraged their goodies with care and invite them to join you on your next trip to the wild banquet!