|An Immature Forage Garden Hedgerow|
There’s a game we like to play on drives and road trips that involves
pointing and yelling “food!”
Which is one benefit of a foraging hobby, you start to see food wherever you go.
“Sure, you can eat that, but you don’t want to.”
My Grandpa used to know every plant you could ever run into in Michigan, and whether or not you could eat it. But most of the time, he believed that if it wasn’t available in the store, there was a reason. You could eat it. But either it would take too much work to eat it or you wouldn’t want to.
Like most people, we started foraging the stuff you could find at the store, berries, asparagus, and so on.
The first truly odd food we foraged was milkweed pods.
These do not look like food.
But boy do they taste great! Dredged in some flour with some cayenne pepper and salt, then fried in some garlic and butter… they’re a lot like jalapeno poppers: crispy on the outside, with a melty cheese-like filling.
We were instant converts.
As it turns out, there are a whole lot of amazing wild foods that aren’t in the grocery store. A lot of them reveal unique flavors and qualities if you find just the right way to make them shine. These aren’t foods for “surviving,” these are food for THRIVING.
And there are the two great reasons we planted our Forage Garden, a self-regulating collection of great wild plants from your area. First, yes, these are some great vegetables that we were missing out on.
But more importantly, I appreciate psychological security that comes with a Forage Garden: you begin to see an abundance of great food growing everywhere! A Forage Garden teaches you where to find these treasures, what they look like and when to look for them. When the Sweet Rocket is ready in your garden, you know it’s time to go foraging!
Best of all, for us, this is real Permaculuture. Our forage garden passively teaches us a skill we can take with us anywhere. When we planted our Forage Garden we started growing something that can’t be taken away by banks, oil spills, industrial disasters, or the Department of Making You Sad.
Forage Garden Tips
1. We put ours close to our house. Actually, it’s right along a frequent walk way. In a “Permaculture” system, this would be in “zone 1.” We wanted to live with these plants, see when they’re ready to harvest, learn to identify them in their “off season.” And we found we’re more likely to harvest them and take advantage of the increased nutritional diversity of many wild foods.
2. Garden in layers. Since we had enough room we included some small trees and bushes in our Forage Garden to provide a greater variety of habitats. Sun-loving plants like milkweed, ground cherries, and chicory can be grown on the south side of trees and shrubs, while woodland plants like wild garlic, solomons seal, claytonia, and ramps can be grown in the shade. This can fit a wide diversity of foods into a small space.
3. Hedgerows are nice. Something I love about British rural life are the foraging hedgerows that divide the countryside. In the US, unplanned hedgerows of useful species were planted by squirrels and other wildlife, under fences, and in ditches–places where the mowers wouldn’t reach. They’re often one of the most promising habitats for foraging in the wild. If you have enough room to plant a hedgerow, they can provide beauty, food, and wildlife habitat. They also create an ecology that tends to grow in fertility over the years, helping it take care of itself. In fact, we use some of that excess biomass as mulch or compost to increase the fertility of the rest of our garden.
Some “shrubs” common in Michigan hedgerows are elderberry; cherry species; hazel; viburnum species like chokeberry, nannyberry, and highbush cranberry; staghorn sumac; blueberry (if you have acidic soil); spicebush; and paw paw. I’ve often found these growing with some blackberries or black raspberries. Many trees can be kept cut or “coppiced” in a hedgerow, such as mulberry.
4. Some of my favorite fruits and vegetables to include: Milkweed, ground cherries, chicory, mustards, garlic mustard, cresses, peppergrass, shotgrass, chickweed, evening primrose, cleavers, strawberries, queen ann’s lace, pokeweed, lambsquarters, wild lettuce, thistles, groundnuts, burdock, jerusalem artichoke, solomon’s seal, claytonia species, ramps, wild garlic, wild onions, nettles, sorrels, asparagus, dame’s rocket… the list is really endless, but that would get you a good start.
5. You’ll notice, there are quite a few aggressive plants in that list. We placed our Forage Garden in a place where it can be contained by mowing. If you regularly interact with your Forage Garden by harvesting it, then you’ll be eating enough to keep it from becoming invasive. If you won’t have much time for a foraging hobby, then you might want to stick to the less aggressive species.
6. We included some nitrogen fixers for increased fertility. These include clovers, false indigo, goumi, or autumn olive (which makes a great “tomato sauce.) Ironically, this will also keep the more invasive species from getting out of control, since they are generally more competitive in less fertile soil.