Thursday, February 23, 2012

Preparing for the Spring Foraging Season

I live in The Netherlands, as long time readers know, and our weather has been rather harsh this winter. But from what I have been reading most of the US has had a record breaking mild winter. What does this mean to those of you interested in foraging? Well, I think spring greens will appear earlier than usual this year. I would love to have the chance to walk through my thirty acres in Pennsylvania and see what nature has in store for us.

But even if gardening and foraging are still a few months away this is the time to start preparing for Spring. What should you be doing?

Now is the time to start reading about foraging. The cheapest way is to sign up for a library card and sign out some books from the library. If you want to buy the books to have as a long term reference library at home go to and do a search on this term: "wild foods field guide and cookbook" and you'll get a long list of books on the subject. When I was a kid I used to read the Boy Scout Field Guide every spring to brush up on field craft and useful wild plants before the warmer weather. I spent a lot of time in the woods in the winter but that was hunting and trapping season for me. Occasionally I would also do some fishing. When I went out on overnight trips in the woods I carried some canned food in case I wasn't able to get any game meat to eat.

Now is also the time to put together your foraging equipment and tools. Many Spring wild foods are roots, tubers, and early shoots of plants. So you'll need digging tools (I find a small trowel or dandelion weeder to work well), a sturdy knife and/or nippers to cut young shoots, and containers to carry the foraged items.

I don't eat mushrooms, I never liked the taste or texture, but mushroom hunting season also begins in the spring. If you want to learn to hunt for mushrooms I strongly suggest that you find a club or organization that teaches wild mushroom identification. As an example, in Pennsylvania there is the "Central Pennsylvania Wild Mushroom Club" or go to this site, "North American Mycological Association" to find an affiliated club near you. Making a mistake with wild mushrooms is not just a matter of eating something that tastes bad. Many wild mushrooms will kill you in a very unpleasant manner. So do yourself a favor and find an expert to teach you. Some Community Colleges also offer field training as non-credit courses.

Now is also  good time to start walking in the areas you will use for foraging and note what might be in the area. There should still be dead plants from last year that you can use to identify where plants of interest will grow this year. If you have access to private property, yours or a relative's/friend's, you can clean those areas with a lawnmower or sickle so the new growth isn't buried and struggling through heavy debris. Of course one of the best ways to regenerate an area is to burn off the dead overgrowth from last year but that takes some skill and precautions so you don't create a brush fire. 

Get yourself a small notebook and start a journal and resource map, as I suggested last year. Start 2012 off right and do the things you intended to do last year but didn't get around to doing until it was too late.What should go in your notebook?

1. Wild Plants you are interested in gathering. Make a list in the front of your notebook of the plants you want. You'll figure this out from your reading and research (what you might be interested in eating basically). Then cross-reference them to the pages in your notebook that pertain to them.

2. Date/season these plants appear in your area. This comes from research and your observations over time. From books and Online resources you should figure out the season these plants become available (in general) and then fine tune that data to your specific area's climate. There will be micro-climates in your area where wild food plants will be available earlier and later than in other places. This helps extend your foraging season so make note of those places.

3. Location of plants of interest. Through reading and research you'll determine the types of terrain/areas that this plant typically grows. That gives you a starting point of where to look. Then fine tune your notes with your observations; where in your locale does this plant grow. Generally, wild plants will continue to grow in the same locations unless the environment is changed (forest fire, construction, grazing, water diversion, etc.). Rough maps or place names to plants you want make the search much quicker each succeeding year.

4. Part of plant desired. In many cases multiple parts of a plant are edible but in different seasons. For example, the spring shoots might be edible in late winter/early spring but then you can eat another part of the plant (flowers, berries/fruit, leaves) in another season. So you need to track when those different seasons occur.

5. People you can trade with. Many older people grew up eating wild plants, in my area of Pennsylvania that included spring dandelion greens. You might know someone with land that will trade some of your foraged items for permission to forage on their land. They might be too busy of physically unable to collect the plants themselves. I used to trade removing nuisance groundhogs and barn pigeons for permission to hunt on a couple of local farms when I was a youngster. Or perhaps you have access to plants/mushrooms that you don't eat but can trade them with someone for something you want; the barter system. See if there is a wine making club in your area; you can probably trade ingredients for finished wine.

6. Lastly, field notes on wild game animals. While you are meandering through woodlots and fields you will be able to observe wild game animals at a time when they are not under so much stress. This is how I learned the habits (trails, feeding areas, bed-down spots, watering holes, etc.) for the game animals I would hunt later in the year. 

Don't let the foraging season get ahead of you this year. Start to do your research and preparations now and you will have a much more successful foraging season to put cheap food on the table.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Serious Food Caching

A Well-Stocked Basement Pantry
While this blog is not directed toward the "survivalist" audience, many of the techniques that group has developed would be good for us to know and use. Today I want to explore long-term food and supply caching. By long-term I am talking about years instead of weeks.  Why would we want to store food and supplies for years? Because sometimes we can buy or acquire food and supplies at really good prices and these fairly simple techniques will allow us to store those supplies for an uncertain future.

The colder months of winter are the optimal time to prepare and store foodstuff for long term. This is because the air is generally less humid, especially if you are heating your house with forced air. You also generally have fewer tasks around the house to take care of since the yard is pretty much dormant for the winter. Hopefully you saved all the little packs of silica that came in many of your Christmas present packages. If not, just go by a hobby/craft store and buy some bulk silica desiccant crystals. Crafters use it for drying leaves and flowers for displays and arrangements.

The first thing you have to consider is what can I store?  What foods and supplies do well in storage and have some worth? Well, in general, any foods that you normally buy in a dehydrated state work well. This would include such things as rice, dry beans and peas, noodles, flour, cooking spices, salt and pepper, and powdered milk. To this list of possible food items I would add a selection of seeds so you can grow your own food if things are really bad. While it might be possible to store flour, it is the most sensitive food item to moisture so it would really be better to store the grain and then grind your own flour. Grain will store better and for longer.

Once you know what you want to store you need storage containers that will protect the items from the five factors I mention above. This basically means a container made from glass or plastic. There are some home-canning systems available that use metal storage cans but they are fairly rare. For large amounts of a product you can use five gallon buckets with screw on or snap on lids. I once picked up a big supply of buckets from a local McDonalds. Other fast food restaurants probably also use these buckets for bulk ketchup, sauces, and mixes. Just ask the manager.  No matter what you use make sure it is safe for food storage.If you need to buy them do a search in using the term "Food Storage Bucket" and you'll see some offers.

Oxygen and moisture need to be removed first. If you buy pasta, beans, rice, and peas at a grocery store, you should leave them in the original plastic bags they came in. They are probably already purged of moisture and oxygen. If you buy these items from an open barrel at a bulk store, then you will need to re-dry them in the oven, at very low temperature, and then add an oxygen absorbing pack when you seal the container. You can buy these through 
Where to store the containers. Store your sealed containers of food in a cool, dark, and dry location. The cooler the better. Food degrades slower when it is maintained at a cool temperature. Every 10.08f degrees below the standard 70f degrees almost doubles the storage life. A dark corner of an unfinished basement will stay between 55-65 degrees. If you are going to store your food outside of your house, you want to dig down five to six feet in a shaded area, preferably on the northern side of a hill. If the lid or roof of your storage cache is insulated it will maintain a temperature of 55f degrees. At 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit, most of your food items will store for eight to sixteen years. Brown rice does not store as well as white rice. Brown rice is more nutritious but the oils in the hull will turn rancid in 6-8 months of even ideal storage. Sugar and honey will last forever if stored properly.  Seeds you intend to use to grow food should be stored in regular air without being purged with nitrogen or CO2. I would also avoid the O2 absorber packs. Just rotate your seeds every 3-5 years and you will maintain viable seeds.

Canned foods will last a long time and if you rotate your stock (first in, first out) you can maintain several weeks worth of food in a fairly small space. When I was a kid we had a pantry room in the basement that was maybe 8x8 feet with four or five shelves that went all the way around. Our basement was semi-finished with concrete walls and floor. So it stayed a pleasantly cool 60f degrees even in the summer and was cooler in the winter. We did a lot of canning, mostly fruit, jams & jellies, and tomato sauce. In addition we stored some canned and dry items in this room as room opened up on the shelves. In late fall the shelves were full of canned stuff from our garden and fruit foraging. I never saw the pantry empty and there were seven people in my family. This amount of space can hold a tremendous amount of food.

Anyone older than forty knows that the weather patterns in the US have changed drastically since they were a kid. I'm 51 and I hardly recognize the changes in the seasons. It is getting more and more likely that there will be a natural disaster and some people will say a national crisis is coming. Being able to feed your family for several weeks or months from your own stores might be critical. Being able to supplement purchased or provided food in a crisis will make life more endurable. In either case, you need to have a secure, durable food store of your own to ensure your well-being. This pantry can also be used to store cheap foods that you have been able to forage or purchase. Buy them cheap, store them in ideal conditions, and use them as you need to.