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.

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