This past April, when most gardens still looked like dirt, we were already enjoying green salads picked from our yard. The salads were made from the young leaves of a basswood tree, grape vine, a few dandelion leaves, plantain (a common weed) and a few early sprigs of lettuce from a raised bed in my front yard. With a little salad dressing on top, it was a tasty celebration of early spring.
Picking it took only a few moments, far less than a drive to the supermarket. And at no cost at all. All the wild greens came from the boulevard in front of my house or from weeds growing voluntarily in my back yard. I had long ago bought the grape vine, but the raccoons and I have been enjoying the grapes for so many years that I consider the leaves a mere bonus.
Foraging means eating from plants that grow wild, not planted in anybody’s garden. For those who forage, there actually is something very close to a free lunch. It is possible to meet a good part of your food needs by gathering things that grow around your yard and your neighborhood. Even in the city.
All our lives, we have been told that the whole world would starve if we didn’t have industrial agriculture, if we didn’t spray herbicides and pesticides on our crops, if we didn’t till and harvest with huge machines and haul our food around the globe. I believe the opposite is true. If we kill the soil with poisons, we destroy the source of our survival. If we depend on fossil fuels for our sustenance and they become unavailable or merely too expensive, we may starve.
Some time ago, I attended a food conference at the Cargill Building at the University of Minnesota, listening to presenters from university ag departments and private agribusinesses. I remember being shocked by the answer to a question I asked an agribusiness researcher: “What is the future of agriculture in this area in 100 years?” First, he got this “deer in the headlights” look, but then he finally answered very quietly, “There isn’t one.” The more efficient our farming practices, the more quickly we deplete the soil, drain our aquifers, and turn our breadbasket into a wasteland. It happened in the “fertile crescent,” the birthplace of western civilization that has become a desert. And in the Dust Bowl in the 1930s in the U.S. It’s happened in any number of over-planted, over-grazed places in our human past.
Can we completely feed ourselves, merely by learning to eat a greater variety of things? Well, perhaps not. The grains we consume need more land than we have in the city; for those grains, we will still need to rely on the larger fields that farmers have available. People could replant some of those huge useless lawns that surround the suburban McMansions. But by increased gardening and foraging, we probably can produce nearly all the fruits and vegetables we need, right in our own urban setting, especially if we also build a few greenhouses and root cellars and if we learn how to can our food. We may not get to 100%, but we can get fairly close.
How could you learn about wild foods, you wonder. Sometimes there are classes at local nature centers and Three Rivers parks; if I find out about them, I will include them in the calendar. There are also some wonderful books out there. My early favorite is called “Plantworks” by Karen Shanberg (head naturalist at the Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield). I also really love “Forager’s Harvest” and “Nature’s Garden” by Sam Thayer, or a tremendous book about wild greens called “Edible Wild Plants” by John Kallas. If you really want to start out fast, consider attending the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival in Prairie du Chien, Wis., Aug. 24 to 26. Sam Thayer and a number of international experts will be presenting for a mere $100, including lodging and all the weeds you can eat. You can register or get more information by writing to MWHF, N8759, Breakneck, WI 54817, or on the web at www.wildharvest-festival.org/.
Foraging has rules: Don’t harvest too heavily from one place or you will destroy the future harvest. Don’t harvest rare plants or plants rare to your area. Don’t harvest from sprayed or polluted areas. Eat small amounts of any new food, including wild foods, just in case you have allergies. And never, never eat any wild food unless you have identified it 110%, preferably with a true expert who just ate it in front of you.
Meanwhile, the harvest from our gardens has begun. There are some canning and preserving classes on the calendar this month, mostly free. Check it out, and happy grazing!
Through Oct. 7, 10 a.m. on. Free. “The incredible edible garden,” McNeely Conservatory at the Como Zoo, 1225 Estabrook Dr., St Paul. 651-487-8201. www.comozooconservatory.org
Aug. 11, 10 to 11 a.m. Free. “Drying herbs and vegetables, part 2,” Bachman’s Heritage Room, 6010 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls. 612-861-7600. www.bachmans.com/Seminars-and-Events/store-locator.html?-cnb=SeminarsAndEvents
Aug. 11, 1 p.m.. Free. “Successful canning and freezing,” Gertens, 5500 Blaine Ave., Inver Grove Heights. 651-450-1501. www.gertens.com/events/
Aug. 13, repeated Aug. 15, 3 to 5 p.m. Free but RSVP. “Herbs and flowers,” 2309 28th Ave. S., Mpls. email@example.com
Aug. 15, 7 p.m. $21. “Food preparation and preservation,” Marianna Padilla, 4416 Pleasant Ave. S., Mpls. 612-824-9467. www.casamarian-na.com/Gardening_Class.html
Aug. 18, 11 a.m. Free. “Freeze the freshness of your garden,” Gertens, 5500 Blaine Ave., Inver Grove Heights. 651-450-1501. www.gert-ens.com/events/
Aug. 18, 1 p.m. Free. “Capturing garden favorites with canning,” Gertens, 5500 Blaine Ave., Inver Grove Heights. 651-450-1501. www.gertens.com/events/
Aug. 20, repeated Aug. 22, 3 to 5 p.m. Free but RSVP. “Cooking class,” 2309 28th Ave. S., Mpls. firstname.lastname@example.org
Aug. 21 and 28, 6 to 8 p.m. $40. “Preserving fresh produce to enjoy year-round,” Windom South Community Center, 5843 Wentworth Ave. S., Mpls. 612-370-4980. www.minneapolisparks.org/
Aug. 26, 1 to 3 p.m. $25. “Canning: pickles,” EggPlant Urban Farm Supply, 1771 Selby, St Paul. 651-645-0818. www.eggplantsupply.com/
Aug. 27, repeated August 29, 3 to 5 p.m. “Preserving and canning food, “2309 28th Ave. S., Mpls. email@example.com
Sept. 1, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Free. “Dry, freeze and store – veggies and fruit for winter use,” Minneapolis Farmers Market, 312 E. Lyndale Ave., Mpls. www.mplsfarmers-market.com/
Sept. 1, 2 to 3:30 p.m. Free. “Fall yard and garden care,” North Regional Library, 1315 Lowry Ave., Minneapolis, 612-543-8450 or www.hclib.org/pub/events
Sept. 6, 6 to 7:30 p.m. Free. “Fall yard and garden care,” Northeast Library, 2200 Central Ave. N.E., Mpls. 612-543-06775. www.hclib.org/pub/-events
Sept. 8, 1 to 2:30 p.m. Free. “Pruning trees and shrubs,” St. Louis Park Library, 3240 Library Lane, St. Louis Park. 612-543-6125. www.hclib.org/pub/events
Sept. 15, 3 to 4:30 p.m. Free. “Edible landscapes,” Southeast Library, 1222 4th St. S.E., Mpls. 612-543-6725. www.hclib.org/pub/events