Courtesy Leslie Seaton/Flickr
Urban farmers tend to focus on the produce that we grow in our gardens and community plots, but abundant, seasonal food is growing all around us in parks, abandoned lots, neighborhoods and side streets. We just have to find it. Foraging, or gleaning, is as old as mankind, and although it seems strange to set off in search of food in an urban neighborhood, the urban environment is one of the best places to forage.
“I find urban areas less scary than suburban areas,” says Leda Meredith, author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The busy person’s guide to eating local on a budget (Lyons Press, 2010), which includes a section on urban foraging. “Fewer chemicals are sprayed in urban areas than in suburban areas, where people are striving for weed-free lawns. Urban spaces are often full of invasive plants; 80 percent of edibles are invasive, such as dandelions, lamb’s-quarter or burdock.”
Meredith leads urban foraging tours for the New York Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She is also an experienced gleaner, augmenting her own diet with seasonal produce found within her favorite urban haunts.
But foraging doesn’t just have to be for your own personal plate. Justin Leszcz, an urban farmer from Yellow Tree Farm in St. Louis, turned his past experience as a chef into a way to monetize his urban foraging. From his suburban neighborhood and surrounding parks, he collects seasonal produce, such as spruce tips, bamboo shoots, mulberry leaves and berries, pawpaws, clover, wood sorrel, dandelions, curly sorrel, bull thistle, cattails, chickweed, ginkgo nuts, and acorns. He’s also entered into a partnership with a local brewery to produce a four-beer series based on his urban foraging: flowers, herbs, roots and wood.
“Being a chef, I know how easy it is to get stale, so it’s great to introduce new things to my chefs and see what they do with them,” Leszcz says. “They always try to find ways to use the new flavors.”
1. Note Where and When “Weeds” Grow
If you’re unsure of where to begin your foraging endeavors, turn to your backyard first. Weeding can be considered foraging, so start with your garden. Ask a neighbor or community gardener if you can have a look on their plot for produce, as well.
Leszcz says the more you forage, the more you’ll recognize favorable sites.
“I’ve learned where things are growing in my area,” he says. “In my suburban neighborhood, there are tons of fruit trees, which are planted in front of houses. I harvest a pear tree at a graveyard every year; I asked the caretaker if I could have them, and he said I would be doing him a favor because the fruit makes a mess. My parent’s neighborhood has plum trees, and I’ll ask the neighbors for the plums. The fruit under it is also valuable because overly ripened fruit makes really good wine.”
Keep an eye on the seasons. If it’s June, scan the area for mulberries. The following year, take a swing by that patch a few weeks before it ripens to see how the fruit is developing.
2. Forage From Chemical-Free Spots
One of the hazards of urban foraging is not knowing whether a site has been sprayed. Be leery of fruit or plants growing near busy roads, which could be tainted by exhaust from traffic and rubber from tires. Leszcz says his city is also filled with vacant lots covering demolished houses. “Fruit trees are often planted over these landfills, but there is lead in the soil, and the fruit is unhealthy,” he says.
Knowing the history of a weed site is important to protecting your health.
“Where I live in Brooklyn, they don’t spray parks with pesticides,” Meredith says. “But, you have to know where they do spray. For example, there are wonderful wild edibles growing by train tracks, but that area tends to get sprayed.”
3. Follow the Rules
In general, fruit that overhangs public sidewalks is usually fair game, but laws regarding foraging vary at the federal, state and city levels, and certain parks might have their own rules regarding foraging, as well. Information on public gleaning is often available on city or park websites or by phoning officials where you live.
Meredith says there’s sometimes a gray area: There might not be a law against foraging, but there is most likely one against damaging park property.
“That’s up to the individual park ranger’s discretion,” she says. “If you’re digging up things, that’s damaging; removing a weed is helpful. In state parks, it can be flat-out illegal to forage, and in others, you may be allowed two quarts of blueberries a day, for example. This is all to protect plants for everyone to enjoy, but conscientious foragers can actually work with parks to remove invasive species, which has a positive impact on the environment.”
Always forage responsibly. If you see only a few fiddlehead ferns, leave them. Never remove or dig up the roots of threatened species. However, take all the dandelions you want!
4. I.D. Plants Carefully
Meredith and Leszcz both agree that it’s important to never eat anything you’re not completely sure is safe. Ignore all folk tales about watching animals eat from a plant; many animals can eat things humans can’t. Tasting a small piece of something to check if it’s edible is also to be avoided. Even the tiniest nibble on a poisonous mushroom can be deadly. Many edible plants can also resemble inedible plants, so make sure to identify all parts of the plant—even the underside of the leaves—before gathering.
Know what part of the plant is OK to eat. Some plants have inedible parts, such as burdock, where the root is edible but the leaves are not. Even some mushrooms that can be eaten come with a warning, such as the common Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus) (inky cap fungi), which can be eaten if no alcohol is consumed for a day or two, as it deactivates an enzyme in your body that detoxifies alcohol.
5. Forage with Friends
You can learn about urban foraging on field walks, such as Meredith’s in Brooklyn, or “Wildman” Steve Brill’s throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey.
Get involved with a gleaning association such as Not Far From the Tree in Toronto, Neighborhood Fruit in San Francisco, and Concrete Jungle in Atlanta. These associations register trees and organize gleanings. They usually give equal parts to the tree owner, volunteers and those in need.
Foraging is not only great for your grocery bill, but it puts you in touch with your environment. “You start becoming aware of what’s in season and where the plants are,” Meredith says. “[That’s] something many city people have lost touch with.”
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About the Author: Sharon Biggs Waller is a hobby farmer and writer based in northwest Indiana. Her debut novel is A Mad, Wicked Folly (Viking Press, 2014).