Foraging in the wild is great fun, and from it, we are able to gather foods we might not otherwise have: special mushrooms, edible wildflowers or native fruits. The problem is that wild foraging can be somewhat unreliable; some days it’s a basket full of different delicious treats, and other days, it’s slim pickings. A foraging garden, however, is more likely to provide interesting stuff to eat anytime we visit it.
A foraging garden is something that we cultivate but leave largely to its own devices. It can be a place of full of life, both plant and animal, and a reliable source of food. It may not produce edibles as prolifically as a run-of-the-mill veggie garden, but that’s not the point. The point is to create a productive garden space that requires little more than harvesting, a space to enjoy for its bounty, beauty, and self-reliance.
Assessing the Spot
Foraging gardens can be grown in many different ways, but it’s important to understand the space we’ll be working with. We need to know if it gets full sun or if it’s primarily in the shade. We need to know what the water situation is, if it holds water or dries up frequently or if we might add a pond. If wild animals, such as deer, are common to the space, whether or not to include them is paramount. We’ll have to think of the possibilities of size — is this a few square feet or a large section of yard? Is wind an issue, and if so, how can we mediate it?
The more we know before we start, the better we can create.
Finding Existing Edibles
First of all, it’s important to become familiar with the plants that are already around the space. Are any of them edible? If so, perhaps they are worth fostering and adopting as ingredients in meals. Otherwise, some might be great for pollinators (borage), good for the soil (comfrey), medicinal (cleavers), or beautiful (trillium). If some forage is already present, then that’s less work cultivating the garden space.
Choosing Good Forage
Next, it’s important to make a list of plants that will work well for the area and potentially serve a purpose — food, medicine, cut flowers — for us. That begins by considering the regional climate. For example, we wouldn’t choose a thirsty plant for a dry environment, nor would we want a tropical plant in a spot with two months’ worth of summer.
Then, we need to consider the actual space. Plants might need to be shade- or drought-tolerant. In this garden, we are choosing plants that won’t need us, that naturally thrive in the conditions in which they are being put. We want to put them in place, leave them to grow, and visit occasionally for something to forage.
The other thing to think about is the plants’ ability to live and reproduce. Perennial plants will come back year after year to supply forage. Plants that readily self-sow will be sure to drop seed for next year’s buffet. We want these kinds of plants because that means we don’t need to work the garden but simply let it do its thing.
There’s always a list of choices. It’s important to know what’s available and to include a diverse collection in the final product.
Setting the Stage
The big difference between foraging from the wild and foraging from a garden is that, in the beginning, a cultivator has the chance to set the stage. We are including a bunch of plants that we’ve become familiar with and would like to forage. We are putting them in a space suited to them and convenient for us.
In this sense, we could start to skew the system a little. We could sheet mulch weeds and plants we don’t want in the forage garden. We can responsibly transplant in wild edibles that might take to our garden. We can condition the soil a little, sculpt the landscape, and even fence it off if need be, or start a living fence around it.
Then, we plant.
Letting It Go
The most difficult thing about cultivating a foraging garden is letting it go and letting the cards somewhat fall where they may. The plants that thrive should thrive. The plants that immediately take a dive might not be right. The idea is to interfere as little as possible, such that the garden grows itself. We can always cut things back for a big harvest if they are blocking out another plant, or we can clear out a small space to try something new. But, once we’ve made the space, it’s for foraging and no longer arduously taming.
Then, we get the best of foraging and the ease of convenience, amongst many other benefits. That’s why foraging gardens are so wondrous.
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