Finding free food in your own backyard

A Beginner's Guide to Foraging

by Debra Karplus

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You may be old enough to remember Euell Gibbons, author of the popular book Stalking The Wild Asparagus. He wrote several other books after that about the subject of foraging, as did Henry David Thoreau in the mid-1800s. But foraging has been a popular practice since the beginning of time, long before supermarkets and the corner grocery store, and well before your immigrant grandfather came over from Europe on the boat and had a little neighborhood produce cart selling fresh farm produce to support his family. Foraging is the acquisition of food from hunting and fishing but also from the gathering of the plant. People like Gibbons advocated utilizing nutritious, but neglected, plants found in the wild, as part of the American diet.

If you'd like to give foraging a try, this beginners guide to foraging can help get you started finding free food in your own backyard.

What kinds of foods can be foraged?

Plants that you commonly think of as weeds, wild berries, flowers such as Echinacea, and certain kinds of mushrooms are some of the foods that people can find to eat. Those dandelions that invade your lawn each spring and become victims of herbicides or weeding can be enjoyed as fresh and nutritious dark leafy greens in a salad or steamed alone or with other cooked vegetables. Chamomile plants lurking on the edge of your driveway can be picked, dried, and steeped in boiling water for a relaxing evening tea. That mulberry tree or blackberry bush in your local park that the birds picnic on can be shared with you and your family.

Where and when can you forage for free food?

You certainly do not need to live in the wilderness to forage. Perhaps you live in the heart of Chicago where concrete seems to be the main "crop." You'd be surprised where free edibles can be found. Virtually any place where things grow, foraging can be done. But be sure to stay away from heavily polluted areas, such as some bodies of water, soggy urban spots after an unusually heavy rain, and areas near heavy traffic where oil and other fluids emitted from vehicles may be.

And whatever the season, foraging can be a fun and practical hobby or family activity. You typically think of autumn as the time when food is picked and eaten, but foraging is a year-round event in many parts of the country, regardless of the season. You just have to know what to look for!

How do you get started in foraging?

Like many things that you already do that save money, you cruise into the activity incrementally. Start by learning how to identify foods that are edible that can be found growing wild. You may want to invest in a small field guide about edible weeds or about mushrooms. For less than $15, you can find a variety of handbooks that you can keep in your purse, backpack, or auto glove box for easy reference if you find a possibly edible food as you go about your day. If you really get into forging, the book will more than pay for itself in a short amount of time.

In addition to knowing what is safe to touch and eat, you must learn to recognize poisonous plants. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are the obvious ones, but there are other plants to stay clear of. Mushrooming has become an enjoyable avocation for many. Most mushrooms are dangerous to eat, and many are poisonous. Learn to precisely identify those few breeds that are edible and discover where the best place to find them is in your area.

Besides having a guidebook on hand, you should always have protective gloves with you on the occasion that you find something possibly edible. Also, you should appropriate close-toed hard shoes. Always wash thoroughly anything you find while foraging and never ever put anything in your hand or in your mouth unless you know with 100% certainty that it is safe to handle and safe to ingest. 99% is not good enough; it could land you in the hospital or worse!

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Remember to share nature's bounty with others.

Any of the many websites devoted to the subject of foraging will encourage you to only take the amount of food that you and your family can comfortably enjoy and to not be gluttonous about taking too much simply because it is free. Once you get hooked on foraging, you will be part of a large number of people who have learned to take advantage of what nature has to offer, so always be respectful.

editor's note: comment from Anne P. "Foraging is a lovely thought, but it is illegal in public areas in my city because it would deplete the plant diversity. So check the ordinances in where you live and forage where no harm will be done!"

Debra is an occupational therapist, accountant, teacher and freelance writer. She is a writer for Advance for Occupational Therapy Practitioners. She also writes for Grand Magazine, has some items (fiction and non fiction) selling on (kindle), has written several travel articles for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and several articles for and volunteers as a money mentor for the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension money mentoring program. Learn more about her at

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