As the year continues into Autumn with shorter days and crisp mornings, we foragers are busier than ever! on my travels in the last week or so I've been gathering nuts and berries and the odd mushroom, although -I hardly dare write this after such a wash-out Summer- a little overnight rain would do wonders for fungi opportunities! It's a tough trick to manage the abundance of an Autumn harvest and still have the time and energy to process it, which reminds me of the golden rule of sustainable foraging is to never pick more than you can use. Fortunately elderberries, blackberries, and sloes all freeze beautifully, either au naturel or cooked and pulped.
In the garden where I grew up there was a big hazel bush that was always covered in nuts. Each summer we waited for them to swell and the shells to turn golden brown, eagerly anticipating a nutty feast. But every August, from the kitchen window, we watched the hazel branches being jiggled and shaken by a troupe of grey squirrels, well before the first nuts had ripened. Despite racing down the garden to chase away those pesky rodents, all we could find were the still green empty husks and broken bits of shell all over the grass. So it was with enormous pleasure that last week, spying a few nuts on the topmost branches of the hazel in my garden, I took a lesson from the squirrel's guide to harvesting and shook the branches.... my reward was a shower of almost ripe nuts...If you can do the same, simply remove the papery casings crack them carefully with your teeth and eat them straight from the shell. The sweet, mealy flavour of a ripening hazel is quite addictive, having something of the taste of a peeled broccoli stem - and if you haven't tried eating one of those, then I promise you're missing out!
Other nut news: beech trees in this part of the UK seem to be promising a good harvest. Wait until they start to fall within the next fortnight or so, then gather the whole unblemished mast (the correct term for nuts fallen and gathered from the ground). In the past I've peeled them by hand which is fiddly and time consuming; this year I'm going to try roasting them in the shell for around 10 minutes at 170C. I suspect that the shells will split and make the job of separating the nut meat much easier.
Now is also the time to start your own wild harvest garden with a spot of seed gathering. Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) and Burdock (Arctium lappa) seeds are all plentiful and scattered on a patch of bare ground, will provide you with your own back yard wild harvest next year. You might also be lucky to find some late ripening field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) seed heads. These plants, as well as being good to eat, will also help to attract beneficial insects into your garden.
A Forager's guide to seed harvesting
- Shake ripened seed heads into a paper bag, remove any insects and label the bag with the plant name. Store seeds in a cool dry place, or sow them immediately.
- Don't waste your time collecting under-ripe seed, it won't grow.
- Be wary of harvesting burdock seeds with bare hands, as the burrs contain numerous fine hairs which will work their way into your skin. Tip the harvested burdock seeds onto a sheet of paper and shake, then very gently blow away the fluff. You can also rinse them through a fine mesh sieve with plenty of running water.
- Scatter burdock seeds in a sunny location with good moisture- retentive soil for strong plants.
- Fat hen prefers a rich and fertile soil, ideally with manure added, in full sun or part shade.