There are lots of foraging books out there, but which one’s the best? Here’s my review some of the major titles.
(Review added June 17 2013)
Just the title sold me on this book because back garden foraging is my speciality. With two small kids, there isn't much of a chance for excursions to remote places, whereas my back garden is a couple of steps away, and packed full of plants I can eat, as this book shows. I consider myself to be a reasonably experienced forager, now, but there were some genuine surprises in this well-illustrated and informative book. Oregon grapes, yes; nasturtiums, naturally, but firethorn? Really? And spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), too. I am still delving into it to see what other edible delights might be on offer in my garden. There's a useful code at the top showing what seasons each plant can be eaten, and the text is well-written. This is an American book so British readers may have to skip the section on prickly pears.
(Review added June 17 2013)
This isn't so much a guide to foraging as a cookbook for foraged ingredients. Like The Forager Handbook (see below for a review), it's inspiring, but somehow the recipes seem more realistic: something you could recreate in your own kitchen rather than a recipe you'd see on the final of Masterchef. I, for one, can't wait to try salted caramel wild hazelnut shortbread, and crabapple and wild honeysuckle jelly. This book is no doubt more accessible to the foraging newbie, because it shows you in full technicolour the culinary possibilities foraged ingredients can provide. I'd love to go foraging with Fiona Bird, she clearly knows her stuff.
(Review added on July 19 2012)
When this book landed on my desk, it took me just a few seconds of flicking through to discover it was my new favourite foraging tome. It ticks all the boxes for me: excellent photos for easy identification, detailed information about the possible risks of different foraged plants (which are often alluded to in other books, but rarely covered in enough detail), and a good selection of recipes and ideas for using your bounty. There's also a useful section on growing some of these plants in your own garden, if you aren't up for picking plants elsewhere. It's small enough to carry around in your rucksack for on-the-go identification of plants, but detailed enough to serve as your main reference guide.
This is the classic forager’s guide, first published more than 30 years ago and still going strong. Small enough to fit in your pocket, sturdy enough to survive a few dips into muddy puddles, it features hand drawings that are detailed enough to help you make a positive identification of most plants you’ll come across. Mabey’s also honest about how good things taste, and balances practical details with lots of historical information too. If you’re serious about foraging, this is a must-have, and at £4.99 it won’t cost you a fortune.
This is not a field guide in the vein of Food For Free, but a book you can study at home before heading out on a walk, for inspiration and guidance, then open it again once you’re home to confirm your foraging finds . That said, there’s loads of useful information on identifying plants, including very clear guides to leaf shape and positioning. The strength of this book is that it focuses on things that you’ll find in urban and suburban settings, rather than the wild places of Britain. This makes sense - after all, most of us will want to forage regularly in our home environs. Alys also provides food for thought for would-be foragers in the form of sections where she meets various people and projects with a foraging theme, such as Incredible Edible Todmorden.
*Disclosure: Alys is the Guardian’s gardening columnist and as gardening editor, I edit her copy.
I met Miles Irving at the Hampton Court Flower Show this year and tasted his delicious meadowsweet cordial and yarrow flower shortbread. His book has been out for a couple of years now but I hadn’t come across it before. It’s a weighty hardback tome, most definitely a reference book rather than a field guide. This book is exhaustive, with hundreds of plants listed, and impressive detail about where each plant has – and hasn’t – been found in the UK.
It’s one for the gourmet cook, including recipes featuring foraged ingredients from top chefs. That’s because Miles forages for a living, supplying top restaurants with everything from fat hen to shepherd’s purse. I loved some of the detail here, such as the fact that he supplies the famous London restaurant The Ivy with the tiny flowers of the ivy-leaved toadflax to garnish a signature dish (I tasted one of these the other day – absolutely flavourless to my unrefined tastebuds).
But what lets this book down are the pictures. The small black and white images lose a lot of the detail necessary for a positive identification, so I am left wondering what the difference between wall lettuce and shepherd's purse really is. It’s a great book for the serious forager but you’ll need to cross reference with other books to check that you’ve got the right plant and not a poisonous imposter.
(Review by Toby Travis, added September 26 2011)
Small enough to fit in a backpack, entertaining enough to read in the bath - Hedgerow by John Wright is a worthy addition to the excellent River Cottage Handbook series. The blurb describes the book as "a thoroughly practical guide to gathering edible plants from hedgerow and wood, meadow and heath".
The plant descriptions are witty, opinionated and informative. The photos, together with the text, have been sufficient for me to safely identify such wild delights as alexanders, garlic mustard, yarrow and wood sorrel. That I burnt my mouth eating lords and ladies leaves instead of sorrel is entirely my own fault as there is a photo in the book highlighting the difference between the two.
There is also a very useful chart showing when particular plants are in season.
I haven't tried any of the dishes from the short recipe section at the back, but chestnut pancakes with birch sap syrup must surely be the holy grail for the dedicated autumn forager.
It's not cheap at £14.99 but, along with Mushrooms and Edible Seashore (Nos 1 and 5 respectively in the same series), this has become my primary source of inspiration before setting out on a foraging expedition.
Put together, the seven handbooks (also including concise and illuminating volumes on bread-baking, cake-baking and preserving), form the foundation for an entire approach to thinking about, acquiring, and preparing food.
Apps and maps
There's a useful collaborative map of where useful and edible plants are available which you can view online at Forager's Friend. This is a superb idea, which also comes as an app for use on the move, but like a lot of projects of this nature, it's partly dependent on where you live as to whether you'll be able to glean much in the way of foraging tips for your local area - there are just two entries for my home town, for instance (although I plan to add lots more!).
There are also a number of foraging apps available, none of which I have tried because I own the world's most basic mobile phone. If you have, do add your experienes with these below. Or have you got another favourite foraging guide? If you have, please feel free to add your thoughts below, or even email me a mini-review to add to this post – firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll be adding other titles as I read them - to come next, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons.
If I look up from my writing perch in the sun room right now, I can see a crust of snow on the glass roof. My position on winter in general, and snow in particular, is apathetic at best. In my darker moments, it's outright opposition. As American comedian Carl Reiner put it,
A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.*
This is a moment when I cherish anything green and alive as an antidote to the deadness of the garden, and for me that means houseplants. After Christmas, in the thin days of early January when I was still glassy-eyed from an excess of sleep and cake, I arrived at the office to find a cactus on my desk: a new plant is usually cause for joy, but this one had a strange look to it. According to the label, it's a Glowing Wonder - yes that's right, a glowing cactus (it also has a helpful warning symbol - a knife and fork crossed out - indicating it's not edible - well phew).
The website shows more spray-painted plants - mainly Echeverias. A slip of paper starts by telling me the bleeding obvious: "WARNING! YOUR PLANT IS A CACTUS VARIETY AND THE SPINES ARE EXTREMELY SHARP. PLEASE HANDLE WITH CARE AND ATTENTION."
So, does it glow? Well, sort of. I put it in a dark cupboard at work to satisfy curious colleagues on this matter, and the verdict was it glowed "a bit". Once back home (transported there wrapped in bubble wrap, both for insulation and protection from spikes) it did light up in a completely dark kitchen at night, but you wouldn't be able to read a book by it, as you can see from the somewhat Blair Witch Project photo opposite. There are some pictures of these plants on Pinterest in which they look a bit more, well, glowy.
I was expecting my children to be a little bit excited by the prospect of a glowing plant, but they were completely underwhelmed: possibly because they've seen way cooler indoor plants. Even in our kitchen, there's a stagshorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) on the windowsill, for instance: one of the weirdest-looking houseplants you'll see. (Once the kitchen's revamped, it will take pride of place mounted on a plaque below the skylight ...).
I wish I could say that the glowing effect was some kind of natural genetic mutation, like a botanical firefly, or even that it was a GM modification (this has been done although apparently even those don't glow bright enough). But no, this is just some stuff sprayed onto the plant, which although no doubt harmless enough, just makes the cactus look like it has a really bad case of mealy bug.
This is, it seems, a "trend" - houseplants, particularly Echeverias, sprayed with silver paint in the run-up to Christmas, heathers inexplicably stained with pink paint in kitsch ranks at the garden centre, and now these glowing plants. In case you haven't guessed, it's not a trend I'm keen on ... I'm digging way back into GCSE biology here, but surely spraypainting plants must limit their life by blocking the stomata?
And anyway - and this is the key point - who needs to spraypaint plants to make them look cool? Houseplants are already amazing: I refer you back to the stagshorn fern. And these guys. And countless more incredible, stunning and utterly paint-free plants. We need a houseplant revival, and we need one NOW. Watch this space to find out exactly how that's going to happen...
*Although my son's face when my husband put him on the sledge to pull him to school did melt my heart just a little.
Over Christmas, I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms - not from some kind of ill-advised pre-festive detox, but the aftermath of the conclusion of the Serial podcast. I came to this 12-part audio dissection of a 1999 Baltimore murder case late, and ended up binge-listening to the whole thing over a period of 10 days, catching up just in time for the final instalment. If you haven't already been drawn into Serial I warn you: it's addictive, so play part one at your own risk.
I've never before been a fan of those "true crime" documentaries that lurk in the TV channels where your remote control becomes marooned when you've got past the first hundred or so and your finger wearies, but somehow the story (high school student goes to prison for killing his ex-girlfriend, implicated by a friend who says he helped to bury the body - but who's telling the truth?) got its hooks into me from the start. And it got me thinking - why haven't I heard any good - by which I mean compelling, informative, addictive, viral - podcasts about plants, gardening or anything else horticulture-related?
So, I gave myself a mission over Christmas and New Year. My tablet was my constant companion as I tore my way through dozens of podcasts, trying to find something that filled the Serial-shaped hole in my listening schedule. The truth is, I am not interested in podcasts that tell me how to plant tulips or what to do when my poinsettia drops its leaves. BORING. If I want that kind of information, I'll open a reference book or even (what the hell!), Google it.*
What did I find? Well, loads of great, addictive listens**, but not a lot in the way of current, plant or horticulture-themed podcast series. But I did find individual podcasts that covered ground that fitted my horticultural brief. Here Be Monsters (tagline - "the podcast about the unknown") is a spooky listen at the best of times, but none more so than an episode called The Roman Slug Death Orgy, which though not directly about gardening, will prove strangely affecting to those of us who have ever done battle with slugs.
I loved one particular episode of the Criminal podcast ("Stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle") that delves into a Venus flytrap crime ring in the southern US. (If you like this you may also want to click over to this long read from the Guardian (disclosure: my employer) about the theft of the smallest waterlily in the world from Kew Gardens).
There were a couple of not-so-current podcast series that I locked onto, too: there was a Radio 4 collaboration with Kew called Plants: From Roots to Riches exploring our changing relationship with plants during the last 250 years. This was just the kind of thing I was looking for - but as a podcast it felt so Radio 4-ish. Don't get me wrong, I adore Radio 4, spend most days listening to it for several hours, but as a standalone podcast it was just a bit too buttoned up; I felt as if I should get my exercise book out and start making notes for a comprehension test later.
More laid back was Garden Confidential with Andrew Keys, "stories at the intersection of people and plants", from US magazine Fine Gardening. Keys' laid-back drawl is like nothing you'll hear on R4, and there's a mischievous tilt to some of the podcasts - one episode about invasives includes a "dramatic reading" of blog comments from gardeners getting all steamed up about Japanese knotweed, for instance.
Emma Cooper has been podcasting about plants for several years, her Alternative Kitchen Garden show ticking many of my boxes... she's on a podcasting hiatus at the moment, but she recommended a couple of other shows to check out: Gastropod - it's a new food podcast, with a heavy dose of science, and many of the episodes touching the edges of horticulture and botany. So too does Jeremy Cherfas' Eat This Podcast, which is also worth a subscription.
All this listening made me want to start creating. A dozen podcast ideas beban to clutter up my mind: plants whose stories that haven't been told and charismatic plantspeople, garden designers and botanists who would make the most illuminating interviewees. That said, I know, from speaking to Emma and others, that podcasts are Hard Work. That's why so many good podcasts come from US NPR stations, like Serial, or peter out after a dozen or so episodes.
So I am asking - or maybe challenging - anyone who wants to hear more cool podcasts about plants: let's start something here. In the past I've been told that podcasting about gardens doesn't work because "it's so visual" but I don't believe that's true (think of commentary of football matches, radio shows about films, the list goes on ...). And, just maybe, I'd like to prove it.
*Warning, link contains Bad Language.
**Other podcasts I've fallen in love with that have nothing to do with plants or gardens:
Sometimes it's the things you slave over that fail, and the things you do carelessly, while sleepwalking, that come good. A single squash 'Sweet Dumpling' seedling, sown from a free packet that came with Grow Your Own magazine, filled out half of one of my big raised veg beds this summer and produced six of these beauties. I didn't water the plant or give it any special treatment, and it quietly got on with making fruit. That's the kind of growing I like.
In line with my continuing obsession for weighing crops, I am pleased to say that the largest two exceed Mr Fothergills' guideline weight of 200-500g per fruit. I've grown pumpkins before, in abundance when I had an allotment, but now, with more limited space and time, this harvest of Sweet Dumpling seems sweeter than the rest.
I'd recommend curing and storing winter squash and pumpkins as explained in this post I wrote for the Guardian a while back, but I suspect these won't last long enough to get a chance to rot: as you can see, the household tortoises are already partaking of one ...
Ask me what I want for Christmas. Go on. I know it's early yet, and Santa's barely roused from his summer slumber (or so I keep telling my children), but I've already planned it out. I'd like a towering pile of well-rotted manure, a 20kg bag of biochar and as much Rockdust as the reindeer can haul.
When I had an allotment, I took it as a given that the soil covering my modest five-pole plot the guts and structure for the job. Every year it produced fat pumpkins, trugfuls of beans and tall sunflowers, provided I kept the rampant weeds at bay. I knew I was lucky: I just didn't know how lucky (this must be the reason why my home county of Bedfordshire has historically been such a centre for veg growing). When I moved house and gave up that plot for an 80ft-long garden, still in Bedfordshire, but not blessed with quite such a fine tilth. The back section is given over to a shed-cum-greenhouse, two compost bins and two wormeries, a couple of regular beds and two 2mx2m raised beds, each about 50cm tall, built just before my son was born three years ago (see right for them in their unfilled state).
I knew the theory that the soil would need improving, but the reality of placing raised beds on previously unimproved soil has been chastening: it's like the moment as a new parent when, about two weeks in, the novelty of being woken at night fades and you realise what the phrase "sleepless nights" really means.
However much organic material and nutrients I pour into those beds, the level lingers stubbornly a finger's depth from the lip. The soil I've got isn't bad, but there isn't enough of it. In idle moments I picture it brimming gently over the top like a pint of Guinness being poured: that's the kind of deep, humus-rich, moisture-retentive environment I'd love for my hungry fruit and veg. But as fast as I throw in wormcasts, homemade compost, spent compost from containers, mulches of grass cuttings and cardboard, the beds seem to soak them up. A few days of sunny weather and the raised beds are drier than an Amish birthday party. Courgettes and beans struggle: lettuces aren't the puffy quilted jobs I remember from my allotment, and rhubarb stems wilt without warning, even under the cool shade of the nearby plum tree.
The more I grow, the more I realise one thing, long known by everyone from Lawrence Hills to Prince Charles by way of Michelle Obama and Raymond Blanc: it's all about the soil. If you've ever been on one of the many allotment forums and read plot holders merrily promoting Jeyes Fluid for "sterilising" the soil of pests and diseases, you'll know what a long way we've yet to convince all gardeners how important those bacteria and organisms are. Alys Fowler reminded me of this in a recent column: one which received the most feedback I've ever had for her writing for the Guardian: in Heart and Soil she wrote about the healing powers of getting your hands dirty, both mind and body. I've put the book Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web by Wayne Lewis and Jeff Lowenfels on my Christmas list so I can learn more.
My raised beds are a work in progress: Alys tells me they will reach a tipping point where the humus levels out. Everything I've tried so far - green manures, mulches of corrugated cardboard and grass clippings, rockdust, biochar, and lashings of wormcasts and homemade compost - are all working, but it'll be a while before I have won. I can't afford - and don't really wish to - repeat the exercise of buying in a bulk bag of peat-free vegetable compost to shortcut the task, and anyway, it probably wouldn't work as well in the long term as my slow but cheap solution. If anyone has any top raised bed-filling tips, please shout. I'll try anything, provided its organic.
I do have one tip for impatient gardeners like me: if you have a wormery, and grow potatoes in containers or sacks, here's something to save you time and money. If you're anything like me, the bottom tray in your wormery may look nearly ready for harvesting, but when you delve below the top centimetre or so of wormcasts, you find lots of lumpy bits and a few worms roaming around. When it comes to potato harvesting time, add a square of corrugated cardboard at the bottom of your sack, builder's bucket or pot to absorb any excess water and stop it running out of the holes too quickly, then tip the contents of the wormery tray, worms and all, on top. Add a layer of bought-in peat-free compost, say 10cm-deep, then add the seed potatoes and more compost as usual, earthing up as the plants grow. Shove more cardboard sheets around the sides of the pot if you can, too. By the time you're ready to harvest, the worms will have finished work, the cardboard will be almost gone and the wormery's contents will be completely broken down, barring a few eggshell fragments and the occasional rogue avocado seed. And you'll have well-fed spuds, beautifully clean easy to store.
I've been recording my yields from container potatoes for the past few years and since I started this technique, my harvest per container has roughly doubled in weight terms.
Usually I plant sweet peas for the scent: this year, it was all about the colour scheme. This was a mistake: I really miss the perfume wafting in through the patio doors on a summer evening, and the planned colour scheme of dark blue and lime green hasn't come off yet as I am not sure if any of the 'Lemonade' have survived. If you don't want to repeat my error, sow 'Perfume Delight' this October. There have been some consolations, though.
In addition to my October to December sowing, in late winter I impulse-sowed 'Blue Shift' direct into a big pot containing the compact clematis 'Countess of Wessex', kindly given to me by Raymond Evison on a press trip to his amazing nursery last year. 'Blue Shift' is a new sweet pea sent to me to try by Thompson & Morgan.
By the time they started flowering, I'd forgotten their trick: the flowers start out winey-red and purple, and slowly shift (get it) to the palest of blues as the flowers mature (whether on the plant or in a vase), as you can see from the picture above.
Is this merely a gimmick, or a useful feature in a sweet pea? In many ways it's rather annoying: some of the phases I am not so keen on, and mixed together on the plants, I am not sure it really works (see left to get what I mean). However, each flower goes through a fabulous moment where it is wonderfully psychedelic, with vibrant purple and pink-veined petals (visible in the top picture, second and third from the right, and below). Then, finally before the petals fall, it's a blue not dissimilar to the a Himalayan poppy, which is rather good too.
No doubt T&M sold a good number of these to gardeners wanting the "novelty factor": there's an orange variety called 'Clementine Kiss' from Matthewman's, but again, why would you want an orange sweet pea?
I am not sure 'Blue Shift' is a variety I'd grow again, but it's faded blue glory has woken me up to the possibilities of some of the blue sweet peas, such as Noel Sutton and Charlie's Angel. The great thing with the sweet pea growing cycle is there really isn't that long to wait until you can begin to muse on next year's choices: seeds can be sown from October. But for the moment, these aren't looking too shabby in a vase, even if they're sadly lacking in scent. (By the way, if anyone can tell me the name of the rose (repeat-flowering climber) pictured, I'd be very happy. I have a notion it is 'Eternite' but far from sure. The camera has dulled the pink somewhat - it's rather more vibrant with the naked eye.
I really wanted to like the HotBin, I did. It's been well over a year since I started to trial this new composter, and in my initial review, I was excited about the HotBin's claims to safely compost all kinds of food at a temperature of 60C.
And yet ... a few months later, my HotBin was sitting forlorn, half-filled with semi-rotted stuff. The main problem was the hatch at the bottom: once I'd opened it once, I couldn't fix it back in place properly, and it kept falling out. The folks from HotBin sent me straps to hold the door in place, but that made opening the hatch a hassle.* And even if the hatch was working like a dream, the HotBin suffers from a downside common to this type of composter: the opening is awkward to get to. It's hard to get a spade inside for unloading finished compost, so I found myself down on my knees scooping out the compost with my gloved hands while wet compost smeared my forehead. Not good.
Plus, it's ugly: this can also be said of many of the other composters on the market, but for anyone with a small garden where there is no place to hide away less beauteous pieces of kit, this counts.
So, my HotBin adventures are over. My trial model has now gone to a new home at a local school garden, where I hope they'll be able to make better use of it. And me? I am going back to my beehive composters. They don't solve the problem of what to do with the cooked food that can't go into a "cold"compost system, but for that I have trench composting (a technical term of burying food waste underground). And they're much easier to access, because each layer of the wooden beehive structure comes apart, making turning and "harvesting" compost a simple task.
My wormeries, too, are keepers: they are far smaller than the HotBin, and I find managing them far easier: plus you have the valuable byproduct of "worm juice" which can be used as a plant tonic (once diluted) in addition to the worm compost.
I'd love to know whether other HotBin owners have had a better time with their composter: and what composting systems you use. With peat-based compost looking ever-more unsustainable, it's vital that we all renew our efforts to make as much compost at home as we can.
*Since my HotBin was made, I believe further adjustments have been made to the design, which may have solved the hatch issue.
So I was delighted to find The Distinctive Planter Company's products tucked away in a corner at the Garden Press Event last month (if you're not familiar, it's a horticultural trade shindig where you can see lots of new gardening products all in one room).
Their planters are made from 75% clay and 25% recycled plastics, lightweight yet tough and frostproof: a big plus if after the last few winters your supposedly frostproof terracotta pots are now crumblier than a slice of Wensleydale cheese. Plus, unlike many of the plastic pots masquerading as terracotta, ome of these are remarkably pretty and realistic - I particularly liked the grey marble bowl (pictured above) from the Aegean Collection (40cm x 20cm £24.99 + £4.99 P&P): it's just a shame they don't come in larger sizes (although the company's Nigel Guffogg tells me they're on the way) - they'd make a great water feature.
At the moment they're only available via Amazon - and the range is very limited, but they're hoping to sell to garden centres soon: if you like them, lobby your local garden centre to buy some in! Their sandstone and slate grey troughs (£39.99 + £7.99 P&P) look good too. Their only demerit is the air miles involved - they're made in China - but at least they'll last for years and years.
If you want a new planter NOWNOWNOW, though (and we all know how impatient us gardeners an be) this verdigris tall metal planter from Crocus (pictured left) is gorgeous, and not bad at £42.99 for those that will last forever. If you're feeling flush, these vintage dolly tubs from The Balcony Gardener are gorgeous too if pricey at £125.