In the Garden
Get down and dirty in the garden

Wildcrafting: Where To Go

In my last blog entry, I introduced the topic of wildcrafting. Let’s go a bit further and explore where to go to find dynamic herbal medicine in the wild.

There is no experience quite like harvesting your own plants in the wild for medicine and food. Buying herbs in a store or through a mail order company never comes close in quality to what you can gather yourself. Locating harvest places outside of the footprint of others is nothing less than an enjoyable treasure hunt. I call it herbal reconnaissance. The vistas to be seen, birdsong, the calls of small animals, fresh air, bees buzzing, feet on the ground, and the occasional deer and waterfall all add up to an encounter that is like none other. The all-around beauty is exquisite, and the plants are the freshest you can possibly get. Nothing can beat a plant picked at the right time from a healthy stand for strong medicine and nutritional content. I teach my students that just being out in nature is healing in itself. That we get to harvest plants is a bonus for which we are always grateful.

harvesting valerian
Photo by Suzanne Tabert

One of the most frequent questions I hear from my students is where they can go to harvest plants in the wild. The places where I take students is off limits to them, their family, and friends. It’s the number one rule at the Cedar Mountain Herb School! Thinking it through, if the thousands of students I’ve taught over the last 30 years all came back to harvest at the same places where I’ve shared with them for study, and brought their friends, who bring their friends, where would the plants be? They would all be gone, and their ability to generously give of themselves for healing would be taken away. Respect the plants, the stands, the animals who also need the plants, and the time it took for the teacher/harvester to find the locations.

Planning is key before harvesting plants. Knowing the medicine of the plants, when to harvest for the best quality of constituents, what part of the plants, the harvesting tools needed, how long it takes to process them after picking, and best ways to preserve them are all things to make note of before any harvesting is done. After harvesting, look at the stand and ask yourself if there are clear signs of harvesting. If so, be more mindful of using a lighter touch.

wildcrafting near stream
Photo by Suzanne Tabert

Where to Go Wildcrafting

Check with your local Forest Service for topographical maps and locations where plant harvesting is allowed. Cultivate a friendly relationship with them, and they’ll often show you on the maps where to safely go, and what to expect while on the land. 

Private land. Always check with the owners before entering private spaces and harvesting. For many years, my students and I enjoyed harvesting dandelions on an organic farm because I knocked on the owners’ door one spring day and asked permission. After they got over their initial shock that someone not only wanted to “weed” for them, but bring a crew, they heartily agreed to allow us access to 40 acres of prime organic riverbed soil. Digging dandelions there was so easy and fun! We were happy to know that the plants we dug were free of herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers, and they received the benefit of free labor. The vibe was great all the way around!

state park landscape
Photo by Suzanne Tabert

State Parks. Look up the regulations for harvesting in parks in your state. Rules can vary from state to state and park to park, so it’s best to know for sure what is allowed. In my state, harvesting up to a gallon of plant materials at a time is permissible at some parks and at certain times of the year. That means one-gallon total, not a gallon of each plant. Make sure to ask whether chemicals of any kind have been sprayed in the park where you wish to harvest. If so, do not harvest there. Plants take up and hold on to chemicals which we don’t want in our bodies, correct?

Tree farms. I have a key to the gates of 76,000 acres of land that has been a timber farm for 100 years. No other herb school or organization has been granted access to the land. The pioneer plants that sprout and thrive where trees have been cut are a wealth of herbal medicine. The trees on parts of the land that have not been harvested in decades provide so much fertility as the deciduous plants and conifers drop their leaves in the fall to decompose and add to the richness of the soil. The plants at the tree farm are happy and robust. I’ve fostered a very good relationship with the owners by respecting their rules and taking care of the land like it was my own.

Something to consider is to avoid harvesting in places where there are posted signs of chemical spraying and/or biosolids, where there is evidence that people have dumped vehicle liquids such as motor oil, antifreeze coolant, and transmission fluid on the ground, or other garbage. The plants growing near will be poisoned and rendered unusable for medicine or food.  

Coming up soon, look forward to information on tools needed for harvesting, gathering tips, how much to harvest at any given time/place, and more. Until then, big love to you all, and as always, I’m Wild About Plants!

Ideas for Cultivating Year-Round Permaculture

Transitioning from spring, summer, and fall gardening to year-round permaculture can be a jump for fair weather gardeners. However, if you’re an avid green thumb, you’ve probably wondered how to start growing veggies throughout all seasons. While it may take some trial and error, especially if living in below freezing winter climates, this change simply requires a few adjustments and additional materials from your regular gardening routine.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Pros of Year-Round Permaculture

Cultivating your own fruits and vegetables is not only a delicious hobby, it’s also a great way to grow exactly what you need. Growing your own vegetables puts you in more control of the food you consume and waste, and is a great way to save money on groceries. By creating meal plans around the produce you’re expecting to ripen, you can prepare or purchase any additional foods you may need to develop well-rounded meals.

Being in control of the produce you grow can also be helpful in ensuring you are eating the vitamin heavy vegetables your body needs. Beets, for example, are loaded with antioxidants and have been noted to help prevent heart disease and inflammation. If you’re unsure of what vitamins and minerals are missing from your diet, nurses are experts in preventative health care and can help guide your nutrition goals on your next doctor visit.

Growing produce year-round gives you more time to grow new vegetables that may grow better in the winter than in warmer months. This can help reduce your grocery bill in the winter months and can help keep your garden active all year. It’s also a good way to stay in control of the produce in your diet throughout the winter, which can help your preventative health goals.

Winter Adjustments

There are a few adjustments needed for winter gardening, and depending on your current gardening situation, they may be minimal. Gardening beds that are slightly underground are helpful in regulating the temperature of your crops both in the winter as well as summer. If your produce boxes are in the ground, you may need a simple cold frame — a window to let the sun in and keep the cold out — and some additional mulch to keep your vegetables warm throughout the winter. Hoop houses are a similar concept, but with plastic rather than glass.

Once you’ve taken the measures to maintain the ecological balance of your plants, it’s important to consider the kinds of produce you’ll grow. Depending on the climate you live in, during the winter, chances are you’ll have to skip the fruits and stick to exploring a variety of vegetables, as fruits can be difficult to grow in climates that aren’t warm. However, there are tons of tasty veggies to grow and eat through the winter.

Some resilient winter vegetables include: winter squash (of course), onions, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and celeriac. There are several other vegetables that will grow in the winter time; these are simply a few versatile vegetables can be used to make all sorts of hearty winter meals. Growing year-round herbs can also help spice up your winter dishes.

Year-round permaculture is very different than warm weather gardening; it’s an in-depth, sustainable subculture that involves cultivating an environment for plants to thrive in. There are several benefits to giving this endeavor a try, including having control of the produce you consume during the winter, staying healthy, and giving winter vegetables a home on your dinner plate. As we ease into spring, consider ways to incorporate year-round permaculture into your gardening lifestyle.