In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Learning From Nature, Week Ending 7/29/2018

I fear the time is coming – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon (within our lifetimes) – when increasing numbers of us will have to grow increasing quantities of our own food.

Supermarket shelves are fully stocked at the moment, but just one major weather event massively disrupts distribution chains … and lately, “once in a century”-strength storms occur with increasing frequency.

More and more food crops which underpin grocery items are grown overseas, subjecting the supply to possible disruption by global political events that we cannot control.

Gas prices continue to creep higher, with the resulting ripple effect at every level of the industrial food production system.

And how many of us are already living paycheck-to-paycheck? Where will we get food if we lose our jobs, especially with grocery prices on the rise?

More of us need to start gardening, with all the associated painful learning curves. Taking clues from nature can help us understand planting cycles and environmental effects that impact both wild plants and their domesticated cousins; paying attention to nature can help shorten the learning curve. Here are a few examples from late July in central Maryland.

The wild amaranth (also known as pigweed, Amaranthus spp.) growing between my backyard and the farmer’s field has already grown to four and a half feet tall. The top of the plant reaches my chest!

Wild Amaranth

Wild Amaranth

The Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) I planted this year, by contrast, is a foot and a half tall at best. It should be seven to eight feet tall when full grown; I don’t think it’s going to make it!

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Lesson? The two plants photographed experience similar growing conditions – they are separated by around 60 feet. Maybe the soil is better closer to the field, but I doubt it. Most likely, I waited too late to plant. In 2019, I will try a month earlier and see how it goes.

My blackberries, while productive, have started looking worse for the wear. The leaves are turning yellow and brown, developing spots, and even falling off altogether. What on earth have I done wrong?

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

And then I realized wild blackberries look just as awful!

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Probably some environmental factor is impacting the wild and domestic varieties equally. Perhaps they are succumbing to an unseen infection following weeks of soaking wet weather, followed by weeks of excruciating heat and aridity, followed by another week of damp. Or – maybe it’s just what blackberries endure in mid-summer, having sunk all their energy into growing this year’s fruit and next year’s canes at the same time.

The last three examples all concern the timing of fall garden planning. In central Maryland, we are lucky to have a relatively long growing season. In my location, average date of last frost is April 15; average date of first frost is October 15. That’s six months (only counting half of April and October); plus at LEAST another month on either side (eight total) if you grow frost-hardy crops and use season extenders. (A twelve month garden is still my ultimate goal.) While no one wants to dwell in the garden in summer’s heat and humidity, now is definitely the time for planting fall crops!

The earliest Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) flowers have already started setting seed.  If it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me! Now is the earliest opportunity to plant carrots for harvest later this year.

Queen Anne's Lace Seeds

Queen Anne’s Lace Seeds

Field mustard (Brassica rapa) has also gone to seed, although conditions aren’t quite ready yet for the seed to disperse. Still, we can determine that soon we should plant Brassica crops like radishes, turnips, kale, cabbages, collards, and kohlrabi.

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Last but not least, wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) has bolted and flowered – it no longer even resembles lettuce as it towers over neighboring plants.

Wild Lettuce Flowers

Wild Lettuce Flowers

In a few more weeks we should begin planting lettuce … assuming we haven’t already … because we’ve been suffering without home grown lettuce in our salads since everything in the garden long since bolted … I mean, just saying.

Also, a correction to some previous posts. Twice I have identified local weeds as upland cress (Barbarea verna), when they were actually the closely related yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris). (Which is sometimes called winter cress, just to keep things confusing.) I have corrected the ID in both posts: Weed Walk, Week Ending April 8 and Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27. Whatever it’s called, it’s still super tasty!


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Fruitful Foraging, Week Ending 7/22/2018

Fruit continues to take center stage in the foraging world as summer progresses. Here are some of the fruitful edibles to find in the central Maryland area in late July.

Japanese wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius): If you blinked, you missed the wineberry harvest. This photo was taken a few weeks ago when they were starting to turn ripe. Wineberries all ripen around the same time, usually within approximately two weeks.

Japanese wineberries

Japanese wineberries

As you can see in the photo, wineberries do have “leaves of three” like poison ivy, but the edges of the leaves are toothed, while poison ivy has smooth leaf edges. Additionally, wineberry  stems are prickly like other members of the Rubus family. Wineberry fruit is  especially soft, so use a rigid container when collecting them to make sure they don’t get squished. Assuming you don’t eat them all straight off the cane!

Blackberries (Rubus spp.): Unlike wineberries, blackberries ripen over multiple weeks, providing a longer harvest. Unfortunately, the recent dry weather has taken a toll on the fruit, which is undersized and unpleasant to eat because there is less flesh compared to the size of the seed. Pick only the plumpest berries, and watch out for the thorns!

Blackberries

Blackberries

Rain is predicted for most of this week, which could be good or bad. The fruit may be larger; however, the berries could end up with a thin, weak flavor, depending on how mature they were when the rain hit.

Grapes (Vitus spp.): Grape vines cover everything wild around here. (You can see their cameo in the wineberry photo if you look at the lower right.) Which would be great if I wanted to make stuffed grape leaves – but I have struggled to find actual fruit. Maybe the erratic spring weather contributed to the problem, or perhaps wild grapes are always this scarce. Or non-human critter might enjoy them best at this sour stage. They are still too small to use even for verjuice, so I need to keep checking back as the weeks and months pass.

Wild Grapes

Wild Grapes

Rosehips (Rosa spp): Rosehips are the fruit of roses. By now they have set, but (like grapes) aren’t yet ready for harvest. They won’t be ripe until they turn red, much later this year. But now is a fine time to start locating them. Since wild roses grow in similar environments as blackberries, you may find them without any extra effort.

Wild Rosehips

Wild Rosehips

The local crop of rosehips may be small because Japanese beetles love, love, love eating the flowers which prevents the fertilization necessary for the fruit to set.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina): Sumac berries – called drupes – only appear on female plants. The drupes are covered with a sour coating which makes a lemonade-like drink once soaked in water. For weeks I have seen staghorn sumac along heavily traveled interstates, but failed to find any in a safer location for foraging. I finally found one, which was even short enough that I could reach a few clusters of berries. I harvested them just as the rain drops started to fall yesterday. Rain washes away the coating, reducing the sour flavor.

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

The drupes can also be dried to make the Middle Eastern seasoning known as sumac, although Rhus coriaria is usually the plant used rather than Rhus typhina.  Also note that despite the similar name, this is NOT the same as poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix. If it has white berries, it is NOT staghorn sumac; don NOT eat it.

Mystery Fruit: I don’t really know what this is! It could be a variety of cherry, or maybe a crabapple. (I am mildly embarrassed that I don’t know for sure!) Later this year, once the fruit is more fully developed, I should be able to tell for sure. Am I going to eat the fruit before I figure it out? Of course not! Rule number of foraging: if you don’t know ONE HUNDRED PERCENT what it is, don’t eat it!

Mystery Fruit

Mystery Fruit

Bonus edible! The curious shapes hanging from this shrub caught my eye on a recent trip into the woods. Apparently, this is American bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia). Trifolia means three leaved – again, like poison ivy – so I was very careful leaning in for this photo…just in case!

American Bladdernut

American Bladdernut

You can see why it is called “bladdernut”. “Bladder” is the only term I can think of to describe the seedpods. The seeds inside are edible when ripe, so I will be visiting again later this fall to try for myself.

Despite the bounty surrounding us, remember to take care of yourself while foraging, especially during the hot, humid summer weather. Stay hydrated, watch out for poison ivy, and always check for ticks!


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Future Foraged Fruits, Week Ending 6/3/2018

It’s early June. The air is drenched with humidity and honeysuckle fragrance.  Between the sticky heat and afternoon thunderstorms, the last thing anyone wants is to spend time outside. But now is the time to start locating the fruits that will feed us this summer and into the fall.

Blackberries (Rubus spp.) carpet the edges of meadows with white flowers. Last fall I also found black raspberry canes closer to these woods. Unfortunately, in late spring the thorns, ticks and poison ivy are so thick I couldn’t get closer to check on them.

Blackberry flowers

Blackberry flowers blanket the horizon.

Japanese wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are an invasive cane species that are also flowering now. Unlike blackberries, which flower and ripen over a period of several weeks, wineberries ripen all at once, and then they are gone.

Japanese wineberries

Japanese wineberries

Wild roses (Rosa spp.) rub elbows with the blackberries and wineberries; they are equally thorny. Most of the local varieties I have found produce small rose hips, barely worth harvesting in the fall and winter, but still a good source of vitamin C in times of need.

Wild roses

Wild roses

Now is also the time to scope out wild grapes (Vitis spp.). They can be harvested young for verjuice – not this young obviously – or allowed to mature for eating, juicing or jelly making.

Wild grapes

Wild grapes

Mulberries (Moraceae spp.) are starting to ripen, but due to the erratic weather this spring the flavor is… um… lacking? Definitely worth continuing to check as the weeks go by. Mulberries grow around this area like weeds, so there are plenty to be had if you just keep your eyes open.

Mulberries

Mulberries

Back in the forest, mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), which we saw a few weeks ago, are setting green fruit – just one per plant. The fruit will be ripe when they turn yellow, hopefully in a few more weeks.

Mayapple Fruit

Mayapple Fruit

This very afternoon, I found a new-to-me berry at eye level behind large, glossy leaves. Curious, I crept in closer for a few photos. Turns out … THIS IS POISON IVY (Toxicodendron radicans)! Luckily I didn’t brush any leaves aside to take the photo (I think).

Don’t eat the poison ivy.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy Berries – DON’T EAT THESE

(I didn’t really need to say that, did I? Please tell me I didn’t.)

The one photo I don’t have is a fruiting serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.). Its berries ripen in June which is why the shrub is also called juneberry. I have been unable to find any of these wild, so I bought one of my very own at the Mother Earth News Fair in Frederick this past weekend!  Hope to have pictures to share next year!


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Eats Shoots and Leaves (or Not), Week Ending May 13

Midspring in the mid-Atlantic. Asparagus is popping up in my garden with increasing frequency. A variety of wild edibles are producing shoots now as well.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) went from nowhere-to-be-seen to almost-too-large-to-eat  in the space of four days!
Milkweed Shoot

Milkweed Shoot

Unfortuantely at this tender, tasty stage, milkweed shoots look dangerously similar to dogbane (Apocynum cannibum) which is toxic. Both plants start the season as unbranched stalks with opposite, oval shaped leaves, and both ooze milky sap from hollow stems if you snap them off. As the plants mature, dogbane develops branched stems whereas milkweed remains a single straight stalk. But by then, they are too old to eat as shoots.
Dogbane Shoot

Dogbane Shoot – Don’t Eat This

Dogbane tends to be thinner and more red-tinged, however I would not rely on these traits to safely distinguish it from milkweed. It is especially difficult to tell if you don’t have a sample of each side by side for comparison. However, if you get reaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaally close to the stem on milkweed, you may spot the super fine hairs on it. One blogger suggested using a jeweler’s loupe to see them – that’s how tiny they are. (As fine as frog fur, perhaps?) I tried to photograph the hairs with “meh” results. Trust me, though. If you can’t see the hairs, or aren’t sure if you can see the hairs, just give it a pass. Milkweed flower buds and immature seed pods are both edible as well, so if it does turn out to be milkweed you can still benefit from the plant later in the year.
Milkweed Stalk Close Up

Can you see the super fine hairs on this milkweed stalk?

If you were wondering, I did not eat the milkweed shoots I found. I only located two in a “safe foraging” zone (the safest – my backyard), and I am saving them both for flower buds and seed pods. If you do find milkweed shoots, apparently the best way to cook them is by boiling for 15 minutes. If I get a chance to try this, I will let you know how it turns out! (Fifteen minutes seems like a really long time to me…)
Another plant is producing shoots throughout my yard: pokeweed (Phytolacca americana).  Pokweed is edible before it starts turning magenta colored, at which point it becomes toxic. As you can see in this photo, all my pokeweed shoots, even the youngest ones in the background, have a LOT of magenta already.
Pokeweed Shoots

Pokeweed Shoots

In other words, I haven’t tried eating pokeweed either. If I can find some shoots where the pinkish color is limited to the bottom of the stem, I will cut off the pokeweed above that location and give it a try. Stay tuned!
Bramble shoots (Rubus spp.) are allegedly edible as well. I say “allegedly” because frankly, I have never been hungry enough to fight the prickles for the food underneath. Neither for wild blackberries that grow nearby, nor my own everbearing raspberries when they need to be pruned back.

Blackberry Shoots

Blackberry Shoots

In addition to my reluctance to fight the prickles, these blackberry shoots are too close to poison ivy for my comfort (you cans see the “leaves of three” clinging to the tree in the background).
Raspberry Shoot

A Prickly Raspberry Shoot

Yes friends, you read correctly. I’m surrounded by wild food this week, and didn’t eat any of it!