Forage Your Yard

Concerning surprise cucumbers and the virtues of volunteer plants

Last week, I walked out into the garden and came in with four cucumbers I hadn’t expected. I had been picking ground cherries, balanced uncomfortably on the edge of a retaining wall that abuts a raised garden bed that forms an L around our garage. We harvested our garlic and onions from one of the arms of the L in June. We had replanted the area with a few cucumber plants, but maypops, lamb’s quarters, and other weedy plants quickly swamped the area, and in the heat of summer, I never bothered to attempt a rescue. Find four small cukes dangling among the ground cherries, then, was a welcome surprise.

Gardening doesn’t necessarily encourage these moments of serendipity. Effective gardeners tend to be meticulous, even a little tightly wound; their gardens are thoroughly labeled and organized and managed.

My experience with the cucumbers, on the other hand, had more in common with foraging wild foods. A surprise harvest; a sense of fleeting opportunity; a whiff of physical danger. Rather than the stodgy, type-A gardener, I become for a moment that figure of romance, the forager. You too can attain this destiny. A little slumber, a little sleep, a little folding of the hands to rest, and you too can have a garden that might as well be a wilderness.

I have long been fascinated by foraging for wild foods, dating back to a childhood reading of Stalking the Wild Asparagus. In middle school, I served my bemused parents a meal that included day lily tubers, candied acorn bits, and chicory coffee. Testifying to the same lack of follow-through represented by my neglected cucumber vines, I think that was the only foraged meal I prepared; however, in recent years I have become a devotee of the writer Samuel Thayer, whose books represent not just the best nitty-gritty guidance on wild foods, but a resonant philosophy of the Anthropocene about which I’ll write more some day.

Nonetheless, as the father of three small children, living on a site surrounded by rugged and mostly private lands, I don’t get as much opportunity for foraging as I would like. Hours in the wilderness to find a stand of pawpaws just aren’t very available to me. Increasingly, however, my yard has become a foraging site—not because I want to make harvesting fruit and vegetables less convenient, but as an outgrowth of a few practices I find beneficial for varying reasons.

These techniques begin with inviting wild edibles into the garden. My cucumbers, you may have noted, were overgrown not simply by weeds but by other edibles. Maypops are one of our favorite and most productive fruits; lamb’s quarters (also known as goosefoot) is a reliable summer green. Both emerged spontaneously in the garden and, in fact, offer me more value and require less care than a few cucumbers. We have other edible “weeds” in our garden, such as dandelions and wild onions. Although there’s no question these plants make the garden look a little disheveled and wild, I wouldn’t be without them. These plants require nothing of me except a willingness to let them be—I neither plant nor cultivate them, and they grow with incredible vigor. That’s the type of plant I want in my garden.

I also encourage volunteers in the garden. Although many gardeners reasonably prefer to remove volunteers for a variety of reasons—pest and disease control, harvesting efficiency, or aesthetics—I want to grow plants that want to live in my garden.

Volunteers, almost without exception, demonstrate exceptional vigor and productivity in my garden, even when growing in less-than-ideal locations. This year we have harvested volunteer tomatoes, ground cherries, mustard, and borage. Cilantro and dill have become an almost-year-round presence in our garden as a volunteer, as well, showing the particular value of volunteer plants for herbs that can require lots of management to keep a steady supply. Instead of constantly replanting, I let garden plants mature their seed, and I may even pick the seedstalk and wave it around the garden. Then it’s just a matter of letting the volunteers grow, even if they are in something of an awkward spot. A single volunteer cherry tomato that has sprawled its way across my strawberry bed has been far more productive, this year, than any of my cultivated plants. My deliberately planted ground cherries have proved tough to harvest, and have begun to tail off their production already, while the volunteers—several of them spreading proudly right across a path—keep on producing fruit. I can cope with a bit of backyard chaos for that.

I’m no Euell Gibbons and my backyard is no wilderness. Still, it’s a delight to come in from my garden bearing not just fruits I have planned for and deliberately produced, but something resembling a gift.