Our District

Wild greens

Pickings can be slim in the late winter vege garden. But there are plenty of greens to be foraged, both in the wilderness and in the wilder corners of your own patch.

Growing food takes a lot of care and effort, right? Well, yes it does, but not always. Some of the most useful and productive plants in my garden can look after, water - and even plant - themselves.

I'm talking about self-seeding silver beet, parsley, lettuce, puha and other greens; but also their wilder cousins such as onion weed and chickweed (both of which are not just edible, they're actually tasty. )

Foraging of course comes with warnings. Firstly, always carefully identify what you are eating - some plants are toxic. For identification, I can recommend the book 'A Forager's Treasury' by Johanna Knox - expecially useful because it's written in New Zealand, about the plants available locally. It also includes great recipes.

Secondly, don't forage from places that may be polluted or sprayed. Though there is plenty of clean wilderness out there, there are also areas along roads or in parks where you can't be sure what sprays or pollutants may have been added. This is all the more reason to grow these plants in your own backyard (not to mention the convenience factor).

I'm not advocating a totally hands-off policy in the garden - for every useful weed, there are ten that are just a pain. But puha, for instance, can be gently encouraged by harvesting the growing tips, letting the stem re-sprout, rather than pulling up the whole plant. Later, once flowers appear, the plant turns bitter so stop harvesting and let it self-seed.

By encouraging plants that naturally do well, gardeners make life easier for themselves (something to harvest, with minimal input), as well as needing to add less compost and water.

Onion weed (Allium triquetrum): Identify this by the three-cornered leaf and strong onion smell. Grows in shade, usually in clayey soil. Bulbs, leaves and flowers are all edible: use as you would spring onions, though they are best cooked, eg. in soup, or use the flowers as garnishes.

Puha (Sonchus oleraceus): Great from now until late summer: it becomes more bitter as it flowers. The classic recipe is to add this to a pork bone boil-up, but it can be used in any soup or stew and is said to be highly nutritious, even medicinal. Bruise the leaves by rubbing together under cold water first.

Chickweed (Stellaria media): A delicate green that indicates light, slightly alkaline, fertile soil. Eat as a salad green or add to pesto, soups and stews. Chickweed is killed by frost and drought; when you see it growing, that indicates that conditions are also right for sowing peas.

By any other name: onion weed (Allium triquetrum) in Trompenborg Arboretum, Rotterdam.