Urban Foraging Provides Free Fruit
Finding a big, old fruit or nut tree in a city can indicate that you’re standing in a heritage neighborhood. Ask a resident, and you’ll often hear them say they don’t know what kind of tree it is, consider it a nuisance, and haven’t even tasted the fruit!
Last year, I decided to offset my food costs with foraged food. The season started with the Seed Swap held at the main branch of the County Library in Klamath Falls, Oregon. I asked if the group was planning to make an effort to harvest neglected tree fruit. About five people showed interest in the idea.
Connecting with Like Minds
Our small urban foraging group began discussing how to proceed. We decided to approach the local senior center, and asked if it would like to host a cider-making fundraiser. The senior center director agreed. We also needed a place to store apples before cider making, and the Klamath Food Bank agreed to share its cold storage with us. We lacked a cider press and grinder, and our local tool library didn’t have any. Then questions came up about liability insurance.
To move forward with our foraged-cider plan, we met with a representative from the Oregon Food Bank headquarters in Portland, who explained how produce is gleaned from the Willamette Valley and donated to a network of food banks around the state. We also asked for guidance from a more experienced group, the Portland Fruit Tree Project. The group shared its volunteer waiver forms, along with information, to help our foraging group learn about gathering produce safely under legal protections.
A Walker in the City
By springtime, undaunted and still inspired, I began taking walks in old neighborhoods to spot baby tree fruit. It helped that the Klamath County Museum held several plant identification walks in the parks. I went on those walks and attended a class on fruit trees taught by the Oregon State University Extension Service.
I learned that in this area we have a moderately good climate for stone fruit, such as cherries, peaches, apricots, and the native Klamath plum, plus rosaceous family fruit, such as apples of many types, pears, quince, and rosehips. Ornamental trees have fruit that sometimes looks like edible fruit. To find edible trees, my strategy was to return weekly to observe the ripening. Like foraging birds and deer, I had an urban food route.
An unexpected frost in early summer threatened the fruit blossoms, and the foraging group’s wait-and-see hopes froze in place. But by midsummer, the fruit was ripening, and it turned out to be a banner year! Among my new friends, whoever was ready to process the fruit got a full box of it. I purchased extra canning jars and a scale to weigh fruit. I decided to try dehydrating too. A farmer friend told me how he’d built a bulk dehydrator for apples in his greenhouse, and I built the same in mine.
Foraged fruit isn’t blemish-free and extra-large like the supermarket varieties. Nonetheless, foraged fruit can be processed at its peak of ripeness, and it will have superior flavor over any store-bought fruit.
Preserves, Conserves, and More
There’s an ideal way to preserve each type of fruit. Depending on the fruit, I made jam, jelly, marmalade, conserve, butter, preserves, syrup, paste, and leather. The dehydrator worked great, and the fruit needed nothing more than a quick blanch before dehydrating.
Klamath Falls, Oregon
Tomatoes: Forgo the Fungus
To minimize the likelihood of your tomatoes catching fungus disease, such as early blight, you’ll want to maximize airflow around the plants’ leaves. My V-shaped tomato trellises allow for plenty of airflow. The indeterminate tomato plants are prolific, and I must remove lots of leaves and stems every few days to maintain good air circulation and to keep leaves from growing together. A trellis placed horizontally on top of each V-shaped pair of trellises allows me to tie up plants, so I have plants growing straight up as well as leaning on both sides of the trellises.
At the first sign of a yellow or brown leaf, I remove the entire stem containing the leaf, as well as any leaves that are in close proximity. I also make sure, after a plant gets established, to remove leaves that are within 2 feet of the ground to prevent fungus spores from splattering up onto leaves. Below are the materials and instructions for building the V-shaped tomato trellis (pictured at right) that has worked well for me. With a bit of patience, most of this material, including scrap wood, brick, and twine or rope, can be gathered free of charge.
The trellis frames are made of free scavenged scrap wood. They’re 5 feet wide and 8 feet tall.
Attach remesh with 6-inch squares to the frames. Place one crosspiece at the top and one at the bottom of each frame. Place the bottom crosspiece a couple of inches above the end of the frame to allow room for watering hoses or irrigation lines.
Attach remesh starting 2 to 3 feet above the bottom of the frame; remesh isn’t needed at the very bottom of the frame, and leaving the space open will provide a place for your feet when you’re working inside the frames. The trellises are supported by wood scraps set in the same shape, one on each side of the V-frame.
Finally, drill a series of holes a few inches apart in the middle of each V-frame side piece, and also at one end of each support piece. Attach supports to V-frames with screws or dowels. The holes will allow you to lower the angle of V-frames after your tomato plants get established.
I put “ceiling” bars over each pair of V-frames to tie up tomato vines so they can grow straight up. Some plants will have more vines than can fit on the V-frames, so they’ll have nowhere to go except straight up.
I use 1-by-2-inch wood strips that are 8 feet long for the sides of the ceiling panels, and attach remesh with 6-inch squares to the wood strips. A crosspiece isn’t needed at either end of a ceiling panel. I make each ceiling panel slightly narrower than the width of the V-frames it will rest on; this makes it easy to place the ceiling panel on top of the V-frames’ crosspieces. Attach remesh to the thinner side of the 1-by-2 boards; otherwise, the ceiling panel wood might sag.
Make a diagram of where to put the tomato plants and the trellises in your garden plot or designated growing area. You’ll want to position each tomato plant in the middle of a panel.
Install your watering system in the designated area, and then plant the tomatoes.
When you’re installing the V-frames, you’ll need to position the bottoms very close to the tomatoes, and almost vertically so they support the young transplants. As the plants grow, you’ll need to lower the V-frames until they reach a 45- to 60-degree angle, so the plants have more room to grow and air can circulate freely around the plants.
I placed bricks on the ground between the bottoms of V-frame pairs to prevent wind from blowing a V-frame over and having the bottom crosspiece decapitate the plant inside. It might be wise to tie down your V-frames initially. When the trellises are opened up, wind shouldn’t be a problem.
If you’re installing trellises next to each other in a row, leave 18 to 24 inches between the sides of adjacent trellises for access to the plants inside them. Ceiling panels might not need to be installed until the V-frames are lowered from their initial vertical positions. Use old shoelaces, rope, or twine to attach ceiling panels to top crosspieces on V-frames.
Tough Nuts to Crack
Some people think there’s too much work involved in processing chestnuts, but they’re one of my favorite foraged foods. We have access to the Chinese chestnut, as most American chestnut trees were wiped out by disease many years ago. Here in western North Carolina, the chestnut burs start falling around the first week in September.
I harvest the chestnuts as soon as they start falling. I try to pick up chestnuts at least once per day. Otherwise, they can become wormy and, if they stay on the ground and become wet, they can sour in the shell. You might find chestnuts with green outer burs still intact. Be careful when handling these, and consider wearing gloves, because the burs can really hurt. Pick them up and let them dry for a few days, and often the chestnuts will fall out.
Chestnuts need to be heat-treated before eating because they contain tannins that can cause stomach upset in some people. You’ll want to process the nuts as soon as possible; don’t let them sit around. You can roast them, boil them, make them into chestnut flour or chestnut butter, and freeze them. I prefer to bake my chestnuts in the oven, and then grind them into chestnut flour.
To get your chestnuts ready for baking, most people will tell you to score, or make an X, on the bottom of the chestnuts. I find this step to be unnecessary. Instead, I cut each chestnut in half, being very careful that the knife doesn’t slip on the shell. This allows me to see if the nut inside is good.
I bake the nuts at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 to 20 minutes. You could also use an outdoor cob or pizza oven. Keep a close watch on the roasting chestnuts so they don’t burn. They may need less time to roast in a cob oven.
Roasting makes the chestnuts pull away from the shell, so they’re much easier to peel. When the nuts are cool enough to touch, peel the shells away. At this point, you can freeze, eat, or grind the chestnuts for flour, which you can refrigerate for a few days or freeze.
If you’re going to grind them, use a food processor to grind your flour, as the process can be fairly labor-intensive otherwise. If you plan to bake this chestnut cake recipe, you’ll need to produce a fine flour; you might need to sieve the flour after 1 grind and then process it a second time for a finely ground flour.
Simple Chestnut Cake Recipe
- 1 cup chestnut flour
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 7 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 3 eggs
- 2 to 3 tablespoons milk (optional according to desired batter thickness)
If you’ve stored your chestnut flour in the refrigerator, take it out ahead of time and let it reach room temperature before using. Sieve 1 cup.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour a 9-inch cake pan or cupcake tin.
Whisk together the chestnut flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt (I prefer to use Himalayan sea salt). Add the softened butter and eggs, and mix with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the optional milk if you want thinner batter.
Pour batter into a prepared tin. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Cool before topping with frosting of your choice (my preference is for cream cheese frosting), but be aware that the cake’s chestnut flavor is best when served warm.
Burnsville, North Carolina