Gardening takes the natural bounty of roots and tubers, leaves and stems, fruits and nuts, and stretches and pulls them to meet our desires - to appear sooner, later, bigger and more. We start them early indoors as seedlings, prepare their beds, cover them in cloches, weed out their neighbours, pick their pests and prune their misguided growth. We pamper our kohlrabi and celeriac like breeders groom their horses – and they need it, for generations of breeding have made them more sumptuous and fragile than the sea kale and bitter celery-weeds from whence they came. We force our garden plants to our human needs, and we pay the price.
When we forage, however, we accede to Nature’s own tight schedule; those mushrooms that appeared today will likely be slimy tomorrow, and those edible leaves will likely be inedible next week. We picture Stone Age people living by a leisurely rhythm of the seasons, but in fact they needed superb time-management skills.
If summer and autumn supply most of the garden’s bounty, though, spring offers the best foraging, when The Girl and I rummage through the bog-country and return with bushels of foodstuffs, ready to be dried, pickled, frozen and made into wine for the coming year.
The beginning of April here sees the first hawthorn shoots, and for two weeks they remain tender enough to be eaten in salad, sautéed in vegetables, or chopped and thrown into soups. When the hawthorns are in leaf the blackthorns are in flower, and we use this brief window to mark their position among the other trees of the bog-lands; once the blackthorns are done flowering, the trees are unobtrusive and hard to spot among the other trees, and you must know where they are to get their prized autumn sloe fruits.
Shortly after the hawthorn shoots appear, though, the first nettles grow large enough to pick, and the last six weeks have been prime nettle season for us. I’ve written before how nutritious nettles are, and how they can be eaten as a vegetable in their own right, like spinach, or made into tea, beer, soup, kim chi, or put into any number of dishes. I’ve been freezing bags of them to eat this winter, and drying them into tubs of tea to consume through the rest of the year. They are also useful for fibre – I saw an entire wedding dress made of nettle fibre once – but not until later in the year.
Shortly after we harvest the first nettles, the first cowslips appear, illuminating the woods like fireflies. These yellow flowers, hanging like tiny golden bells from short stalks, take advantage of the brief window when the weather is warm enough for pollinators but dappled sunlight still covers the forest floor. They are already fading now, as the trees regrow their canopy and the woods darken again.
We’ve filled great bags with cowslips, freezing them until we had enough for wine. Then, last weekend, I boiled several litres of water – enough for a carboy and several wine bottles down the road – and mixed in sugar and the juice and zest of two lemons, and finally mixed in the cowslips. I let them boil for five minutes, turned off the heat and mixed in a champagne yeast.
Also fleeting are daisies that peek out of the grass; sweet woodruff that can be dried and used to flavour wine; chamomile and bramble shoots for evening tea; and wood sorrel massing like disciples around the feet of the great trees. The dandelions spread across the fields in the last month of April, their yellow flowers ready to be made into wine or fritters and their leaves providing us with more salad greens.
By May the blackthorn flowers are long gone and the hawthorn leaves are getting tough, which means the hawthorns are ready for their turn to bloom. For this reason the hawthorn is also called the May plant; the lyric “here we go gathering nuts in May,” refers to the tree, not the month, as nothing grows nuts in May.
The best part of May, though, is the nightly linden salads. New linden leaves taste much like lettuce, and every night when I ride my bicycle home from the bus stop, I can stop outside my door and pick a salad from our tree.
Now that May is behind us, all the elders are preparing to bloom, their inchoate flowers still green and clenched. In a couple of weeks, though, they will stretch into hand-sized flowers, ready for elderflower champagne and pancakes. The first gooseberries are hiding amid the thorns of their bush, and we can gather them by summer.
By late summer the hedgerows around us will grow thick with the first currants and bramble-berries. The meadowsweet stalks will unfurl their tufts along the canal, which we will collect in August for next year’s wine. By autumn we will search the bog-lands for mushrooms and the hazel and beech trees for nuts, collect elderberries, rose-hips and haws for winter syrup, crab-apples for jelly.
By day I take the bus to work in the city; a dismal landscape of cement and glass where humans have conspired to shut out seasons and growing things, keep only their own timetable, and attend only to their own desires. When our human obligations are done, though, we cleave to Nature’s timetable, ticking off each new chore and reward as they appear. We care for her smaller living things and make their brief lives healthy and useful, and hope she will do the same for us.