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Go Outside and Eat 

Navigating the hunter-gatherer garden

I realized recently that I don't write nearly enough about vegetable gardening. The reason for this is simple: I don't have one. I understand very little about what's happening in my own garden, so how could I be expected to have anything at all to say about what's not happening in my garden?

But in fact, even though I don't have a vegetable garden, there's always a little something to eat in my backyard. You just have to forage for it. It's not a kitchen garden, with a neat little plot set aside for the herbs and veggies. It's more like a hunter-gatherer garden. If you know what you're looking for, you'll find some edible stuff out there.

I started to make a list of everything I might be able to eat out of my own garden. It's pretty impressive when you put it all together like this.

Eggs. OK, eggs don't technically come from a plant, but I do find them all over the garden, and the hens do eat the plants when they're not laying eggs, so that counts for something, right? A fresh egg is one of the better meal possibilities in my backyard, so it goes to the top of the list.

Apples. If you are not growing an apple tree in Humboldt County, it's time to dig a hole and plant one. We are in apple country up here. You have no excuse. You don't need much space — my dwarf Honeycrisp fits very neatly in one small corner of the garden and never gets so tall that the fruit is out of reach. Trust me, there is something so satisfying about going outside in the fall and eating an apple right off the tree, and I do just that every day for months because of Honeycrisp's long harvest season. Bareroot fruit trees will start showing up in garden centers right after the holidays, so clear some space, fill a big planting hole with compost and get ready.

Blackberries and raspberries. Another no-brainer in Humboldt County. Try to whack back the aggressive Himalayan blackberries and plant some cultivated varieties. I've got raspberries, thornless blackberries, tayberries and loganberries growing in a crazy tangle in one corner of the garden. I cut it back once a year, but otherwise, it thrives all on its own and gives us more berries than we can eat. A more organized gardener would train them onto trellises and prune them carefully to maximize the harvest, but in my opinion, that defeats the point of the hunter-gatherer garden. I just let mine go.

Artichokes. A beautiful ornamental plant — I have learned that anything with silvery leaves looks good in the fog and the rain — and it produces artichokes any time of the year. Just cut the stalks back to encourage more growth. Artichokes are perfectly happy in a flower bed and they look great with ornamental grasses, lavender and just about any small shrub.

Herbs. Woody, perennial herbs like rosemary, tarragon and sage are surprisingly good garden plants. You can prune them like you would any shrub, you can neglect them all summer, and they reward you with blooms and plenty of flavoring for your egg-and-artichoke omelet. Fennel and parsley also make themselves at home in the flower beds, and I've even begun treating chives, onions and garlic like ornamentals. I just stick them in the ground, let them bloom in summer (they produce interesting globe-shaped pink and white flower clusters) and go rooting around for a garlic or onion bulb when I need one.

Potatoes. Speaking of rooting around, I've planted potatoes in actual vegetable beds twice before, and even though the beds themselves are gone the potatoes keep coming back. I don't get a great crop anymore, but I let them volunteer in the flower beds. Sometimes a Yukon Gold turns up when I'm digging. Sometimes it doesn't. That's foraging for you.

Blueberries. OK, this may not belong on the list. I planted several blueberry plants last year, and I enjoyed their dramatic red foliage in the fall, but I have never actually eaten a blueberry from my own garden. I know it takes a while for the plants to get established, but I also know that my hens have much more time to devote to foraging for food in my garden than I do. The minute a blueberry ripens, one of the hens will be on the spot, plucking it off the plant and doing a victory lap around the garden with a big purplish berry stuck in her beak.

Greens. In my pre-chicken days, I always had a little plot of kale and chard in the vegetable garden. I liked the blue-green kale leaves and the crazy purple and yellow ribs of rainbow Swiss chard. In between, I would seed in mache (also called corn salad), a sweet, tender green that came up in the middle of winter and always re-seeded easily. But the chickens are big salad eaters, and I'd have to fence a section off to grow greens again.

Then again, fencing off a piece of land to keep the predators away was probably the first step toward cultivated agriculture, and one fenced plot could spell the end of my hunter-gatherer garden. If I need greens, I'll go forage for them at the grocery store.

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Amy Stewart

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