For some, the end of May signals the start of the Flower Show season. Straw fedoras and pinstripe sports jackets are extracted from the depths of wardrobes as the Chelsea Flower Show (the most notable on the calendar) fills up with excited punters from across the world. Admittedly, some of this crowd will consider this the first event of a very specific social calendar - they’ll be off to Henley soon and it won’t be long before they are piling into Centre Court - but most in attendance will be there looking to draw inspiration from the cutting-edge of horticulture.

I must confess that I’ve never really seen the appeal of a flower show, let alone one with heritage such as Chelsea, but I really do love gardening. I love the feel of freshly tilled soil, the anticipation of a seed germinating and I also find great peace in my own private green space that is designed (that’s a loose term) to my own specifications. I also am a Gardener’s World completist, with every Friday night episode being as close to appointment viewing as we get in our house, although even we will occasionally fast-forward a VT where a very wealthy-looking someone shows us around their very wealthy-looking garden, clipped and mowed to oblivion with their team of estate staff hiding off camera. 

There is a slightly retrograde notion that splits foragers and gardeners into two separate, green-fingered camps - the thinking behind this being that one likes it scruffy and wild, whereas the other prefers a more managed, controlled look to their outdoor space. Why waste all that time digging, weeding and planting when nature does a perfectly good job of it herself? Or what on earth would possess you to eat those things I pull out from between the brassicas? It’s not exactly the mods versus the rockers, but there is enough of a culture-clash to consider it a faction between two groups of people both equipped with pruning knives, wicker trugs and well-used nail brushes.

You only have to step into my own typical suburban plot to see that my wife and I quite like the two approaches to overlap. We have reasonably organised vegetable beds, the odd flower picked up from a garden centre clearance aisle and something resembling a watering routine. Our garden is about as close to a smallholding as you’ll find (barring chickens due to our vulpine lodgers) with the count being something like one-hundred-and-fifty edible species that we deliberately planted. 

Courgettes, tomatoes and runner beans are always a treat, but we’ve looked for the more unusual crops to keep our family well-fed throughout the year - gluts of jerusalem artichokes, swiss chard, and cucamelons are not rare additions to our standard weeknight meals, yet would set us back a fair few pennies were we to buy them in a shop. We also have edible plants not in with the traditional fruit, herbs or vegetables, but hanging out in the flower borders. Hostas, camellias and even tulips have edible parts to them, and whilst we don’t make a habit of eating our hard-earned floral displays, an occasional nibble on what many won’t even have considered edible is a real treat and makes me feel like I’m part of an exclusive club, enjoying something that very, very few have before. Throw in juicy mulberries, jammy medlars and aromatic quinces and it’s probably fair to say that we eat finer food than the vast majority of the global population. (Incidentally, on the rare occasions we do frequent our local supermarket, our trolley must look like a car crash borderlining on child neglect with multiple bags of preserving sugar, sacks of beige carbs and litres of gin for capturing the flavours of the next harvest. If only the checkout assistant new of the treasure we had waiting for us at home).

Back to our garden then and, whilst we love the productivity and reward of our veg plot, we also allow nature to flourish in the spaces we aren’t really using, permitting so-called ‘weeds’ (let’s ban that word forevermore!) where bare soil would otherwise be. It’s both a holistic approach and an ecological drive, but also incredibly lower maintenance and it provides us with a broader range of home-grown food, even if we didn’t purposefully sow a seed. Through our own laid-back nature (read: laziness) we actually end up with yet more ingredients, this time courtesy of whichever wild species has found our garden to be a suitable home. 

I remember that my granny and grandpa had a hand-written ‘birds in our garden’ list framed by their back door with a ballpoint pen residing permanently at the end of an old bit of string attached to the glass-less picture frame, presumably the rule being that another entry could be scribbled on there when a new species of bird landed somewhere on their property. From memory, there were entries for sparrowhawks, woodpeckers and canada geese - pretty impressive for a tiny plot in south Manchester suburbia. Inspired by this, we recently installed our own framed list, entitled ‘wild edible species in our garden’.

The rules are simple:

1. It must be a wild or feral species and not deliberately planted by us (i.e. arrived on its own);

2. One of us must have eaten this species at some point, although not necessarily from our own garden.

Down to it then! Listed below is our current list, as of May 2023. Some of these have been and gone, and I am certain we will find more in the coming years:

Stinging nettle, sow thistle, garlic mustard, dandelion, hairy bittercress, ox eye daisy, alexanders, three-cornered leek, wild garlic, fairy ring champignon, feverfew, dog rose, bramble, sheep sorrel, common poppy, rowan, hazel, oak, forget-me-not, sycamore, crow garlic, raspberry, curled dock, ribwort plantain, broadleaf plantain, velvet shank, oyster mushroom, sour cherry, horseradish, corn salad, elder, common wintercress, chickweed, fat hen, broom, ground elder, common hogweed, yarrow, cow parsley, wormwood, mugwort, angelica, wood blewit, cleavers, pineapple weed, rosebay willowherb, white clover, red clover, red dead nettle, couch grass, nipplewort, hawthorn, silver birch, honesty, willow, ground ivy, cats ear, garden ant, garden snail, creeping thistle, speedwell.

Phew! Not a bad result with next to zero effort, right?

Reading that back, I fully appreciate that to a casual forager that may seem quite an intimidating list, but there will definitely be some entries there that you are familiar with - nettles, dock leaves and thistles are simple enough - and it is with those species that you should begin if you are looking to learn more. If, however, you are equipped with a bit of knowledge already and are simply looking to find these things for yourself, there is one very simple thing to remember: let it grow. Don’t cut your lawn. A large majority of that list was found in our lawn. If you have a grassy space that isn’t freshly laid turf, you too will undoubtedly have a number of edible wild species ready to burst into life, putting on a display that looks great too - we have become conditioned to think that beautiful flowers such as dandelions are a blight in our gardens, but I reckon they have a floral display that rivals daffodils, crocuses or other early spring species.

For perspective, on 1st June I will be cutting the grass for the first time this year, having not done so since November. I’ll be doing so on the very highest setting after flushing out reptiles and amphibians from the longer patches, and have chosen this date to coincide with the end of No Mow May but also to beat the tadpoles crawling out of the pond. Our lawn has shrunk in the five or so years we have been here, with more and more space being dedicated to untouched wild patches, and as such we have increased the number of edible species in our garden, along with providing better habitats and food sources for wildlife. In fact, the garden is fizzing with life right now and all through actively doing nothing. 

If you take anything away from this article, it is to embrace the scruff. Welcome it in. Yes, you can keep your roses pruned, your flower beds neat and your vegetables free of competition, but where wild plants are thriving, let them do so. Our broad beans are knee-high now, with delicious chickweed swaying at ground level beneath them. Our back line of awful leylandii creates a dry, arid environment underneath that is abound with succulent thistles, nettles and poppies. Adjacent to the traditional herb bed, our pond area plays host to more unusual wild herbs such as ground ivy, alexanders and mugwort. 

And if that’s not enough to convince you, think of all those allotmenteers who fear ‘the hungry gap’: a lean period of the year when nothing is quite ready to eat yet and all the growth from last year or early spring has faded away. Foragers, both the communal garden variety and the lesser-spotted woodland subspecies alike, do not suffer stomach rumblings waiting for their hybrids and cultivars to produce a crop. Instead, entire meals can be created around the wild crops that would have once been destined for the compost heap. These are heritage varieties sat right under our noses, with the only barrier being a willingness to reassess their merit in our beds. 

Whilst I don’t expect an impressive display of stickyweed to win an RHS award any time soon, and I think that the negativity towards the buzzword of ‘rewilding’ (a topic for another time) has probably created barriers between respected garden designers and the usage of native wild plants, it would be so refreshing to see them welcomed into mainstream garden culture and I sincerely believe that their reassessment would most likely come from people realising that there are more edible species out there than one might realise. If a weed really is just a plant in the wrong place - a slightly trite expression often attributed to one particular celebrity gardener whom I know does not appreciate the wilder side of gardening, but pretty accurate in its sentiment nevertheless - then it is perhaps our job to relax the boundaries in our gardens, rather than committing strict regimes to their eradication.

With an altogether more holistic approach and welcoming wild plants to our gardens, our plots can become richer for crops, pollinators and biodiversity, increasing the positive environmental impact of our green spaces on the environment. These wild species - rarely classified as invasive - are just looking for a place to grow and call home, and have every right to do so in our gardens. (Hang on, have we accidentally stumbled upon a metaphor about weeds and refugees? Damn, I was trying to avoid politics this time.)  

It’s viewing these plants, fungi and even bugs through the eyes of a keen forager that might just start that process.

I’ve written this because I think someone will enjoy reading or take comfort from it. If that’s not you, that’s cool, but please keep it to yourself - I don’t need your negative feedback.

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