Foraging for Food in the Winter Garden

From birch bark to rose hips, there is plenty of food to be found in the winter garden.

Rosehips
Rose hips can be used for everything from tea to jam to ketchup. Savushkin / Getty Images

If you grow your own food at home, winter can often be a time when variety is distinctly lacking. You may well have canned and stored foods for the winter months. And, depending on your climate, may still have crops growing in the garden too. (Especially if you have an undercover growing area.) But one thing that you might not have considered is that foraging in the winter garden can bulk out the winter diet of the home grower.

Here are some things you might be able to forage in your very own garden over the coming months:

Rose Hips

You might not think about the edible potential or your ornamental crops. But a number of ornamentals can also provide edible yields.

Roses are one excellent example. In the summer months, rose petals have certain applications. And if you have not been too zealous in dead-heading, the bare branches will still hold rose hips in the winter. These not only look attractive. They are edible too.

You can use rose hips (which are improved after a few frosts) for teas, jellies, syrups, and even rose hip ketchup, for example. Just be careful as you remove the seeds and the "itching powder" fibers that surround them.

Hawthorn Haws

The berries (or technically "pomes") of the hawthorn are another thing you might find in your garden. These are edible raw, but are better used in making jams, jellies, and other preserves. Rather dense and dry, they are not unlike apples in taste. Not really surprising since these, along with roses, are in the same plant family as apples.

(If you are lucky, you may even find some remaining crab apples on Malus trees to harvest in winter. These can be used in many of the same ways as the above. Chokeberries and chokecherries are two other things you might find persisting on plants into the winter months. And juniper berries and cranberries are, depending on your location, two other types you might find.)

Like rose hips, haws (and perhaps crab apples) often remain on the plants beyond late fall and into the winter. But as always with foraging, do be careful with identification – there are of course many other red "berries" that you definitely don't want to eat. And look out for those thorns!

Conifer Needles

If you have fir, pine, spruce, or other conifers on your property, these also have edible potential. And these are greenery that persists year-round even in the coldest of climate zones. Brew up a vitamin C rich tea, or make some conifer needle cookies for example.

Many conifers, indeed most, are edible. But do make sure that you do not try the yew – as all parts of the yew are poisonous.

Birch Bark

Conifer needles are not the only yield that you can forage from trees in a winter garden. You can not tap trees for sap until late winter / very early spring – though the exact timing will depend on which trees you are tapping and where you live. But birches, one tree commonly tapped for sap, potentially offer something else to the winter forager.

The inner bark of birch trees can be harvested and turned into a flour that strongly resembles buckwheat flour. It's great for cookies, pancakes, and more. Just be very careful when harvesting not to take too much, and never girdle the tree. Take bark from recently fallen or felled trees rather than from living trees if possible.

Dock Seeds and Other Seeds

Curly dock and yellow dock are common weeds, and their seeds are another forage food to find in the winter garden. Harvest the seeds by cutting the stalks covered with the dried seeds, and drying them over a paper bag indoors. Shake the dried stalks to release the seeds, and then winnow over a bowl or other large container to separate the small seeds from the chaff.

Docks are common and widespread, but they are not the only seeds you can collect in a winter garden. Look out also for the seeds of goosefoot (Chenopodium) and other quinoa-type plants commonly considered to be weeds. The seeds are healthy, and great in breads, on crackers, or in other baked goods.

Other weed seeds that are edible and may persist into winter are nettle seeds, and common hogweed seed casings (which have a mildly spiced, orange-peel / ginger / cardamon type taste).

Dandelion Root, Burdock Root, and Other Winter Roots

There are also a number of weeds and other plants with edible roots that you might find when foraging in the winter garden. Burdock roots are earthy and slightly bitter in flavor but can be roasted and eaten like other root vegetables. Dandelion roots can also be useful and are sometimes roasted and brewed as a coffee substitute, as are the roots of chicory.

The Jerusalem artichoke is one commonly known perennial vegetable. But other edible root options including thistle roots, for example, are less well known, but similar to burdock roots. Cattail roots are also edible, so perhaps another option to forage for if you have some of them in your garden.

Wild Greens: Chickweed, Sorrel, Watercress etc...

Whether or not you can forage for greens in your garden in the winter months will, of course, depend on where you live. But in many areas, even in colder climate zones, chickweed, certain sorrels and other greens can persist all winter – even below the snow. Watercress is another green that can often be found in watery areas all year round.

The more you delve into the world of foraging, the more wild foods you will find. But the above are just a few of the commonly available options that you might be able to find when foraging in your own winter garden.

Note: As with all foraging, make sure you have proper identification before consuming.

View Article Sources
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  2. Wilson, Christina R. et al. "Taxines: A Review Of The Mechanism And Toxicity Of Yew (Taxus Spp.) Alkaloids." Toxicon, vol. 39, no. 2-3, 2001, pp. 175-185, doi:10.1016/s0041-0101(00)00146-x