The Urban forager by Andy Hamilton

Sloes by RoyIt often surprises people when they realise that urban environments can supply a more diverse range of foods than rural areas can. This mass delusion of the bio diverse countryside manifests itself when you see hoards of people flocking to country parks or pulling up on B road lay-bys at the mere mention of wild food on BBC’s Countryfile or Autumnwatch.

Urban foraging vs Countryside

I am not denying that you will get some food from the countryside, when looking for soles or hawthorns for instance the countryside should be your first point of call. Also, it can be simply a good day out with the family if you go foraging together.  What I am suggesting is that, before you do jump in your car or hop on a bus, consider a much more carbon friendly approach to foraging and wild food. That is to nip down to the local park, look on walls down your street and even ask the neighbours if you can help weeding.

Andy Hamilton the Urban forager up an elder tree, foraging by Roy Hunt

Andy Hamilton, the urban forager

Indeed I just have to poke my head out of my living room window on this (the day of writing) a morning in March to see ground ivy which used to be used in brewing in place of hops and can be used in a salad. Ivy leafed toad flax which is a great grazing food as it sets root in on walls and can be eaten as you wander down a street. Some thyme growing in the cracks in my pavement, a window box left over from the previous season giving home to some dandelions, sage, chickweed which can be used in a salad, goosegrass which makes a great detox drink, ribwort plantain that can be used in place of spinach. Finally there is hairy bitter cress which has a great peppery taste and can really jazz up a ham sandwich. Compare these crops to a conventional farmer’s field and you are likely to see just one crop, or if it has just been ploughed perhaps nothing growing at all!

Things are improving with the governments bio-diversity subsidies but the fact still remains that farmland in this country generally consists of huge swathes of mono-crops. Stand up on a vantage point in any county and you are likely to see fields and fields of just one crop such as rape, corn, maize or sugar beet. Even the grass grown for grazing on livestock farms is likely to be planted and therefore only around 3 or 4 varieties will be grown.  Also take into consideration the sheer size of the fields taken up by just one crop.

Urban foraging

Now compare this to the areas plants grow within a city. Cities are not made up of a few fields marked for a few uses they are as diverse as the people who live within them. We have gardens, parks, allotments, golf courses, football pitches and industrial sites all within our city walls.  If you walk around an allotment site or even peer out of your bedroom window to see what everyone is growing you are sure to see a whole host of plants.  This is because thankfully we are all different and so the whole range of tastes are catered for with each garden. When the green thumbs of our isle get into action it is possible to grow plants from all over the world and many gardeners do just that.

Yes, I am oversimplifying things and not mentioning woodlands, country parks, nature reserves, organic farms or even hedgerows around farms. What I am suggesting is that to really learn about wild plants you don’t have to go out and look in the countryside.

In fact a friend of mine who offers paid for forages also and lives on the south east cost, came to Bristol and we walked through an area surrounded by gardens, allotments, a couple of small holdings and a city farm. He was amazed at the number of plants on just two streets. Sure enough the diversity of human activity around this area has a direct correlation with the amount of plants on offer.

This, I think is why I am angered to see gardens being turned into off street parking place, new housing estates appearing on parkland and in place of allotments. Or people selling off parts of their gardens in order to squeeze in a few more houses into areas that already resemble a rabbit warren.  If the government insists that it is helping bio diversity should they not be looking into giving gardeners and allotment owners subsidies as well as to farmers? This could be a step towards preserving some of the plants that could otherwise leave our shores.

Andy Hamilton foraging for urban wild food blackberries

A spot of Urban blackberry foraging

Both the countryside and urban forager too must take a great responsibility to the plants that are around him (or her). Many people that first get bitten by the foraging bug will immediately run out and start tearing up the countryside in the hunger for new tastes. I too was once guilty of this when I found a patch of wild rocket growing by a river not far from my house and I then massacring the whole plant in order to make rocket pesto. It was not until the next year when I saw some wild rocket growing in a place further down river that I remembered this previous patch, I had not allowed any of the plant to go to seed and had deprived it from its sole and rightful purpose in this world, to reproduce. This mistake not only cost the plant’s children their future but it also forced me to walk further for my pesto ingredients than I needed to. This anecdote hopefully illustrates a far greater point, that of conservation.

It is possible to carry on eating wild plants without devastating your local stock. The foragers code suggests that you should leave the plant looking like it did when you first saw it. This means don’t strip all of it’s leaves off, eat all of the flowers pick the whole plant up by the root. In fact it is illegal to dig up the roots of any plant without the land owner’s permission and some rare plants should be left alone totally in order to preserve them.

You must also be very aware that there are some poisonous plants out there, plants that will paralyse you if digested, plants that will cause a slow lingering death and plants that will just make you ill. The old saying that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, rings true when it comes to foraging and you must always be 110% certain before you eat something that you find.

It is not that difficult to find a forager in your area to get some basic knowledge to get you started, just look out on notice boards, in health food shops and on the internet.  I taught myself using books and the internet.  The wild food section of our book, The Selfsufficientish Bible published by Hodder and Stoughton is set out with the novice in mind giving a brief description of various foods, information on where to look and a few recipes. My othe book Booze for freeOther books that have helped me are the classic Food for free, by Richard Mabey. I would try and source an older version of his book as it is a much better read and goes into more detail than later editions. By far the best Mushrooms guides are by Roger Phillips which have detailed descriptions, edibility advice and great photographs. I seem to collect wild flower guides too which can be found in good secondhand book shops and charity shops ensure that it has the latin names of each plant as many common names can vary.

I found that the more plants I learnt about the easier it became to identify them. I learnt by identifying the plants on my doorstep. I took out my digital camera took a snap and through a process of elimination worked out which each plant was. Over a few years you will be amazed at how many plants you can identify using this method and it can be quite a buzz knowing that you can identify most of the plants in a mile radius from your house.  Happy foraging


Fruit and Vegetable Gardening – Getting started

The following article first appeared in Ethical Living magazine. When I wrote the following Ethical Living magazine was a physical magazine. As with other Ethical magazines they have chosen to make the bold move to online only.  When I wrote this article it was after an email exchange with Kim Marks the editor. She told me that she wanted to get into vegetable gardening but lacked the experience. So, I wrote the following and subsequent articles in this series with her in mind. It was a good way to focus the mind on who the reader was going to be. I might, if I feel brave enough post some articles where I didn’t do that.

Fruit and Vegetable Gardening – Getting started

My allotmentA common misconception about growing your own produce is that it is somehow difficult. The truth is that nothing can be easier. Humans have been growing produce for thousands of years without the aid of complicated equipment or books (or this magazine).

Equipment needed

This depends on the size of your plot. If you are growing in a window box then, other than a watering can, you won’t need much else, as you can weed with your fingers and the soil won’t really need digging. Moving up to a small bed in the garden I would suggest a spade, a fork, the before mentioned watering can and a hand fork for light weeding are all that’s needed.

If you are considering a larger plot or an allotment then you will need many more tools. A rake, fork, spade, hoe, hand fork, trowel, large watering can or hose, water butt and compost bin are all advisable – although you could get by just using a spade and fork. Before you start to panic at the thought of all of this cost may I suggest that the compost bin can be made (see next issue) or you can just pile up your compost into a heap. Other tools can be borrowed from friends or from sites set up for tool sharing schemes such as (The freeconomy website), or can be gotten for free on

Some of my tools came from a handy garden centre in Bath that sells second hand tools rather cheaply, so keep your eyes open for places near you. Remember too that cheap new tools are a false economy as they will break within the first season.

How much space do I need

I have seen wheat, mustard and even tomatoes growing in the cracks of a pavement. Helpfully illustrating that plants will try and grow wherever they can. I am not suggesting you turn your street into a vegetable patch (although wouldn’t it be great if we all could), I am saying that if you think you have hardly any space, think again.

Even if you live in a small flat you can still grow fruit and vegetable in pots. I have grown tomatoes in a bucket in my living room. A good friend of mine has also grown all the herbs she needed on her one windowsill in her bedsit. Another friend grew blueberries on the flat part of the roof of his London flat. The roof was no bigger than the average dinning room table!

Basically a plant needs room for its roots to take up as much moisture and as many nutrients as it needs. Generally speaking, the bigger the plant the more root space it will need. So, fairly obviously, the more you want to grow the more space you will need.

How much to take on

One of the best bits of advice I can give to anyone when getting started is not to take on too much in one go. If you think you can turn a full allotment plot or (average 250 sq meters) or a huge back garden by yourself. keep a family and a full time job you might need to think again. I would have thought most people could manage it for the first season but as with university drop out rates it seems to be the second year that most people give up. Although if you take on half a plot at first or better still try taking on the plot with a friend or partner then you stand a better chance of cultivating the plot.

What to grow


Tomatillo growing in a pot in my back yard

A very obvious bit of advice is only to grow things that you like and will eat. I was once talking to someone who was really excited as he had, “tons of radishes”. I asked him what he intended to do with them and he was not sure as he does not like radishes.

I too have come foul of seed excitement and once planted a whole packet of beet spinach. Beet spinach is very easy to grow and most seeds will germinate this left me with 4 rows of the stuff. I ate some every day, filled my freezer up with the stuff and gave as much away as I could. I still had more than I could ever hope to do anything with. What made matters worse is that beet spinach just keeps coming. Indeed it also goes by the name of perpetual spinach as you can pick the leaves and they keep growing back. In the end I dug up every single plant and did not plant it again for another few years, where upon I only planted 2 plants and that was plenty.

It is also worth thinking about why you are growing. If it is an attempt to save money then try growing things that cost a lot of money.

What’s easy to grow

There are some plants out there that are really easy to grow which is why many people seem to have them on their plot. Things like beetroot (and the before mentioned beet spinach), lettuces, runner beans, rocket all can be pretty much planted from seed and as long as you water them and the slugs don’t get them they will just grow. I would also highly recommend tomatillos; not only because I love Mexican food, but also because they are very, very easy to grow and give a good yield. I grew some in pots a few years ago and was eating them almost every day! It is noteworthy to suggest that you will need more than one plant in order for them to fruit.

Fruit is another good option especially for the beginner as not much work has to be put in. Raspberries, strawberries and even an apple tree can be planted meaning you will enjoy year after year of delicious fruit.

I would also like to recommend potatoes as they can be a very easy to grow. Indeed, it is often recommended that potatoes should be the first thing that people plant on their plots. This mainly because the soil gets moved when growing spuds as they need earthing up (a process that involves covering the growth to ensure larger crops). Moving the soil in this manner can help keep weeds down, leaving a workable soil the next year. Good advice, that is unless you live in the South west of England as I do; we have real trouble with blight. Blight is a disease that can destroy potatoes and tomatoes rotting them and making them inedible. Our wet summers really don’t help as rain can transfer the disease.


Above all else you need enthusiasm to grow your own produce. Be warned that it can be addictive, one you have roasted your first home grown beetroot, baked your first potato or eaten a pea straight from a pod, you won’t want to look back