Garden of Eatin'
It’s like a miniature Eden, with apple and pear trees, what looks to be a fig tree, a Meyer lemon tree, and some sort of cactus that I can only imagine would make killer nopales burritos. Her yard is lush and filled with edibles; mine is nothing more than an asphalt patch and a few plants in large pots that I brought from a more fertile yard.
But I figured that if there’s this much life in the edible small adjoining yard right now, the city itself must be teeming with food, especially at this time of year. So I went in search of some of San Francisco’s local fall food, relying on some of the city’s best foragers and pickers to guide me.
My first stop was 18 Reasons, a nonprofit art and food center in the Mission. Rosie heads up the programs at this little shop that has a continuously changing schedule of food classes, including lessons in home brewing and baby-food making. I’d gotten acquainted with 18 Reasons earlier in the summer when I had pounds of blackberries needing to be jammed. I’d stumbled across a giant patch of blackberries while riding my bike through the Presidio (just past the lookout near the Arguello gate), and then returned with every Tupperware container in my house.
Rosie set me up with a foraging class designed to take us from a small open garden at CCA, through the Dogpatch, and back to 18 Reasons, where we could make salads with our newly foraged goods. Unfortunately, at the last minute the leader fell ill and couldn’t make it, leaving us eagerly waiting with foraging bags in hand and a mental list of what we hoped to find—I wanted nopales, pears, and apples. We decided to go on a sort of choose-our-own-adventure course and see what we could find.
Among the crew were a mom and her two kids in a double stroller, which she pushed up and down the steep Potrero and Dogpatch hills. But the most memorable and expert forager of all was Topher in her Nepalese Sherpa outfit, complete with fur boots and a woven vest. She wore a giant hat and had two identical purebred Airedale terriers with her. It turned out that Topher Delaney was an award-winning garden designer (tdelaney.com), and was the best impromptu guide imaginable. Following her lead, we trekked up the hill to an unfenced garden planted at the freeway off-ramp at Pennsylvania and Mariposa. Run by gardener Annie Shaw and a group of volunteers, the roadside garden is filled with herbs ready for the picking.
Next we hiked up the steep streets to Topher’s own project – an edible medicinal garden surrounding a UCSF medical building on Minnesota between 18th and 19th streets. Topher put her own money into building this garden, which is used in homeopathic medicine and to feed the workers inside. It’s not really for foraging, but if you want to learn about edible plants, spend some time with Topher. She needs volunteers to help tend her garden, and will teach you how to pick everything from lemon verbena to cactus – and how to look fabulous while doing it. We spent more than an hour picking herbs and learning about native plants, while her terriers lay by her side. I learned it’s better to take the young cactus pad, not the giant ones I had lusted after in my neighbor’s garden. I went home with rosemary, lavender, cactus, and aloe for the sunburn I had gotten on our long walk.
Lauren Anderson knows San Francisco backyard edibles better than anyone. She’s the founder and director of Produce to the People (producetothepeople.org), and part of her job (she has yet to be paid for her hundreds of hours) is to gather excess fruits and vegetables in people’s yards and bring them to those who need it, like the people who come to the Julian Pantry on Saturdays at the Episcopal Church of St. John and the free farmers’ market on Saturdays at Gough and Eddy.
Fall is apple season, and many backyard trees are too abundant for the average homeowner to pick, so they call Lauren. She lugs her giant ladder around – atop her veggie oil car that is fueled by her neighborhood sushi joint – collecting the excess yields from the tops of trees, and dredging the ground for bruised apples to turn into cider.
I tagged along with Lauren to Willie Brown Middle School in the Bayshore. A teacher there had contacted Lauren on her website and asked her to gather as much fruit as she could take from the five apple trees before it went bad. If you have extra produce, Lauren’s a great person to contact because she’ll take on the job – no matter how big or small.
When we arrived at the school, we were surprised to learn that the teacher was using this as a class field-trip activity. Lauren assumed she and I would just pick the fruit and head home within the hour, but instead we spent three hours fielding questions, singing songs, and wrangling the class of fourth-graders. “I never know what I’m going to get into when I head off to collect stuff,” said Lauren, who towered above the kids as she gathered the hard-to-reach crop.
We spent the majority of our time trying to keep the kids focused – most were more interested in eating the other unripened veggies and tossing sticks at the beehive than in picking apples. We handed out long picking poles and buckets to those who wanted to join in. Jameer, an incredibly charismatic kid, sang hymns and made up songs about the garden. By the time we left the school, we had five boxes full of perfect apples and two giant mulch bags full of seconds, the ones we’ll use to press cider.
On my third day of foraging, I ventured out with Kevin Feinstein of ForageSF. Kevin was dressed head-to-toe in khaki and wore a fanny pack and hiking boots. He was such a great contrast to the gutter punk kids sitting just above our meeting spot in Buena Vista Park. Kevin is an expert on urban picking, and is part of the ForageSF team, a group that leads hands-on courses in finding food in the city. The two-hour foraging class costs $30. Next month, the group will lead a course in local fishing and crabbing.
We began our fall foraging trek at Baker and Haight. And two hours later, we ended it only a few steps away. In a single two-by-two plot of dirt, Kevin can tell you what leaves you can eat (dandelions), what berries you can eat (blackberry and yew, but the seeds of the yew are extremely poisonous, so you can only eat the fruit), and what nuts to eat (acorns, although it’s a bad year for them).
While most of the edibles he pointed out were savory or bitter, he did find a few fruits in the mix. A tree with passionfruit grew beside the blackberries, its cocoon-like fruit hanging precariously above poison ivy and behind a huge spider’s web. Kevin pointed out the wild plums, which grow all around the city. Look for their reddish-purple leaves and cherry-sized fruit. “If it looks like a cherry and tastes like a plum, you got the right thing,” he said.
Kevin swore that March is the best time to forage; he said it’s when everything is ready for the picking. But even so, we found dandelion greens, lavender, acorns, and some die-hard blackberries hanging on past their summer prime. I set my newly foraged finds aside in a small, decorative bowl next to the nopales and medicinal herbs from Topher, and got to the serious job of juicing my 25 pounds of apples.
Want to seek out the city’s autumnal food? Check out 18 Reasons for its calendar of upcoming foraging classes. Send Topher (tdelaney.com) a note if you want to help her in her garden. You can contact Lauren at Produce to the People if you have extra produce you want to donate, or if you want to lend her a hand picking pears and apples this fall. Increase your fall foraging knowledge by signing up for a class with ForageSF and learn what, when, and how to eat what you find.