Ellen Zachos - The Penny Hoarder

Keeping fresh vegetables in the refrigerator is one of my biggest challenges. It's easy to have dried pasta or rice on hand, but at the end of a long work day, who wants to stop by the grocery store, search for parking and wait in line just to buy a head of lettuce or a bunch of spinach? Not me!

There are loads of delicious wild greens you can forage locally, providing fresh vegetables for you and your family.

When you know what to forage for in your own neighborhood, putting fresh veggies on the table becomes a lot easier and cheaper. And the few minutes it takes to harvest the plants lets you unwind and transition from work time to home time.

Here are five spring greens you can harvest.

What to Know Before You Forage for Greens

Rule No.1 of foraging: Never eat anything you've harvested unless you are 100% sure of what you've got. Additionally, use common sense when deciding where to forage. Parks and gardens that use insecticides and herbicides are not safe choices. You should also avoid picking close to busy highways, as plant roots can absorb heavy metals from automobile exhaust that settle on the ground.

1. Chickweed Instead of Lettuce

Chickweed is a mild-tasting green that, like lettuce, you can use raw in salads to balance out stronger flavors. You can also cook it for use in egg dishes, soups, stews and stir fries.

Like many greens (wild or cultivated), chickweed reduces in volume when cooked.

As a replacement for lettuce, chickweed can save you approximately $2.50 per head (1 pound). If you use chickweed instead of baby spinach as a cooked green, you’ll save $3 to $4 a bag.

To produce a cup of cooked greens, you’ll need 6 to 8 cups of the raw plant. Chickweed is high in iron and zinc.

How to Forage for Chickweed

Chickweed is an annual ground cover that is best harvested in cooler spring or fall weather. In a shady spot, you may find tender chickweed in summer. But in direct sunlight during the warmest months, the plant often goes dormant. Chickweed grows all over the U.S., but scales back in hot weather, so you’ll find it in different places at different times, depending on the temperature.

The tastiest part of chickweed is its upper 2 to 3 inches. Because it often grows in large patches, it doesn’t take much time to gather enough for a meal.

Simply snip off the tips of the stems, which will include several pairs of leaves and perhaps even some white flowers. The entire tip is edible, but the lower stems tend to be stringy, so leave those behind.

If you harvest from your chickweed patch regularly (once every 7 to 14 days), you can prolong the harvest as new growth replaces what you harvested.  

2. Garlic Mustard to Replace Arugula

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You can use raw garlic mustard in salads or sandwiches instead of a pricy, sharp-flavored green like arugula, which retails for $2.50 to $3.50 per half-pound bag.

It has a strong flavor, so if you’re going to use it in a salad, combine it with mild-tasting greens. You can also make a delicious pesto from garlic mustard foliage -- the leaves take the place of both basil and garlic.

Garlic mustard is exceptionally nutritious. It has more vitamin C and E, zinc, fiber, and beta carotene than spinach, kale and collards. It’s also high in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium] and iron.

How to Forage for Garlic Mustard

Garlic Mustard is an invasive weed that grows in most of the US, except the hottest, driest regions, like the desert and parts of Florida. It’s a biennial with heart-shaped, garlic-scented leaves that are most tender and tasty in spring or fall of its first year. You can distinguish a first-year plant from a second-year one, as a first-year plant lacks a flower, whereas the second-year plant has a flower stalk.

3. Lambsquarters Instead of Baby Spinach

As a baby spinach substitute, you’ll save $3 to $4 for every 6 ounces of lambsquarters you pick.

Some people call it wild spinach, and, like spinach, this versatile, leafy green has a mild flavor. While it’s certainly edible raw, I find its cooked flavor much tastier.

Use lambsquarters in stir fries, scrambled eggs or quiches.  Lambsquarters is high in potassium, calcium, zinc, fiber and beta-carotene.

How to Forage for Lambsquarters

Lambsquarters is a plentiful wild green with a long growing season. It produces new leaves even in hot weather, which is when spinach does not grow well. Lambsquarters grows all over the U.S., except in the Arctic islands.

Young leaves are best for eating raw, but you should cook older leaves, as they may have a slightly bitter flavor.

4. Sheep Sorrel Can Replace Its Pricy Cousin

You can use sheep sorrel in any recipe that calls for French sorrel, which is often hard to find and retails for as much as $4 to $5 for about 5 to 6 ounces. It has a strong, tart flavor and makes an excellent addition to salads and sandwiches.

As a cooked green, it reduces greatly in volume, and the color turns a dark olive green. Don’t let the color change deter you, cooked sorrel is a treat. It’s especially good in creamy soups (hot or cold), where the tart flavor balances the rich creaminess of a potato or cream base.

How to Forage for Sheep Sorrel

Sheep sorrel is a common weed in lawns, and it grows all over the US. Because it’s a small, low-growing plant, it often survives a mowing. Check your lawn for rosettes of small, 2-to-3-inch-long leaves with an arrow shape.

The base of each mature leaf has two lobes that point back toward the center of the plant. Remove the leaf from the stem (which is tough and fibrous) and use the greens raw or cooked.

5. Stinging Nettles Instead of Spinach

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These are a perennial vegetable that makes a delicious and economical replacement for spinach. Like spinach, it has a mild flavor and cooks down in volume, so plan accordingly.

Nettle leaves are thicker than some of the other greens mentioned above, so consider them a substitute for mature spinach, not baby spinach. You’ll save at least $3 for every pound of stinging nettles you gather. They make a delicious, rich green soup and a very tasty cooked green in casseroles and egg dishes.

How to Forage for Stinging Nettle

Nettles grow all over the US, and you should harvest them before they flower. You can easily reap multiple harvests from a single patch over a period of many weeks. Each time you harvest, cut off the top 6 to 8 inches of the plant. Check back on your nettles every two weeks for a fresh harvest.

The stingers on nettle stems and leaves can be painful! Wear leather gloves when you harvest, and don’t touch them barehanded until after you’ve cooked them. Boiling disarms the stingers in 30 to 60 seconds. After that, you can handle the blanched nettles with ease.

Imagine how much you’ll save on your weekly produce bills by learning how to forage for local wild greens. They’re all around you, just waiting to be turned into something delicious.

Ellen Zachos makes wild foods a regular part of her diet, not only because they’re free, but because they taste so darn good. She is the author of Backyard Foraging and The Wildcrafted Cocktail.