Ethical Foraging Tips, Wild Tending,
and Asking for Permission

Cover image for a blog post. In the top left corner is a green box with text that reads: "Ethical Foraging Tips, Wild Tending, & Asking for Permission", "How to deepen your foraging experience & harvest consciously", and "By: Katie Venechuk, IYE Founder & Foraging Instructor". A photo in the background shows a bounty of oyster mushrooms, photographed on private property in Lowell, Michigan. The In Your Element logo is in the top right corner.

If you’ve attended a foraging class with us, you know we approach our foraging classes a little differently.  We begin our plant and mushroom walks together in a circle as a community, taking a moment to be still and notice the unique qualities of the day and ecosystem we are arriving in.  

Is the sun shining?  Are the trees full with leaves or in their winter skin?  What animals or birds can you hear?

By taking time to appreciate where we are before we begin to name and categorize the plants and mushrooms on the landscape, we offer ourselves a potent reminder that we are stepping into a vast web of life.  This is a web of life which, as humans, we are connected to and a part of.  By foraging, we reclaim that connection in a very special way.

When it comes to foraging, people are often taught the importance of asking for permission from the land owner, among other legalities.  But the topics of wild tending or ethical and conscious foraging are a little less conspicuous in the resources that we’ve learned from ourselves over the years.  So, we’re here to shed some light on these topics!

If you’re interested in learning about what wild tending is and how conscious/ethical foraging approaches can expand your foraging experience, deepen your relationship to your foraged food, and serve to keep our ecosystems healthy, you’re in the right place!  

Wild Tending

A selfie of In Your Element instructor Katie Venechuck, smiling and holding foraged field garlic near her face. She is wearing a wide-brim hat and a gray and black sweater. The sun shines through bare trees behind her, and a basket with tools sits beside her.

At its heart, wild tending is an ethic of tenderness and awareness.  Wild tending is what we are doing in that opening circle at our classes.  Rather than hopping out of the car and hiking straight into the forest with a basket in hand, we begin our experience slowly and intentionally.  This pause to notice the world around us – however brief – sends us into the environment where we are harvesting with a sense of consciousness.  It’s a moment to remember that most of the wild foods we’re looking for are being harvested from living organisms, and that living on a landscape with this kind of fertility and abundance is an incredible gift.  By noticing the wildlife, we’re also reminded that we are not the only ones out there on the hunt for food.  

Wild tending connects us back to a feeling that is slowly becoming extinct.  It’s beautifully described by Terry Tempest Williams in her quote, “Our wildness reminds us of what it means to be human.  What we are connected to, rather than separate from.” 

When we remember this connection, we naturally approach our harvest of wild foods gently.  And as a bonus, all this intentional awareness can deepen our connection to the food we bring home.  There are many situations where I’ve brewed tea on a winter day and remembered the sunny summer afternoon when I harvested the leaves.  As the steam billows up from my mug and the snow blows outside, I remember the sunshine on my skin.  I recall the fragrant smell of the soft leaves when I first harvested them from the plant.  The memory of it sends a warmth through me before I even take a sip of my tea. 

Wild tending is a practice that deepens our relationship to the land, the food on our plate, and the precious moments we get to spend outside foraging.  It is well worth adding into your foraging experiences!

A group of people gathers around In Your Element instructor Katie Venechuck in Cascade Peace Park in Ada, Michigan. The sun is shining over the group and the trees around them as they take a moment to connect with their surroundings as a practice of wild tending.

Harvesting Wild Foods & Asking for Permission

Where you can legally harvest wild foods is a topic that most foragers are aware of, though it’s a tricky topic to navigate.  If you’d like to learn more about the legalities of foraging, check out our blog post Is it Legal to Forage in Michigan? for a great overview!

When it comes to harvesting wild foods, we’d also like to introduce the idea of asking for permission from the land, plant, or mushroom you are harvesting.  

I know…I know.  This is a much stranger and edgier idea.  But hear me out.  Because, if you take the time to consider this question intentionally, it’s surprisingly intuitive.  And asking for permission in this way is an action that can serve both us and the land in a lot of ways.

When asking for permission, take time to notice the health of the organism you are considering harvesting.  Is it wilting, or vibrant?  Are there holes in some of the leaves, showing that the plant is getting nibbled up by caterpillars?  Do you see a large quantity of this plant or mushroom on the landscape, or are you standing with the only one?  Does it feel okay to harvest?  In general, if the organism is struggling or is uncommon in the place where you’re foraging, this is a sign to leave it be.  

Let us share a specific example!  

An oyster mushroom bloom is "protected" by poison ivy plant growing to its left side. The mushroom caps are pale brown toward its interior and pale orange on the ruffled edges.

Take a close look at this beautiful oyster mushroom that we spotted last year while out foraging.  It had some dirt on it, but we could have gently cleaned it off after we harvested it.  Yet, this mushroom was tucked away and partially hidden in a difficult spot to access from the trail.  We almost didn’t even see it!  The mushroom bloom was growing off a stump at the base of a somewhat unstable side slope, with the land eroding in the adjacent areas with less growth.  Also…notice the poison ivy tucked along its edges?  It’s almost as though the mushroom is being protected.  Poison ivy notoriously loves to grow in areas of disturbed soil, and we often refer to it in classes as an ecosystem awareness plant.  Poison ivy tells us to stay away and allows disturbed land to stabilize and regenerate.  

This oyster mushroom is a great example of a situation where we did not feel like we had permission to harvest.  By choosing to leave this mushroom in place, we saved the side slope from suffering further erosion (which would have occurred if we’d tried to edge down to harvest it).  We also saved ourselves from a possible poison ivy rash!

The Rule of Thirds & Ethical Harvesting

Imagine you are out for a walk and you come upon a black raspberry patch in the heart of summertime.  The berries are plentiful, warm, and BURSTING with juice.  The temptation to pick every last berry and bring them home to share with your friends and family is soaring.  But wait!  …Should we really do that?

In Your Element instructor Katie Venechuck harvests wild berries on private property in Lowell, Michigan. Bountiful berry plants are in the foreground of the photo.

Here, we’d love to introduce the rule of thirds.  This is a really simple rule to remember:  harvest a third of what you find for yourself, leave a third for wild animals that may enjoy this wild food (and may rely on it), and leave a third for the plant or mushroom to continue to thrive and spread.  

Going back to our raspberry patch example, if we pause and opt to harvest just a third of the berries, then birds and other critters will be able to enjoy the berries too.  As those birds and animals pass waste, they’ll spread those black raspberry seeds across the landscape, generating more berry plants from which we can all harvest and enjoy.  In return for harvesting just a third, we receive abundance.  This is wild tending and reciprocity at its finest!  

By remembering the rule of thirds you’ll have a great baseline for ethical and sustainable foraging of wild foods like berries, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, and many wild salad greens.  BUT – it’s important to remember that not all plants grow at the same rate, and the rule of thirds isn’t a universal answer to ethical and sustainable harvesting of all wild foods.  

As your foraging experience grows and you begin to harvest more delicate organisms, such as wild ramps, it’s important to remember that the true rule of ethical and sustainable harvest is to not take more than the plant (or patch) can replace in a year.  When asking yourself this question, remember to consider factors like disease, weather, and what animals are relying on the wild edible as a food source.

To better understand why this is important, let’s dig into that example of wild ramps.  

Wild ramps can take 7-10 years to grow to maturity, which is a significant thing to understand as a forager.  If we visit a wild ramp patch and harvest a third from it one year, and a third again the next year, and then a third again the next year, it would not take long for us to significantly harm the population of wild ramps in that area (or wipe it out all together).  

A minimalist approach is the best approach with slow growing species like wild ramps.  Harvest just a small amount of wild ramps, even if a field looks abundant.  If you’re really hankering for a larger harvest, consider harvesting just the green aboveground parts of the ramp and leave the root in the soil for continued growth.  Again, use a minimalist approach, even with the leaves.  Ramps are TRULY a treat!  And it can feel like such an honor to harvest and eat them with this attitude.  This is tenderness and appreciation for the food that we are being offered, and is a core component of ethical foraging.

Katie carefully harvests a few select ramps on private property in Lowell, Michigan.

Here are a few other ethical harvesting tips:

  • Never take the first plant or mushroom that you find; always being sure of abundance on the landscape first.
  • When harvesting leaves from a plant, spread your harvest out among multiple plants.
  • If the plant is an invasive species you’ll often be helping the land by removing it.  So in these cases, don’t worry about the rule of threes and harvest to your heart’s content!  A great example of this is the invasive species garlic mustard, which is allelopathic and releases a biochemical that prevents growth of other plants nearby.  If you pull up the roots of garlic mustard when harvesting, you are freeing up that soil for growth of native plant species on the landscape. 

The Gifts of Wild Tending, Asking for Permission, and Ethical Foraging

Foraging is a wonderful way to connect to the land and remember that we are a part of the ecosystems that surround us.  Foraging takes us from observer to participant, and with that comes the opportunity to engage in so much more than the simple activity of snipping some leaves off of a plant.  

In Michigan, wild foods are everywhere.  Wildlife is everywhere.  The patterns of weather are constantly changing.  The landscape is constantly transforming.  When we notice this, we remember our part in it. Foraging as a means of connection is accessible to all of us.  As human beings, this has always been the case.  It’s a connection that runs deep in our bones.  

We hope you’ll give the practices of wild tending, asking for permission, and ethical harvesting with the rule of threes a try!  

And if you live here in Michigan, join us year-round for foraging classes and workshops to expand your knowledge of plant and mushroom identification, learn more ethical foraging tips, and explore wild tending with our experienced and qualified guides!

One thought on “Ethical Foraging Tips, Wild Tending,
and Asking for Permission

Leave a Reply