Q: As a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I recall more than a few instances when my father would chase away small groups of plastic baggie-wielding, hoodie-clad college kids off of our property in the early morning hours. After the trespassers had slunk back into the wood surrounding our home, I asked my father what they were up to. Without fail he would simply respond, “Picking mushrooms” and walk away without further explanation. At the time, I was baffled as to why a bunch of college kids would choose the area around our house to gather salad ingredients. I thought my father should be honored or at least appreciative of the free labor. He certainly didn’t seem to have any use for the mushrooms.

Not too many years later, I realized why our mushroom-laden land was so popular with the local college kids. And salads didn’t have anything to do with it. Now, as an adult, I’m an avid gardener and try to grow what I eat as much as possible. Some of my more “advanced” gardening friends have also started to forage for food and I can’t help but think of those mushroom-picking college kids. Sure, their intent was different but it’s essentially the same thing. My question for you: before I partake on foraging excursions of my own, are there any basics I should be aware of?

Victoria – Newport, Ore.

A: Hey Victoria,

I can relate. Growing up in the Puget Sound, I once remember spotting a young couple crouched in my front yard, very studiously plucking things from the grass. And no, I don’t think they were after chanterelles for that evening’s stir-fry.

Foraging, whether it’s of the fungal variety or not, isn’t exactly considered the most socially acceptable way to secure sustenance. Hunting and gathering, unless totally necessary, simply freaks people out. But as I’m sure you know, foraging has become more en vogue with those who could easily walk into a local supermarket instead of venture into the woods with a pocketknife, Ziploc baggies and a guide to edible plants. People forage for wild food for many reasons. Some forage because it’s a low-impact — not to mention cheap — way to eat while others forage because it connects them with nature in a way that gardening can’t. Some foragers are foodies bored with the offerings at the local farmers market. And yes, many folks forage for survival.

Although I’ve never foraged myself through the wilds of New York City — of course, some people do — I have one vital piece of advice: Be totally neurotic.

I’m guessing that if you decide to forage, you’ll read up and what is and what isn’t safe to eat. Still, that isn’t good enough in my humble opinion. Start off by taking a few foraging excursions with an experienced plant picker before you go off on your own and start putting things in your mouth. Sure, I may sound like a totally unadventurous buzz kill, but unless you’re fond of trips to the hospital, always err on the side of caution. And from what I understand, mushrooms aren’t the easiest wild edibles to start off with even though most are edible. Try starting off with ramps, wild berries, dandelions, cattails or acorns.

In addition to educating yourself so that you’re able to clearly identify what’s edible and what’s not, you should also pay mind to where you forage. Foraging isn’t permitted in all parks and wilderness areas so do your homework. Naturally, make sure that you don’t venture onto private property and if you do, get permission … you saw how irritated your father was with the “magic”-seeking fungal foragers of your youth. And while foraging in urban areas is an increasingly popular activity, it’s also a risky one given that plants that aren’t located off the beaten are more likely to have come in contact with pollutants, chemical pesticides and herbicides and other unsavories.

OK, Victoria, I hope I haven’t scared you off. It’s just that foraging, however rewarding, isn’t exactly a casual hobby/grocery shopping alternative. It involves skill, research and observance of local laws. To further help you out, I’ve listed a few foraging resources below that you may find useful. Let me know how it goes. And be sure to stay off my father’s lawn …

— Matt

Related on MNN: The dos and dont's of dumpster diving

Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.

Photo: TheGiantVermin/Flickr