David Spahr holds a stem of a Sedum purpurem in the garden on his property. This and many other plants are part of the Public Edible Landscape Project near the Washington town hall. Spahr was instrumental in the creation of a the project in town that features similar edible plants in a public space. Credit: Gabor Degre

This story was originally published in 2018.

When most people venture into Maine fields and forests in the summertime, they probably see flowers, trees, ferns and glimpses of wildlife if they’re lucky.

David Spahr of Washington sees all those things, too, of course, but he also sees something else: a stocked pantry, full of wild foods that are delicious, nutritious and, best of all, free.

“There’s free food everywhere you look,” the 68-year-old forager, writer and educator likes to say.

And a trip to a couple of spots he frequents in the town of Washington prove the truth of what he says. The first place is the land around his house, which he calls “Tightwad Forest Farm.”

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During the past 15 years, he has planted native, edible Maine plants that thrive in the landscape without the special care or pampering that other plants sometimes need. The experiment has worked so well that four years ago he and other members of the town’s conservation committee sought and received permission from the local officials to create the Public Edible Landscape Project in Washington around the town fire pond.

“A perfect open space with a pond in the middle and nothing on it,” he recalled. “It was a blank canvas.”

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For less than $300, they planted 14 small garden plots with native plants and 16 trees in a circle around the fire pond behind the town hall. Now, they are doing their best to protect the perennial edible garden from the lurking dangers of hungry deer and overeager landscapers, while they get the word out about what they are doing and why.

“People have lost foraging skills in about 1½ generations,” Spahr said. “Kids don’t know this stuff now, and yet it’s everywhere you go. One in five children are food insecure every year. One of the times that children are the most food insecure is the summer, and the summer is when there’s free food everywhere.”

The plants found in the Public Edible Landscape Project are not likely to be found in a conventional vegetable garden. There’s not a tomato, green bean or zucchini to be found. Instead, Spahr and the other volunteers planted things like wild highbush blueberries, wild serviceberries, American plum, beach plum, American chestnut, shagbark hickory, wild raspberries, wild blackberries, wild huckleberries, wild thimbleberries, wild strawberries, wild cranberries, wild viburnums, Sedum, wild violets, wild peppermint, wild garlic, daylily, Rosa rugosa, Jerusalem artichoke and more.

Some plants on the list are familiar as edible, but many others likely will not be. Spahr knows that and understands that education will be a big part of the success of the project, which he believes is the only one of its type in Maine. He also knows that with a garden project like this one, it’s necessary to take the long view.

“The real point of this is for it to all get big enough. Theoretically, in 10 or 20 years from now, there will be a lot of food here,” he said. “The thing is that plant projects take a long time.”

If the Public Edible Landscape Project is the before, his Tightwad Forest Farm is the after. At his house, surrounded by lush greenery, Spahr busily points out edible plants to visitors and gives them samples of leaves, bulbs and petals to eat. He pulls off a bit of sea rocket, which normally grows along the high-tide line, and hands it out.

“It tastes like wasabi,” he said, and it does.

Rosa rugosa petals taste fragrant and heady. Sheep sorrel is sour. Wild garlic, or Allium canadense, tastes strong and piquant. Spahr sells a lot of these plants and others to local Rockland restaurants, commanding top dollar from chefs who want something special and memorable to place on their tables.

Later in the summer when the berries ripen, he will have more fruit than he can imagine eating, more than he can even sell to others. But the bountiful terrain around his house doesn’t need too much attention from him.

“Most of the stuff I grow you can’t get rid of because it’s native,” Spahr said. “They’re wild. They do what they do.”

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