By Juliet Blankespoor and Meghan Gemma
Photography by Juliet Blankespoor
All crafters have a cache of special tools—and foragers are no exception. I’ve been gathering food and medicine from wild places for nearly three decades and these are my tried-and-true tools of choice. As a bonus, every single one pulls double duty in the garden and around the yard.
In addition to the tools on this list, some of your best foraging allies will be those that allow you to forage safely and ethically. This means having a stack of reliable field guides as well as a firm grasp on sustainable gathering practices. Please see these articles for references and tips:
Please note that we are not affiliated with any of these businesses: we aren’t receiving any compensation for these recommendations. We’re simply sharing what has worked for us over the years. If you have any recommendations for products or businesses you like, please share in the comments below. We love learning about new products and forward-thinking businesses!
Now, without further ado, THE TOOLS…
Pruners are the tool I use most often when gathering and processing foraged herbs. They snip right through herbaceous stems, twigs, small branches, and roots. I reach for them so often that I keep them in a leather holster on a belt at my hip. If you can only purchase one tool to get started, pruners are the way to go!
I recommend Felco brand pruners, as they are very high quality and may be sharpened. Blade and spring replacements are also available. I have used my pair of Felcos extensively over the past 25 years and they are still in good working order! The blade and the spring have both been replaced multiple times and I sharpen the blade several times a year. Dull pruners are a party pooper.
Felco pruners come in a wide variety of models. Look for a pair that will reduce hand fatigue and strain. The pruner handles, when fully opened, should not exceed the width of your extended grasp. Felcos are sold at some garden centers and online. Here are other recommendations for pruners from Gardening Products Review, Empress of Dirt, and Wirecutter.
This tool looks like it sounds. Heavy duty and compact, it’s a sturdy wildcrafting tool and excellent weeding implement. I use my hori-hori to break up soils and dig small- to medium-sized roots from the earth. These garden “knives” cut through most clay soils and can even pry rocks out of the ground. You can also use it for transplanting and dividing roots.
Mine has seen its share of soils across the land and is still as strong as ever after 25 years. Again, a holster is quite handy and will protect your pack as well as your person. The wooden-handled varieties are purported to be stronger than the plastic. However, if you’re prone to losing objects, consider buying one with an orange plastic handle to lessen the chances of misplacing it.
Whenever I garden or forage, my pruners and hori-hori accompany me as my most trusted companions.
Hori-horis are available through seed catalogs and landscaping outfitters as well as some specialty garden centers. Look for models that have a “lip” at the base of the blade to protect your hand if the knife slips. See this article for hori-hori reviews: 5 Best Hori-Hori Knife Reviews.
This is the tool of choice for digging most roots. The tines of the fork effectively loosen soils and lift branching roots free from the earth. Digging forks are much less likely to damage roots than a shovel or spade. I also use my digging fork in the garden to weed, loosen soil, and harvest medicinal roots.
Note that digging forks have square and sturdy tines, unlike manure or hay forks, which have flat, bendable tines. You can find affordable options at garden supply centers or big box hardware stores, but remember that you get what you pay for, so I wouldn’t go with the cheapest option out there. Here are some recommendations.
You likely already have this tool hanging out in your garage or garden shed. Having a couple of different types is useful. Make sure you have at least one long-handled shovel with a pointed blade (as opposed to flat).
I use shovels primarily to help begin the excavation process of large, tap-rooted plants like burdock (Arctium lappa, A. minus), or when I’m digging in heavily compacted soils.
5. Kitchen scissors
A sharp pair of kitchen scissors is my go-to tool for gathering tender-stemmed greens like chickweed (Stellaria media), violet (Viola spp.), and cleavers (Galium aparine). Pruners can make a muck of this job as they’re meant for tougher stems and the reach of their blades is limited.
A foldable pruning saw is handy for cutting small- to medium-sized tree limbs and branches. I use mine most often in the spring when I’m gathering medicinal tree barks like wild cherry (Prunus serotina) and black birch (Betula lenta).
7. Sharp Compact Knife
8. Assorted Baskets
Baskets will reward you in more ways than one. They’re handy for gathering and drying herbs, and they are beautiful to behold. It’s helpful to have an assortment of baskets on hand. You can typically find used baskets in thrift stores. Look for a few that have an open weave and are broad and flattish (helpful for increasing ventilation when drying loose herbs).
I have a small collection of buckets in my storeroom, and they get used more frequently than you might think. I pull them out for large-scale harvests like elderberry (Sambucus nigra var. canadensis) and wild blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), as well as for muddy root harvests. A little water in the bottom will also help to keep the stems and leaves of herbs fresh on a long car ride home.
These can be repurposed food-grade buckets; I like both the 3- and 5-gallon sizes. Try asking for empty buckets at the bakery counter or food prep section of your local grocery store. You can also purchase 5-gallon buckets at home improvement and hardware stores. Tubtrugs—pliable buckets with handles—are an alternative that can be quite useful for harvesting. They can be expensive but last a long time.
Foraging can be hard on the hands, and your fingertips will thank you for stashing a pair of gloves in your pack for prickly situations (think: picking stinging nettles or wading through a berry bramble). I actually keep two pairs of gloves on hand—a thin, supple pair for delicate tasks and a thicker leather and/or canvas pair for moments when I need more protection.
11. Heavy-Duty Chopping Knife
You will want to have a Japanese butchers knife or a heavy-duty kitchen knife for chopping tough roots.
A sturdy bristled brush is extremely helpful for scrubbing the soil from the cracks and crevices of your root harvests.
I highly recommend purchasing a hand lens, also called a jeweler’s loupe—preferably 10x to 20x (10 to 20 times magnification). These nifty little tools allow you to gaze at wee botanical parts (helpful for plant ID) and have a much higher magnification ability than plain magnifying lenses (the kind used for enlarging print). Many have an LED attached, which is ideal because the increased lighting makes it much easier to spy on flowers. Available at university bookstores or naturalist stores.
Meet Our Contributors:
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.
MEGHAN GEMMA is one of the Chestnut School’s primary instructors through her written lessons, and is the principal pollinator of the school’s social media community—sharing herbal and wild foods wisdom from the flowery heart of the school to an ever-wider field of herbalists, gardeners, healers, and plant lovers.
She has been in a steady relationship with the Chestnut School since 2010—as an intern and manager at the Chestnut Herb Nursery; as a plant-smitten student “back in the day” when the school’s programs were taught in the field; and later as a part the school’s woman-powered professional team. Meghan lives in the Ivy Creek watershed, just north of Asheville, North Carolina.
COCO VILLA designed, sewed, and botanically-dyed her green tunic worn in the photos above. Coco creates one of a kind conceptual pieces for seasonal collections and private clients. Creations are wildly crafted in small batches and naturally dyed by hand with locally foraged plant matter. All goods are stitched together from natural fibers, folk fabric, hand printed textiles, or salvaged materials. Coco's website: www.somosbycoconuco.com.
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