Interview with author and forager Maria Finn

Maria Finn founded the blog City Dirt ( and sends out a weekly newsletter, City Dirt: The Bay Area Weekly Garden Newsletter for Foodies, Foragers, Tree-Huggers and Beauty Lovers. She has written for publications such as Saveur, Sunset Magazine, the New York Times, Audubon, and The Los Angeles Times among many other places.

TL: How did you notice your cooking habits change once you decided to eat locally?

MF: I find that I can easily get in to a cooking rut—I make things I’m familiar with over and over. The exciting part of eating seasonally or getting vegetables in your CSA that you’re not familiar with is getting out of your rut and growing as a cook. The answer to this is finding a few great cookbooks that have easy recipes. I like to leaf through some of my favorites before going to the Farmer’s Market. “Everyday Greens” by Annie Somerville is great for veggies. (She has a recipe for leafy greens over polenta sprinkled with pumpkin seeds). This takes minutes to make. I absolutely love “Seven Fires” by Frances Mallmann. He’s Argentinean and so it’s mainly about grilling meat, but a favorite from there is a roasted squash, arugula and goat cheese salad. He also has a recipe for a meat stew served in a large winter squash. Guests are wowed by this, and it’s not hard to make. The classic, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan and the newer “Mediterranean Fresh” by Joyce Goldstein have easy-to-follow recipes that are just great. Then there’s always the Internet…I believe that if you can read, you can cook.

TL: How do you think getting ‘closer’ to your food has changed your approach to eating in general?

MF: I certainly eat a lot more leafy greens in the winter, as kale, chard, mustard, and collards are my bumper crop. Strawberries are coming in now.

I live in Northern California, and our farmer’s markets are amazing all year round, so it’s really easy to eat locally and I belong to a meat CSA that supports organic ranchers in Sonoma County. This doesn’t cost more than buying meat at a supermarket, and it’s all free range, antibiotic, hormone free–and delicious. I tend to cook a lot at home, and make simple rustic food. (That said, I’ve rarely met a taco truck I didn’t like).  But even so, I love my garden. Recently a niece and nephew were visiting me, and my nephew especially was one of those kids who only ate macaroni & cheese. I’m actually astonished he’s grown on his diet of trans fat. But when he was here, we picked greens from my containers, cut shiitakes off my logs and made omelets that they both loved. I think the process of being in the garden encouraged them. As well, we made ice cream out of kaffir lime leaves and lavender from my garden and they were really impressed. So I’m not only eating locally and seasonally, but using my garden to bring in more to the fold.

TL: How did you become an urban forager?

MF: I actually learned to forage before I lived in an urban an environment. First with my grandmother in Kansas. We would walk her property and forage asparagus gone wild and morels. Then I lived in Alaska and food in the grocery stores was so expensive, and wild food so bounteous that we foraged nettles, fiddleheads, berries, and mushrooms. So when I lived in Brooklyn, and I’d spot a fig tree overhanging the sidewalk, or mulberries on a tree, or even grape leaves in easy reach, then I’d grab some as I passed by. Now I live in California and it is a forager’s paradise: miner’s lettuce, fennel, wild plums, neighbors’ fruit trees. And because it’s a growing trend, there are opportunities to try new things and learn about more unusual foraged fare like ginkgo nuts and seaweed.

TL: What should the first steps be for a would-be forager?

MF: To start: I tend to be a little intrepid when it comes to tasting things. I saw a wild plum on the ground–it was about the size and shape of a cherry–so I picked it up, smelled it, and then tasted it. Tasted like plum! My sister loves to going foraging with me so she doesn’t have to be the guinea pig. But for mushrooming, I went out with and expert and he taught me to hunt and identify porcini’s and Chanterelles.  He also runs a nursery nearby my house, Green Jeans, so if I find other mushrooms I am 90% sure are edible, I still take them by his place for identification. The wild greens I mostly learned about from friends. For beginner’s, there are tours, classes, festivals, clubs and societies people can learn from. This is the safest way to go, especially when it comes to mushrooms.

TL: What inspired you to write a book (A Little Piece of Earth: How to Grow Your Own Food in Small Spaces) about small doable gardening projects?

MF: I was living in New York City, in an apartment with only an herb box in the windowsill, but yearning to grow edibles—I put them on my fire escape, in hanging baskets, grew indoor citrus… So many publications on gardening picture people with estates or large backyards, but people in small spaces really want to grow their own food as well, and you can do it in surprising little space. Now I live on a floating houseboat in Sausalito, and have a container garden. There’s lots more outdoor space, but still not a yard so I’m still restricted, but there are no deer eating my plants.

TL: Since writing and researching A Little Piece of Earth do you look at all things that can hold soil a little differently? Maybe an old dresser or a pencil holder?

MF: I’m all for re-purposing, but you have to be a little careful. Containers can rot, or leech chemicals into your soil. You also need drainage. But, you can always hide planters inside something unusual. I mentioned in “A Little Piece of Earth” that I’ve seen a wooden canoe turned into a planter. This makes sense, as it was built from wood that won’t rot from dampness, and they probably drilled holes in the bottom for drainage. Two things I’ve seen creatively re-purposed into planters that I think are really bad ideas are plastic construction cones turned upside down and an old toilet.

Finn is the author of two recently released books, “A Little Piece of Earth, How to Grow Your Own Food in Small Spaces” (Rizzoli, 2010) and “Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home” (Algonquin, 2010).

4 responses to “Interview with author and forager Maria Finn

  1. Great stuff – I live in a NYC apartment and was thinking about growing some of my own herbs or vegetables. Any suggestions for herbs/veggies that will grow well off a fire escape? What kind of citrus grow well indoors?

    • From Maria Finn via e-mail:

      ” Sweeter citrus trees like oranges and tangerines need more heat, but acidic ones like lemons, limes and kumquats do very well inside. Link for how-to:

      As for fire escapes, it is techinically illegal to plant on fire escapes and block egress, but try some hanging pots of the rails (on the outside) so they wouldn’t get in anyone’s way in case of an emergency. What you can grow depends on whether it would be in sun or shade. Herbs are always good to have on hand, strawberries do fine in a container, and lettuces and cherry tomatoes will also work. In A Little Piece of Earth I have a design for a Pico de Gallo balconey with cilantro, tomatoes, shallots and jalepenos….

      hope this helps, “

  2. I love the idea of being able to grow food in a small space. Thanks for this insightful piece!

  3. antoniettabertucci

    Crazy that this type of thing (foraging) is such a removed idea from our generation. I remember my mom telling me stories about how she would go mushroom picking with her mother in Seattle. As an Italian immigrant, my grandmother knew which mushrooms were delicious and which were deadly. And after an hour of hunting, my grandmother would always be shocked that her daughter always seemed to find all the poisonous mushrooms.

    This story, very literally, brought back the smell and comfort that my back yard offered me as a child. And all the figs, plums, cherries, apples, blackberries. . . plucking food from its actual roots helps us appreciate what we consume which in turns helps us be a healthier people.

    Thank you for this story.

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