SECOND NATURE:  Wild Fermentation

The bounty of the late summer harvest is a sweet sight to behold. The cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, turnips and garlic thrive throughout the summer and often make a fashionably late arrival in the garden.

Sometimes it feels like the abundance has the potential to last forever. Yet as all wise creatures understand, and all young creatures come to learn, change is an ever-present feature of life on earth. Nonetheless, there are a few simple tricks that can help to preserve the tasty and nourishing produce from our gardens with a flourish from the forest.

Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacte-ria, yeasts or other microorganisms. Many people are familiar with the process of fermentation used to make beer or wine, in which sugars are converted into alcohol.

Lacto-fermentation, sometimes called “wild fermentation” is a related process, in which bacteria convert sugars that are naturally present in vegetables or fruits into lactic-acid. Humans have been lacto-fermenting foods for thou-sands of years and it is a common practice throughout the world today. 

Lacto-fermentation is amazing. If done properly, it can extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables for months or even years, which means the garden can continue to provide nourishment for you and your family on through the winter months. Pickles, relish, sauerkraut, kimchi and many more delectable delights can all be produced using this method. It is also great for your gut. Eating lacto-fermented foods adds beneficial bacteria to your system and may improve digestion, reduce inflammation and boost immunity. Though the best part about lacto-fermentation may be that it is incredibly easy to do with young kids. 

All you really need to make lacto-fermented pickles is salt, water, cucumbers, a clean Mason jar, and time — that’s it. However, one of the keys to producing a super tasty pickle is adding an ingredient that contains tannins, which can be found in grape, horseradish, black tea or oak leaves. Tannins are key because they preserve crunchiness.

If you use an oak leaf in your recipe — a wonderful way to incorporate native trees into a tasty snack — make sure that you find an oak tree that is low in tannins because too many tannins can cause a bitter flavor. Leaves from the white oak family such as chinkapin oak or bur oak are best. Steer clear of

red oaks.

Take a walk into the forest and search for white oak leaves and do some collect-ing. White oaks are known for having bark that is broken into roughly rectan-gular shapes lighter than surrounding trees. It is also common to see the trunk of the white oak tree spread out at the bottom causing a flare at the base.

The leaves of the white oak have rounded and smooth lobes. Red oaks, on the other hand, are known for hav-ing bark that looks like ski trails, with furrows in the bark that run vertically. These ski trails are reddish or pinkish when the tree is young. The leaves of the red oak have sharp and pointed lobes.

Further resources on lacto-fermentation: 

• “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutri-tion, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods” by Sandor Katz

• Rebop Farm in Brattleboro is holding a fermentation workshop Aug. 24 for just$5. Check it out!

Second Nature is submitted by the naturalists at Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center in West Brattleboro. BEEC is a member-supported, nonprofit organization. Come take a walk on the trails, open to the public sunrise to sunset!Nature Explorers Summer Camps & Programs are offered through Aug. 23 for ages 4 to 15, with a new theme each week, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit or call 802-257-5785.