Seasonality – A conspiracy theory

9 Sep

It is spring and the supermarkets are currently extolling the virtues of eating seasonally. Recently I’ve been paying a bit more attention to these promotions and getting frustrated. According to Woolworths, in September the pick of the seasonal produce is Delite Mandarins, Kent Pumpkin and Solanato Tomatoes. Really?  The mandarins are plausible, but surely it’s a bit too early for any tomatoes (unless they’re from a greenhouse), and where are they growing pumpkins that are ready to harvest in September??

I know that our country is vast and variable. It’s clear from the differences between the Melbourne gardener bloggers and my own garden that timings vary, and I imagine that amazing things are possible in far North Queensland in winter, but surely pushing the boundaries of what is possible, shipping the food thousands of kilometres then calling it ‘seasonal’ is a bit cheeky?

I wonder if there is something downright dishonest going on here. Through this misinformation people seem to have lost all track of what is truly seasonal produce, and it isn’t just the supermarkets at fault.

One of my neighbours caught me in the garden in July and stopped to ask me for some tips about her unsuccessful veggie garden. It just wasn’t working and she couldn’t work out why. I asked her what she was trying to grow. Eggplant she said. In July.

I suspect that a beginner like herself didn’t start the eggplants from seed, so some nursery somewhere (or big green barn) had quite happily sold her eggplant seedlings in winter. Seedlings that had obviously been raised in a greenhouse somewhere and shipped out to an inevitable fate.

And it goes further. I have an Australian ‘seasonal cooking’ cookbook that lists chokos and melons as spring produce. Again – in what climate does this occur?

And now that the vast majority of people have lost track of what’s in season, the supermarket can charge out of season prices for seasonal produce at its peak. Apples are no longer cheaper in winter and people will buy rock hard strawberries in May, pathetic pears in January and doomed eggplant seedlings in winter.

Is it just me, or do you think people really are as clueless as I fear?

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20 Responses to “Seasonality – A conspiracy theory”

  1. Lilian September 9, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    Unfortunate but true. I don’t think we’re connected to the land like our forefathers were. I still get a lot of surprised friends who didn’t realize that peanuts come from the ground and that there were ‘tree nuts’ and then there are peanuts and that a coconut is not a ‘nut’. I get these conversations because I have a peanut allergy child… Honestly I think if I just shopped at supermarkets and didn’t attempt veggie gardening or researching fruit/veggies I wouldn’t know which veggies/fruit were in season (maybe in the Northern hemisphere but not here in the South).

  2. ambrasancin September 9, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    I agree. I’m sure I’m buying lots of vegetables that are straying into the wrong season. I’ve just planted some globe artichokes and depending on whom you ask, you either sow them in Autumn or Spring. Very confusing.

    Also, for any readers who don’t know of this site, Gardenate enables you to subscribe to their email and they inform you the correct date/season to plant vegies/fruit. http://www.gardenate.com/

  3. Nina September 9, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    Excellent post! When I first started veggie gardening again (not that long ago, despite my years), I trusted that the local shops would stock punnets of seedlings that were not only suited to my climate but my season. How wrong I was and how much effort and money I wasted. It’s very shonky practice on the retailers’ part.

    Now, after much googling and research, I have a relatively good idea of what does well, when (and I still get it wrong, sometimes!). But other beginner gardeners will continue to be sucked in and possibly disheartened from having another go. Shonky indeed.

  4. Daphne September 9, 2012 at 9:10 pm #

    I’m always shocked by how clueless people are to things like that. It is just amazing. My friends are pretty smart about it, but not the general populace. I do find them to be more educated recently though as farmers markets get more popular. I have to say though. I can see pumpkins in spring. They are keepers and I eat them from my garden all winter long and into spring. I do scratch my head at the tomatoes though. I’ve seen winter harvested tomatoes on harvest monday, but it is so rare. Not many places except the tropics can do that.

    • L from 500m2 in Sydney September 9, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

      I agree Daphne about them keeping until spring, but in the top 3 of seasonal spring produce? Australia is a place where winter tomatoes are completely possible, but I achieve it with heirloom varieties. The supermarket ones are definitely greenhouse specimens.

  5. Kate September 9, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    Unfortunately it’s true. We have so many people ask us what should they be growing at this time of year. We are just so used to having whatever we want whenever we want it. But of course it is so much cheaper to eat in season. but people just don’t seem to get it!

  6. Liz September 9, 2012 at 10:48 pm #

    Not wanting to pour any water on your rant as I enjoyed it very much – I think tomatoes may be in season in Southern Queensland as they are grown as a winter crop there because the humidity is an issue in summer. The issue then becomes one of localness. I think you could probably find strawberries or tomatoes in season somewhere in Australia for most of the year which is more a testiment to the size of Australia rather than seasonality. As for pumpkin I think they would be storage pumpkins , although I’m not sure when the cropping season is up north. Finally and I can’t believe I’m defending the evil warehouse that shall not be named, but I do sometimes buy seedlings of summer crops in late winter to grow on before planting out in late Spring so there is an admittedly small market for them at that time of the year.

    • L from 500m2 in Sydney September 10, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

      I guess that’s the problem with treating the whole country as one homogenous mass. Woollies’ marketing department is probably sitting in Western Sydney formulating the ‘in season’ lists as a best-fit for the whole country. I still maintain that tomatoes and pumpkins are not a great example of the best of seasonal produce, even if they are available from Queensland.

      • Liz September 10, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

        Very true. I think you’re absolutely right in that the front page of woolworths.com.au shows the seasonal produce with no variation between states whatsoever. Which I guess, to go back to your initial point, shows that for them seasonality is pretty meaningless and is probably just short hand for what they have a lot of this week.

      • Liz September 10, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

        Oh and did you know a kid can peel a Delite mandarin without any help from an adult – the Woolworths website says so…it also says the tomatoes were grown in green houses and the pumpkins are available year round thus making your point very nicely. If only they could tell me how to stop children from wiping hands dripping with juice all over my clothes, – perhaps in future mandarin packs will come with a ‘handy’ towelette.

      • L from 500m2 in Sydney September 10, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

        Oh you make me laugh!

  7. Beth September 10, 2012 at 8:24 am #

    As a recent transplant to Sydney from (hot, dry, and then very snowy) Colorado, I have to admit I’m a bit boggled by food seasonality here in Australia. Your over-wintered tomatoes (and some I’ve seen at roadside stands) have blown my mind! I’ve done search after search to find what is seasonal when and it’s so variable that I can’t seem to find any consistent answers. Also, the growing seasons are extended here, it seems, so there are many many more foods in the fuzzy grey area. Where I come from just about the only thing you can grow in the winter is Kale, and even then it doesn’t really grow but just survive! Anyway, I’m currently planting a spring veggie garden over the top of my late winter one and look forward to getting the answers through experience…

    • L from 500m2 in Sydney September 10, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

      Yes – we are blessed here, aren’t we! If you are in Sydney, the main things to avoid at this time of year are too many brassicas – cabbage, broccoli etc. Although they will grow just fine you will be plagued by the caterpillars of the white cabbage moth. With the hot summer coming, you probably also want to avoid things that will bolt to seed or dry out, like celery, coriander.

      • Beth September 11, 2012 at 8:42 am #

        I’ve seen a few of those moths lingering around, and even watched one lay a couple of eggs! I pulled out two cabbage yesterday so I can eat it instead of the caterpillars. Yum!

  8. sydfoodie September 10, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    Well, some garden places have a “bring it back within X months if it hasn’t thrived and we will replace it”. And you are supposed to be planting tomatos/chilli/eggplant *now*, July wasn’t too long ago. I guess the instructions didn’t say “protect from frost”. But yes, Colesworth’s “seasonality” is one giant rort – if they don’t stock rock hard tomatoes year round, people would complain.

    • L from 500m2 in Sydney September 10, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

      People who like rock tomatoes (like my Mum). She actually doesn’t like Dad to grow tomatoes because they aren’t hard and tasteless enough!

  9. Robyn September 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    I have to admit, I don’t know what is in season a lot of the time. I’ve got a vague idea, like stone fruits in summer and more cabbages, broccoli and beans things in winter but a lot of the time I don’t know one variety from another. I have been trying to take more notice though and read the signs at my fruit and veg shop that tell me where the stuff was grown, but lets face it, ‘grown in Australia’ doesn’t say a lot.

    I’m probably just as clueless with the gardening, but I do at least try to read the instructions! Most seedlings/seeds come with some kind of tag that says when best to plant and harvest etc. Given that I don’t have much garden though, I don’t need to worry so much!

    But really Lon, how much did you know before you started growing all your own stuff? Unfortunately, few of us live on farms so we can’t learn this stuff by osmosis any more. It isn’t taught at school and most of us don’t have time to try and find out once we’re adults working and caring for kids etc. Best I can hope for is to try and learn as much as I can and then pass it onto my kids and hope they can do better!

    • L from 500m2 in Sydney September 12, 2012 at 8:53 am #

      I guess I was lucky because I grew up in a family that had a veggie garden, but you are right – I know far more now. I’m not blaming people for being uninformed – clearly it is difficult!

  10. sarahskitchenadventures September 13, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    I think there’s less problem buying zucchini from qld in September than there is buying cherries from the USA in June or asparagus from Peru in march. I guess the other thing to consider is that seasons in Australia are very different from the northern hemisphere, which makes finding appropriate books on seasonal cooking difficult. Its already 31 degrees in far north qld and the nt, they really only have the wet and dry seasons. Some meteorologists think Australia should have 5 seasons.

    http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/should-australia-have-five-seasons.htm

    • Beth September 14, 2012 at 8:29 am #

      How interesting. Love the idea of a 5 season model. Bring on Sprinter and Sprummer (although they sound a bit like Santa’s reindeer)!

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