Choosing local and seasonal food can greatly reduce the distance food travels as it makes its way from the farm to our table. If you decide to eat seasonal foods at least a few times a week–when you would otherwise have chosen berries or bananas flown in from South America–you can reduce your individual carbon footprint by hundreds of gallons of petroleum products per year.
But the challenge of eating locally goes hand-in-hand with the challenge of eating seasonally. If we restrict ourselves to food grown within, say, 100 miles of our table, our options will vary with the growing seasons and the items produced on local farms during specific months of the year. Since most of us didn’t grow up on farms, information about what grows when isn’t necessarily intuitive. We can unravel the complexity of seasonal eating by poring over charts and memorizing which vegetables on the Y axis correspond with seasons on the X. But fortunately, there’s an easier way.
To master the art of eating in season, envision a plant and think about the stages of growth that lead most plants through life. A generic imaginary “everyplant” can help us mentally walk through the growing seasons. In the spring, “everyplants” begin as delicate shoots. Then their tender new leaves appear. The leaves grow larger and darker in color. Flowers bud and bloom. Flower petals drop off and give way to fruit, and the fruit grows and ripens. When fall sets in, fruit drops, leaves drop, and plants go dormant for winter.
Most of the foods we eat are plants that are harvested at one specific stage of this process or another. Asparagus, for example, is eaten as a tender shoot. Spinach is eaten as a young leaf. Apples are a ripe fruit. Pumpkins are a mature fruit that we gather in the fall, at the very end of the growing season. Root vegetables are harvested in the late fall and winter.
Bearing this information in mind, you can determine which produce items are seasonal. If the item is a tender shoot, for example, it’s likely to available in the earliest part of the spring.
Eating Seasonal Foods: Seasonal Vegetables and Fruits in Spring
In climates across the United States that experience four distinct seasons, the “everyplant” foods that become available during each chapter of the growing season are similar. Places like California experience an extended warm season and a longer summer. Arid desert climates and the chilly far north have shorter growing seasons, but for educational purposes, the long-summer areas are the places to keep in mind when you decide to eat something out of season.
For example, if you choose to buy a watermelon in the early spring while snow still covers the ground, you’ll need to recognize that your melon, a late summer fruit, had to travel to your table from a place like California, or another place with a climate that experiences late-summer temperatures in April. This can attach some sense of distance and perspective to each of the items you find in the produce section of the store.
During the spring, the first parts of the “everyplant” that become available for eating are the new shoots, like asparagus and spouts. The next edible portions to arrive are the tender new leaves. These are usually lettuce, spinach and chard, and for most of us these become available during April and May. As May gives way to June, we see the more mature leaves, like romaine lettuce and cabbage. This is also the season during which the first flowers begin to appear, like broccoli and cauliflower.
Look for the following seasonal foods, locally produced, between April and June:
Eating Seasonal Foods: Seasonal Vegetables and Fruits in Early Summer
In the early summer, we see the appearance of the first tender fruits and vegetables, which, as a general rule of thumb, are also the smallest fruits with the thinnest skins. These are the delicate snow peas, cucumbers and baby squash, which arrive in June. At the end of June and the beginning of July come the berries (blueberries and strawberries), the first small tomatoes, green beans and green peppers.
Look for the following locally-produced foods between early June and late July:
- Early tomatoes
- Green beans
- Green peppers
Eating Seasonal Foods: Seasonal Vegetables and Fruits in High and Late Summer
As the summer continues, the fruits that hang on the branches of the imaginary “everyplant” grow larger, and their skins become thicker and tougher. As they ripen, their colors shift from green to vibrant shades of orange, yellow and red. During the high and late summer when these fruits are at their peak, we see the appearance of big hearty tomatoes, red and yellow bell and spicy peppers and big purple eggplants. We also begin to see the first early red and yellow apples and golden yellow sweet corn.
Look for these fruits and vegetables between early July and late August:
- Big red tomatoes
- Red and yellow peppers
- Sweet corn.
Eating Seasonal Foods: Seasonal Vegetables and Fruits During the Fall and Winter
At the very tail end of the growing season, the fruits that cling to the vines and branches of the imaginary “everyplant” are very large–after all, they’ve been growing all summer. They have hard shells rather than skins, and mature seeds big enough for roasting. (Or in the case of watermelon, for spitting across the yard on an August day.)
After these big fruits are gone, the last vegetables of all are the roots of the “everyplant” that lie deep in the earth, like potatoes and carrots. The late-season fruits and root vegetables are the ones that accompany thoughts of Halloween and Thanksgiving. They include:
- Late-season apples