Story by Russ Grayson, April 2014
It's the wording I've drafted for a little sign to go into Randwick's Permaculture Interpretive Garden. The idea is to put these signs next to vegetables and fruit that are not yet ripe for picking. That this is necessary comes from an observation Fiona Campbell and I have made: a great many people cannot recognise when a vegetable is ready for harvest.
I first noticed this in the 1990s after Fiona and I ran a week-long course in permaculture for students at UNSW. They were building a community garden and that first summer they planted their first vegetables into a garden so new it was still yellow with the colour of fresh mulch.
After nearly being lost to the heat of summer because of insufficient and irregular watering, the students realised how important irrigation is to healthy plant growth and made amends. Those vegetables grew... and grew... then ripened. And there they stayed. When we were called back to the garden we realised that the over-ripe vegetables were still there on the plants because the students couldn't recognise that they were ready for picking... they couldn't recognise ripe vegetables.
This inability to recognise when vegetables are ready for picking came to mind years later when Fiona set up the Barrett House Foragers Garden on the Randwick footpath. That's a trial garden, a council project, outside a community house. Little signs were installed telling passersby they could glean a small amount of produce but to leave some for others.
Unlike the university students who let their vegetables grow into over-ripeness, this time it was harvesting unripe vegetables that was the challenge. Small leaves of leafy green veges were harvested when they were very too young, and unripe fruiting vegetables were taken.
This taught us again that many people do not know a ripe, ready to harvest vegetable when they see one.
That's not all they don't know. Many think that you have to harvest and entire leafy green, like a lettuce, rather than just take the few leaves you need so as to leave some for others.
Through assisting on Fiona’s organic gardening courses I learned that people were unfamiliar with many of the plants that produced their food. They could recognise tomatoes, but when they encountered a fruiting vegetable they would utter exclamations like “Oh! Is that a zucchini?”. Seeing a vegetable still on its plant can be something of a revelation.
I wonder if the marketing of immature and dwarf veges as ’baby’ vegetables in greengrocers and supermarkets has misled people to believe that this is what veges look like when they’re fully grown and ready to eat? If so, then it shows how distanced people have become from their food.
Ignorance about its food doesn’t pervade society completely, however, as that organic gardening course I mention has been going for more than a decade now, at different venues. The courses are usually well attended, so now there's an increasing number of people our there who are capable of recognising a ripe tomato or eggplant. That should be good news to unripe veges hoping to live their natural lifespan.