How to store garden produce for the winter

How to store garden produce for the winter

All summer you’ve been enjoying the bounty of your garden, but now there’s a chill in the air and it’s time to harvest the rest of your home-grown vegetables.  But how to store it all for use during the winter?

Gardening is returning in popularity as more and more people strive to practice sustainable lifestyles, but much of the knowledge that was once common place has been lost to the newer generations.  Young families are learning for themselves how to grow vegetables and raise livestock to support their families, and with that endeavor comes the need to know how to properly process and store their foods.

How to harvest your crops
harvesting beets
Beets, carrots, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabaga, turnips, and winter radishes are all harvested in the fall.

Typically in the fall you’ll have lots of root crops to harvest and store.  Things like carrots, beets, rutabaga, and potatoes.  You may also have various squashes and pumpkins to harvest at this time.

These types of vegetables store best if you leave them to grow right up until there is an imminent danger of the soil freezing.  Usually a good hard frost will kill the leaves and vining plant growth, and this is about the time most gardeners and farmers will begin to harvest their autumn crops.  You can check with your local cooperative extension or use the National Climatic Data Center to find information about frost-dates for your specific locale.

Try to be careful when you’re harvesting your crops, as bruising or cuts to the vegetables will speed up the decomposition process, and may spread to other produce.  Ever heard that old saying: “one bad apple will spoil the whole barrel” ?  They weren’t kidding!

The best time of day to harvest is in the morning, after the dew has evaporated, but before the sun has a chance to heat up the garden.

Always store food at peak ripeness to ensure nutrient preservation.  The quality of produce deteriorates rapidly after harvesting, so keep fresh produce out of the sunlight, and cook, process, or pack it away as soon as possible.  Go ahead and consume over-ripe foods right away.

A few vegetables need to be cured for a short period before eating, such as garlic and onions, potatoes, and some squashes.  Curing helps to dry up the skin of the vegetable so that it won’t rot in storage.

Washing your vegetables is not mandatory, and can actually encourage bacterial growth.  Simply shake or brush off excess dirt before storing.  If you feel you must wash them, be sure to dry your vegetables thoroughly.

How to store your crops
root cellar storage
Stored vegetables need to "breathe".

To store your vegetables you can pack them in mesh or brown paper bags, cardboard or wooden boxes; I like to use burlap.  Do not use plastic containers as plastic does not allow the produce to breathe and will trap ethylene gas and moisture as the produce ripens.  Vegetables piled together generate heat; place some crops on shelves, others on the floor, and rotate or “air” crops periodically.

Different vegetables need different storage conditions, so be aware of this as you store your produce away.  Temperature and humidity are the main factors in the preservation of crops.

There are three combinations of conditions various vegetables will store well in:

  • Cool & Dry: at 50–60 degrees Fahrenheit with a 60% relative humidity level.
  • Cold & Dry: between 32–40 degrees Fahrenheit with a 65% humidity level.
  • Cold & Moist: around 32–40 degrees Fahrenheit and about 95% humidity.

Remember that the expected shelf life of vegetables will shorten as their storage conditions deviate from the optimal range.  So you really want to try to store each crop in their ideal preservation conditions.

But where in the typical home can these conditions be found?

Generally speaking, a basement will offer cool and dry conditions.  Provide good ventilation for your harvested vegetables.  They may be apart from their vines and stems, but they are not dead and still need to “breathe”.  Be sure to protect them from rodents if that is a problem where you are.

Refrigerators offer that cold and dry storage location, good for long term storage of your garlic and onions, but little more.  Putting vegetables in perforated plastic bags in the fridge can give you cold and moist conditions for a moderate amount of time, but don’t use un-perforated bags as it will cause too much humidity and cause condensation, mold, and more on your produce.

old root cellar
Old-time root cellar from 1926.

Very few newer homes have the old-time root cellars once so prevalent in older homesteads.  Root cellars provide ideal cold and moist conditions.  If you have one in your basement I know many people who would envy you!  Just be sure to provide proper ventilation, and protection from rodents.  Straw and hay, or wood shavings offer some insulation, but make sure it is clean and not contaminated with pesticides or any other harmful substances.

Some storage tips and warnings

Once your hard-won vegetables are stored away for later use, remember to go check on them periodically to adjust them, or to remove and spoiling or damaged crops.  This is when you would rotate or air them.

Invest in a hydrometer to test the humidity levels in your storage areas.  Then you’ll know when conditions deviate from the optimal and you will be able to take steps to continue the preservation of your vegetables.

Some people store their vegetables in the garage, but this can be a bad idea if you actually use your garage to store your car or do automotive maintenance there.  The fumes, exhaust, and chemicals stored in a garage will permeate the skins of your vegetables and be absorbed in the flesh.  Not tasty.

Recommended Resources

Storing Garden Produce – PDF from the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

Food Storage in the Home – PDF from Utah State University Cooperative Extension.

Storage of Home-Grown Vegetables – online document from Colorado State Extension.

How to Store Your Garden Produce: the Key to Self-Sufficiency – available at Amazon books.

Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables – also available at Amazon books.

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