Congrats on the Harvest! You Did It!
A successful gardening season means you’re probably drowning in produce right now. And you don’t want it to go right into the compost pile. So how do you store all this stuff?
To Fridge Or Not To Fridge
Though it’s a marvelous invention, the refrigerator isn’t for everything. It preserves some and kills others. But the list is not that complicated. Ripe winter squash and pumpkins, Irish and sweet potatoes, onions and garlic store best it in the root cellar. Otherwise, the fridge is fine.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes, squash, and alliums are very much alive. They’re ready to sprout if conditions are right and the fridge can shorten their life. Cold temperatures convert starches into sugars, starches alliums and potatoes need as fuel for new growth. And countertops are the same temperature as soil during a nice spring day. Too long in a warm room will trigger your vegetables to move into the next season. Even squash will soften and seeds will germinate inside.
The perfect location for these living vegetables is in a dark room at about 55°F. The temperature keeps them dormant but doesn’t damage the vegetable. Airflow allows them to breathe. And the lack of light hinders sprouting for a while longer. Root cellars naturally maintain this environment if they’re not damp.
The “living vegetable” rule can also apply to apples but doesn’t work for berries or other tree fruits such as pears, peaches and apricots. If you’re still storing those this late in the year, put them in the refrigerator if you don’t plan to use them immediately.
Refrigeration is best for anything green and for root vegetables such as beets, turnips, carrots, and Jerusalem artichokes. Even kohlrabi, which isn’t technically a root, stores best in the fridge. Between 32 and 40 degrees, with humidity of 90 to 95 percent, is best. Consider storing these vegetables in breathable plastic bags, the same way carrots are stored in the grocery store. Don’t worry about washing them; they actually last longer if you don’t. Cut off tops just above the root crown because roots can dehydrate through the greens. Broccoli and cauliflower only last a few weeks while some root vegetables stay good for several months
.Check refrigerated vegetables regularly. If their odor increases, they’re starting to go bad. Discard or compost vegetables that have blackened, shriveled, become slimy, or seep moisture.
Curing Your Living Vegetables
For long-term storage, don’t put these vegetables right into the root cellar.
Harvest your vegetables before it freezes. Though a little frost on the pumpkin does indeed sweeten it, frost also greatly reduces storage time because it kills sections of a cold-intolerant plant.
Resist the urge to spray off root vegetables. A little dirt won’t hurt them; a little water might. Let them dry in the sun, but bring potatoes in before an hour has passed so they won’t develop excess solanine. Dirty squash may be gently cleaned with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water. The bleach kills pathogens that may enter through nicks and scratches. Leave stems on pumpkins and winter squash and don’t cut the roots off garlic and onions, since roots and stems help regulate drying. Don’t throw vegetables into piles or wheelbarrows, as fun as it may sound, because it can cause damage that might not heal. Bacteria can enter even tiny scratches.
And speaking of healing, that’s what curing is intended to do. It allows the living vegetable a chance to heal those smaller nicks and bruises which occurred during harvest. It also develops a thicker skin around the vegetables so moisture stays inside.
Let squash, onions and garlic sit in a well-ventilated and warm area, about 75˚F. Some farmers allow their crops to lie in the fields if the weather is dry and sunny. Others may set them on shelves in a comfortable room or tie garlic into bundles and hang it on a wall. Sweet potatoes prefer 80 to 85˚F and almost 90 percent humidity; field curing only works in the deep south, so you might need to put these in the laundry room or kitchen. Nightshade (Irish) potatoes need it cooler, 45 to 60˚F, with high humidity.
After two to four weeks, move the cured vegetables to a cool, dry, dark and well-ventilated location. This is when you can cut the tops and roots from your onions and garlic. Do not place living vegetables in plastic bags or waterproof containers because this can promote decay from excess moisture. Cardboard boxes, wire baskets, or burlap sacks are ideal. Some dedicated gardeners even purchase slatted wooden racks for their winter vegetables. Squash and pumpkins should sit in a single layer, with gaps between, so air can circulate.
Store each vegetable with its own kind. Those “Taters and Onions” bins are best for either taters or onions. Onions and apples release gasses, such as methane, which can make others ripen or decay faster.
Out Of Sight, Well In Mind
The downside to root cellaring is that you don’t see the vegetables every day. It’s easy to forget them.
Research the best storage times for your vegetables, since they differ by variety. Acorn squash is best in the first month, while hubbards can last until spring. Mild onions should be used within a few weeks while pungent varieties can last a year if they’re cured right. And both sweet and Irish potatoes should stay good at least until it’s time to replant in the spring.
Check your vegetables often. Gently squeeze the pumpkins to be sure they’re still rigid. Look for wrinkling in tubers. Lift bags and boxes to be sure no liquids are oozing out.
If your vegetables start to spoil, it’s not compost time yet. Squash just beginning to soften can be roasted then stored as pureed flesh in the freezer. Peel onions’ outer layers and you may find the inside is still good. Sprouted potatoes can still be eaten if sprouts and any green parts are removed. And if your sweet potatoes are sprouting, lucky you! Though all parts of the sweet potato are edible and nutritious, now is your chance to grow out some slips for spring planting. If they are stored well, sweet potatoes will bud about the time gardeners grow slips anyway.
If you choose to eat food that isn’t storing well, do not eat it raw. Always cook to a temperature over 160˚F to kill any bacteria, which may be present within the vegetables.
Do not eat shriveled vegetables, whether they are squash, potatoes or alliums. Never eat anything that seeps liquid or has an unpleasant odor. Throw away vegetables with blemishes or decay. Though you may be able to salvage squash seeds, the rest is compost-worthy. Don’t even try to plant potatoes in the spring if they have decayed.
So what if you don’t have a root cellar or even a basement? Don’t worry. Most houses have somewhere that will work for storing winter vegetables.
Consider the humidity, temperature and ventilation requirements of each food. If your garage stays cold in the winter but doesn’t freeze, keep potatoes in a closed cardboard box on the concrete floor. Tiled entryways and closets can be 10˚F to 20˚F cooler than the rest of the house, making them perfect for pumpkins and winter squash. Sweet potatoes may be happiest in the laundry room, where it’s warm and humid. And garlic looks idyllic tied in bundles to a kitchen wall, though it will last months longer in the garage.
Have you seen those Facebook shares that show a five-gallon bucket of carrots buried in the garden with a straw bale on top? Works great. In fact, if your area isn’t prone to negative temperatures, you can probably leave the root vegetables right in the ground. Many gardeners use this method if they’ve grown too many potatoes or carrots for in-house storage to support.
To store in-ground, first make sure it’s a crop that can handle the cold. Sweet potatoes need to come inside. Second, consider your temperatures and moisture levels. If you live in warm locations where winter brings rain and the ground doesn’t drop below 50˚F, root vegetables will just decay. And if you live in subzero temperatures, the vegetables will freeze along with the dirt. They’ll thaw mushy, bitter, and absolutely inedible. Gardeners with mild winters can toss thick mulch atop their potatoes and carrots then dig up what they need, when they need it. Those with harsh winters can dig a hole, insert a five-gallon bucket so the lip is at ground level, then fill with carrots and throw an intact bale of straw on top.
Another option for root vegetables is a bag of moist sawdust. Don’t use this for potatoes, as the moisture can quickly damage the tubers. It’s best for carrots, beets, turnips, and horseradish. Be sure the sawdust is fresh and clean. Toss root vegetables into the container along with the sawdust and sprinkle with water until just slightly damp. Keep the container cold to deter decay. Check the vegetables often.
Whether you use a refrigerator or the root cellar method, no vegetable will keep indefinitely. Squash that lasts six months in one home may be good for only four months in another. But knowing how to store your winter harvest allows you to enjoy the bounty through the frozen months and well into spring.
Canning, Freezing & Dehydrating
Altering the vegetables through canning, freezing and dehydrating can extend life exponentially.
WATER BATH CANNING
All vegetables are too low acid to can within water. While tomatoes can stay safe with a little added vinegar or lemon juice, root vegetables need strong vinegar to keep them safe. Have you tried pickled beets? They’re delicious. Always use a 5 percent vinegar to can vegetables. Use an approved recipe and never alter measurements.
The list grows longer if you add pressure. Potatoes and turnips are safe, even canned in water. But do not try pumpkin puree, even if acid is added, because the mixture is too thick for heat to fully penetrate. Freeze any thick purées.
Though food stored below 0°F stays safe indefinitely, quality declines after 3 to 6 months. Some food freezes well, such as roasted pumpkin puree measured out for perfect pies, while others such as mashed potatoes become bitter and inedible. Most vegetables require blanching, which is quick cooking and cooling to stop the enzymatic action, which can make vegetables mushy and un-palatable. Blanching is unnecessary for tomatoes and peppers; the freezer is a great place to stockpile these until you’re ready to make salsa or marinara.
The oldest and safest food preservation method, dehydrating used to be done on flat rocks. Now we have equipment that does the job better. With the elimination of moisture, bacteria do not grow. Some foods, such as potatoes, should be cooked beforehand. Always store dehydrated food in airtight containers, vacuum-sealed if possible, so moisture does not enter and spoil the food.
How Long Will It Last?
What can you expect from your vegetables if you store them correctly?
This list applies to vegetables stored within the refrigerator or cool, dry areas, as described in the article:
• Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts: 7-14 days
• Cabbage: up to 2 months
• Scallions and Mild Onions: 2-4 weeks in the fridge
• Pungent Onions: up to a year
• Garlic: 3-5 months
• Radishes: up to a month
• Beets: 1-3 months
• Carrots and Parsnips: 2-6 months
• Rutabagas: up to a month
• Turnips: 4-6 months
• Horseradish: up to a year
• Potatoes: up to 9 months
• Acorn and Spaghetti Squash: 4 weeks
• Jack o’ lanterns: 2-3 months
• Butternut Squash: up to 6 months
• Hubbard Squash: 4-8 months
• Decorative Gourds: up to 6 months
Published in the November/December 2016 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.