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With the surge of interest in vegetable gardening has come a corresponding surge of interest in preserving the harvest. But most of today’s vegetable gardeners don’t have a root cellar and don’t have the experience or time for canning. No worries! There are still many simple ways to put away some of your garden’s fresh and healthy bounty so you can enjoy it later this fall and winter.
When stored properly, onions, garlic, shallots, potatoes and winter squash can be kept in good condition for many months. Local produce from a CSA or farmer’s market can be stored in the same way as your home-grown garden produce.
Harvest whatever you want to keep before frost or cold temperatures will damage plant tissues. Once harvested, these crops need to be “cured” to prepare them for storage. Onions and garlic should placed in a cool, dark area for several weeks (the floor of a garage or shed works well) until the stems and outer skin are crispy-dry. Potatoes, winter squash and pumpkins should be cured in a warm, dry place for 5-10 days to toughen their skins. Keep potatoes away from direct light during this curing period and do not wash them.
After curing, carefully inspect all crops for any signs of damage or rot. Store only perfect-quality vegetables. Even the slightest bit of decay will accelerate once the crop is in storage. Decay will also spread to whatever other produce is nearby.
Where you keep these storage crops will determine how long they’ll last. Light (usually lack of it!), temperature and humidity are all important considerations.
Onions and garlic should be kept dry and dark, at 32 to 40 degrees F. Warmer temperatures will cause sprouting. With proper care, cultivars that are recommended for long-term storage should remain in perfect condition until early spring.
Potatoes must be stored in complete darkness. Ideal storage temperature is between 45 and 50 degrees with optimum humidity levels of 70-75%. Sweet potatoes should be stored at 55 degrees with optimum humidity levels of 85%. Winter squash stores best at slightly warmer temperatures of 50 to 55 degrees with 70-75% humidity.
Good air circulation is important for cool storage of onions, garlic and winter squash. Consider running a small fan if you’ll be storing more than a small amount of vegetables. If you have a dark basement, an old-fashioned Orchard Rack provides good air circulation and easy access.
If you have extra freezer space, freezing is a fast and easy way to save vegetables, fruit and herbs for later use. Start by purchasing the best quality freezer bags you can find. Always remove as much air as possible from the bag and then label all bags with date and contents. A separate freezer keeps food colder and in better condition than a freezer attached to your refrigerator.
For most people, freezer space is at a premium, so be selective about what crops you want to preserve in this way. Herbs are the easiest: just chop to size and fill a freezer bag or puree them with olive oil. Use the former technique for parsley and cilantro. Use the latter for basil. Berries can be frozen whole or in syrup.
Vegetables need to be blanched before freezing to slow down the enzymes that cause decay. Heating the vegetables (in boiling water, steam or microwave) for the right amount of time and then cooling them quickly, is important because too much or too little heat will compromise eating quality. Two crops that are particularly good for freezing are corn and peas. Peppers also freeze well and do not need to be blanched. Winter squash and applesauce can be cooked and pureed before freezing. Salsa and spaghetti sauce can be cooked and then frozen. For an easy way to puree cooked vegetables (and apples) without having to peel or seed them first, try a Tomato Press.
If cold weather comes before your entire tomato crop has ripened, harvest firm, green, unblemished fruit and wrap them individually in newspaper. Store at 55-60 degrees F. and check weekly to monitor ripening. The flavor of these tomatoes is usually surprisingly good.
The easiest way of all to preserve your harvest is to leave the crops right in the ground and just put something on top to protect them from extreme cold. A length of Garden Quilt and a bale of straw are all you need.
Spinach, salad greens and most herbs (though not basil, unfortunately) will tolerate temperatures down into the mid-20s if their foliage is protected from frost. Just get some Garden Quilt and use wire hoops or something similar to keep the fabric several inches above the foliage. Secure the fabric to the hoops with wooden clothespins and to the ground with Earth Staples. Rain and sunlight will come through the fabric; lift it up as needed to harvest.
Garden Quilt can also be draped over broccoli and kale without the need for hoops. These crops will usually tolerate temperatures into the low 20s if they’re covered with this insulating fabric.
Carrots and beets can be left in the ground right where they’ve been growing. Before hard frost (which will damage the top of the root), cover the row with 6 to 8 inches of loose straw. Depending where you live, this can provide many weeks of frost protection and will also keep the soil from freezing. Once temperatures drop into the teens, they can be dug and stored in your refrigerator, as described below.
To store winter cabbage in the garden, cut the head from the roots and turn it upside down right on the soil surface. Cover with a foot of straw. It will hold well until temperatures drop into the teens, at which point, if you still have cabbage left, they can be moved to a cool basement for several more weeks.
Clean out your refrigerator crisper drawers and devote them to storing carrots and beets. Harvest these crops before hard frost (or if covered with straw in the garden, once the ground starts to freeze). Use scissors to cut off most of the greens, leaving about ½” on top so as not to cut into the root. Don’t wash off the dirt. Put beets and carrots in separate plastic bags and then put the bags into your crisper drawers. Bags should not be sealed tightly, just loosely gathered.
Use these carrots and beets as needed. In most cases, they will stay firm and sweet until the end of the year. Early on, they are delicious grated raw into salads and can also be braised, roasted, used in soups or juiced.
Try a couple of these techniques this fall and enjoy the fun of eating home grown food right into the holiday season!
Kathy LaLiberte has worked for Gardener's Supply since it began more than 25 years ago. She lives and gardens in Richmond, Vt. Read more of her Innovative Gardener essays.
Last updated: 7/9/19
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