Old and New Advice for Making Your Harvest Last.
SURE YOU’VE HEARD of the most common root vegetables such as beets, carrots, garlic, onions, and potatoes. You may have even heard of the less common ones like parsnips, rutabagas, salsify, and turnips. Root vegetables are named such because they are the underground plant parts that you eat. They are easy to store, and with just a few simple steps, you can enjoy a bountiful harvest throughout the winter.
The skills of clever storage are becoming rare due to the advent of 24-hour supermarkets and access to anything we want, regardless of the time of year. However, root crops in particular, are ideal for storing. After all, nature designed them for this purpose!
You have the option of leaving root vegetables in the ground until the danger of frost, or digging them up once there is a danger of freezing. Most root vegetables can be left in the ground until about mid-November. Cover the rows of vegetables with straw to keep from freezing.
TIPS FOR STOR AGE
• Store in in a dry, cool, dark environment.
• Do not wash the vegetables. Keep them dry. Wipe off the dirt and cut off the tops only.
• Beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips all do best in low temperature (33 to 40 degreses F.) and very high (90 to 95 percent) relative humidity (as well as Brussel sprouts and cabbage). Potatoes do better in the same low temperature but with a lower (80 to 85 percent) humidity, as do leeks. Others, such as onions and garlic, are better in relatively higher (40 to 50 degrees F.) temperature and lower (60 to 70 percent) humidity.
• Do not store any rotting vegetables. Sort out the damaged ones or any that show signs of rot and use these first; if they rot, the rot will spread and ruin your whole crop.
• Continue to keep a watchful eye for any vegetables that rot and remove them immediately to prevent spreading.
• If the vegetables start sprouting, the temperature is too high.
• If vegetables start to shrivel, the air around them is too dry.
• Do not allow fruits and vegetables to freeze.
• Beets, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, artichokes and turnips can all be left right in the ground until mid-November in most climates, or until there is danger of freezing. Some people just pile soil and straw over the rows to keep root vegetables from freezing, extending this simple and effective storage method even longer.
• Carrots, onions, and potatoes have a long storage life. They require minimal preparation before storing.
• Proper preparation before storage and a suitable storage room help further extend the storage life of most root vegetables.
• If you live in the country, rodent control will inevitably be an issue when storing produce. Traps are often preferred over poison baits for a number of reasons. Poison baits, when carelessly used, can harm children, pets and non-target animals, and sick rodents may escape to areas between walls or under floors where they die and decompose, causing odor and insect problems. “Snap traps” are recommended and should be placed in areas that are frequented by rodents.
WAYS TO STORE
Root cellars are for keeping vegetables and fruits at a low temperature and steady humidity. They keep the produce from freezing during the winter and keep food cool during the summer months which prevents spoiling. Usually, root vegetables are stored in root cellars after they’ve been harvested, but many other types of produce can be stored in them as well.
Common construction consists of a) digging down into the ground and erecting a shed or house over the cellar with a trap door in the shed for easy access; b) digging into the side of a hill, which might be easier to excavate and offers good drainage; and c) building a structure at ground level and piling rocks, earth, and/or sod around and over it. This way may be easier to build on rocky terrain where excavation is difficult.
Most root cellars were built using stone, wood,cement, and sod. Newer ones may be made of concrete with sod on top.
Store your veggies in a garbage can filled with straw. Put the vegetables in a barn or keep the vegetables in a box in a dark basement, or in a root cellar. Although freezing is great for keeping many vegetables in good condition from harvest to table, it’s not really suitable for crops such as potatoes and onions.
In the days when people had large families and often survived by what they grew, it was common to store root crops such as beets, carrots, celeriac, and potatoes in clamps. A method of preserving root vegetables was known as “clamping” and involved excavating a relatively long and narrow, shallow depression in a field to make a base for the clamp. This shape makes it easy to remove the vegetables from one end without disturbing the remaining ones.
The root crops need to be kept out of standing water, so choose a dry location. Next, dig a trench around the storage area. This will help drain any water and will provide the soil you will need later to cover the root crops. Place a layer of straw, bracken, or even shredded paper on the ground and then place a layer of your vegetables on top. The root crops can be stacked onto the base up to a height of about 2 to 3 feet. When the clamp is full, use the soil that was scraped out from that area and the trench to cover the root crops to a depth of several inches. Straw or old hay may also be used as a cover to protect the upper surface from rain erosion.
This way of storing was to keep the stored vegetables slightly moist so that they did not dry out while keeping out dampness which would have made them rot, to prevent the frost getting to them, and to prevent light from getting to them.
It can be used for temporary storage of root crops such as beets, carrots, potato, rutabagas, and turnips. A well-made clamp will keep the vegetables cool and dry for many months.
Partition an unheated area in the coolest part of the basement for storage. An 8-by-8 foot space with a window works best. Utilizing an unused part of your basement as a root cellar frees up room in the kitchen pantry. The cooler, humid air in a basement also helps prolong the shelf life of your produce. Use plywood, cardboard or other solid materials for the walls. Construct the partition so it reaches from the floor to the rafters. Insulate the partition walls to help retain the coolness in the room and keep the heat out from the rest of the house. Don’t use the loft of your house because if it is properly insulated, the temperature will be highly variable and could drop too low as well as too high.
Open and close the window, if there is one, to help maintain the proper temperature and humidity. Storing food in a northern corner of the basement and insulating the walls helps retain the cool temperatures in the room. With some care, you can preserve and enjoy your own produce year round using no technology or electricity at all.
HOW LONG CAN VEGETABLES LAST ?
The length of time that fruits and vegetables keep well in root cellars depends on several factors such as early or late crops (late-maturing crops store better); storage conditions (less-than-ideal conditions shorten storage life); and the condition of the produce at storage time (proper curing of damagefree produce results in longer storage life).
Vegetables and fruits should not be stored together even though temperatures and moisture requirements are similar. As fruits such as apples and pears ripen, they give off ethylene gas which decreases the storage life of vegetables. This is especially evident with potatoes which will sprout if stored near certain fruits. Also, the odor of strong smelling vegetables, like turnips and cabbage, can be absorbed by fruits and other vegetables. Store them away from other food and where the odor cannot waft into the house.
VEGETABLES THAT STORE WELL
Beans, dry: Set out to dry in a warm location with good air circulation. Dry for several days in the shells. Then shell and store in closed containers. Keep cool and dry.
Brussels sprouts: Leave early winter sprouts on the stem. Hang them in a cool dry location and they should keep for at least a month. Keep cold and very moist.
Cabbage, Chinese: Will keep for several months; just throw away the discolored outer leaves and use the inner ones. Keep cold and very moist.
Garlic: Leave the leaves on the plant. Dry in clumps in sunny location for a few days. Then hang in open mesh bags in an airy location. Keep it dry.
Horseradish: May be left in the ground undisturbed until needed. Digging can be done unless the soil is frozen hard. A thick layer of mulch may extend your harvest season.
Jerusalem artichoke: Jerusalem artichokes keep well for a month in dry storage, especially in boxes packed with peat moss. May be left in the ground undisturbed until needed. Digging can be done unless the soil is frozen hard. A thick layer of mulch may extend your harvest season.
Onions: Store onion bulbs in open-mesh containers, or open-weave baskets, in a cool, airy, dry location. Parsnips You can keep mature parsnips in the ground 2-3 months after they mature in cool climates.
Popcorn: Store in an airtight container.
Potatoes: Place potatoes in a single layer in shallow boxes, padding them with slightly dampened sphagnum moss. Cover potato boxes with slatted lids that keep the light out but still allow for some air circulation. Do not store potatoes with fruits.
Pumpkins: Keep warm and dry, 50 to 55 degrees F.
Salsify, oyster plant: May be left in the ground undisturbed until needed. Digging can be done unless the soil is frozen hard. A thick layer of mulch may extend your harvest season.
Squash, winter: Keep warm and dry, 50 to 55 degrees F.
Tomatoes: To keep green tomatoes from spoiling in warm and moist storage, do not let temperatures drop below 50 degrees F.
Gwen Kilcherr: Gwen is the in-house horticulturalist and sales assistant at Baker Creek’s Seed Bank store in Petaluma, California, as well as a private landscape consultant and designer, specializing in residential garden design. She is co-host of Sonoma County’s “Garden Talk” show on KSRO 1350 AM radio with Steve Garner, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Gwen has written a Q&A garden column in her local newspaper, The Press Democrat, for more than 20 years
Winter 2011-2012 Heirloom Gardener Magazine