Winter Fresh Produce From Your Garden
By Deb Whitaker:
After curing, which can happen right in the ground, potatoes should be moved to a dark, 45º room. Store in open paper bags, crates, or cardboard boxes. Photo: commons.wikimedia.org A friend told me recently that she wanted to drop her CSA because she didn’t want box after box of the same root crops all fall. I took that as an invitation to wax on about how to preserve produce until spring. When I finished she simply said, “That’s just too much work.” I realized I’d made it seem overwhelming. Preserving your bounty for the winter can be complicated and time consuming, but it doesn’t need to be.
The single most important thing is to just begin by finding the coldest place available, ideally a constant 32º-55º F. Throw root vegetables into a net bag in the coldest part and hang onions and garlic in a different cold place. Put winter squash in baskets up higher where the air isn’t as cold (55º). In general, vegetables like dark, well-ventilated areas. Inspect everything on a regular basis and compost what’s rotting.
If you want to upgrade your chances of success, here are a few tips:
PICK YOUR SPOT
Before you harvest, set up your storage. Various fruits and vegetables have different requirements. Light, temperature, humidity, air quality, ventilation, rodent access are all considerations. Be wary of subjective storage advice. Some sources claim winter squash likes warm, dry conditions and certainly those were hard to come by when people lived in cold, damp soddies, but the 50º temperatures and 60% humidity loved by cucurbits, would be considered cold and moist here today. Think about the conditions for the duration of storage. It’s easier to control temperature in a basement than in an outdoor shed. Heat rises so put vegetables needing the coldest temperatures down low. Plastic bins can sit on the floor but porous baskets and boxes should be kept off the floor to supply ventilation and retard molding. Vegetables and fruit like varying percentages of humidity; too much and mold will set in, too little and they will dry out. Remove any chemicals nearby so produce doesn’t absorb the odors. Unbaited traps will alert you if any rodents show up.
STORE ONLY PRISTINE PRODUCE
Pick produce at its peak and handle gently, as little as possible. Overly ripe, nicked produce with evidence of insects or disease should be kept separate and used quickly. Blemish-free, mature specimens are the most likely to store well. Some produce like onions, garlic, winter squash, and sweet potatoes need to be cured before storing.
BURY ROOTS IN MOIST SAND
Parsnips are known for being able to stay in the ground through the winter, and others can do the same until after a hard freeze. When you do harvest, gently brush off dirt and snip tops to 1/2". Beets, carrots, turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, radishes, celery root, and rutabagas are all stored the same. The preferred way is kept just above freezing, layered in containers and surrounded by moist sand, wood chips or other sterile material. Root crops need quite a bit of moisture. Some sources say as much as 90%. Be vigilant about inspecting them. Cover containers with damp newspaper and mist when it dries. Damp sand is really heavy, so place containers in their permanent location before adding moisture and produce.
CURE BEFORE STORAGE
Winter squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, garlic, and onions need to cure before storage but the process differs for each. Harvest winter squash before the first, hard frost. Cut fruits from the vines, leaving about two inches of stem. Leave right in the garden in hot sun if there’s no chance of rain. Otherwise bring inside to a hot (80º), dry location with good air circulation before moving to a cooler location, a bit above 50º with relative humidity about 60%. Storage times for winter squash vary greatly. For suggestions on long-storage varieties see “Long Keepers” in the Early Spring 2021 edition of Colorado Gardener here. An excellent chart of curing time and duration is at johnnyseeds.com/growers-library/vegetables/winter-squash-eating-guide.html.
Onions and garlic also cure well in dry sun. Pull after most shoots have fallen and browned. If weather is dry leave them in the sun for a couple of days and then hang from the rafters in the garage until outer skins are papery and shoots are no longer green. If you’ve laid them out on a surface, rotate for better air circulation. Once cured, cut off tops leaving an inch above the bulb. The longer they take to cure the greater the chance of mold. Onions can then be stored in mesh bags. A popular way of keeping them separate is to place in used mesh produce bags or panty hose with a knot between each one. Keep at 35-40º with good air circulation and light humidity. Segregate onions and other alliums away from fruit and other vegetables.
Sweet potatoes need moisture when curing. Dig any time but definitely before frost. Remove the vines, lift the tubers, and cure in a hot (85º), area with 85% humidity before placing into containers or netted bags in a cooler (55º) location. The 85% humidity should be maintained so check regularly for mold. Potatoes need moisture to toughen their skins which also occurs right in the ground. Stop watering in time for the greens to die back so they can be left in the ground for a couple of weeks before freezing temps set in. If this is not possible, move to a well-ventilated area with high humidity but make sure they are dry before storing. After curing they should be moved to a dark, 45º room with adequate moisture to prevent sprouting. Store in open paper bags, crates, or cardboard boxes.
Checking your produce on a regular basis is critical. Don’t expect things to last as long as experts say they will – or they may last even longer. Build on your experience for the next growing season.
Deb Whittaker is the Herb Gourmet in Denver, CO.