Historically, before year-round access to fruits and vegetables via the grocery store down the street, cold storage of vegetables was common. Houses were designed with root cellars or spaces well suited to keeping the summer’s harvest safe until next year’s harvest was out of the ground. In recent years, theses spaces and techniques have been largely left unused. However, there is still a place for them in our lives and homes. While home storage is a good alternative to buying produce from the store, it is also a means by which garden excess can be kept until a later date instead of going to waste.
There are a couple of all-around important things to remember when dealing with produce you intend to store will help assure maximum quality and minimum spoilage. Handle food carefully to avoid bruising, and use only the best food for storage. Anything damaged can be eaten sooner or processed (canned, frozen, dehydrated etc). By doing this you can help to prevent mold and bacterial decay during storage.
Once harvested, fruits and vegetables must be stored under proper conditions, the most important of which are temperature and humidity. While each fruit or vegetable has its own ideal set of conditions, they can ultimately be classified into four groups:
Vegetables which require cold and moist conditions (0-4 degrees C; 95% humidity)
Vegetables which require cool and moist conditions (6-10 degrees C; 90% humidity)
Vegetables which require cool and dry conditions (0-4 degrees C; 65-70% humidity)
Vegetables which require warm and dry conditions (10-15 degrees C; 50-60% humidity)
While your house may or may not have a root cellar, there are lots of spots around that naturally provide, or can easily be adapted to provide good conditions for vegetable storage. Closets or crawlspaces against an outside wall are generally quite cool. Basements are typically more humid than upstairs. Clearly fridges offer perfect conditions for vegetables that like cold and humid conditions, but there are lots of ways to get creative to create your own ‘pseudo-fridge’. Assess your specific situation: if possible, use a thermometer to monitor temperatures in various areas of your home to find locations that are convenient and most readily adaptable for food storage.
Once you figure out where to store your veggies you need prepare them and tuck them in for the winter. In general, vegetables can either be left unwashed and packed in some sort of packing material; or washed and stored ready for use in perforated plastic bags. Some folks I know swear by washing veggies and storing them that way so they are ready and easy to use – others say things store much better for them if packed dirty into some sort of medium.
The idea behind packing materials is that they provide insulation against fluctuating temperatures, help to retain moisture, and reduce disease transmission. Examples of packing materials include peat moss, sand, soil, sawdust, and straw.
At Root Cellar Gardens a combination of these techniques is used. Celeriac is stored in garden soil in a giant peat pot with no lid. Cabbages are set on top. This way, the cabbages help a bit to avoid transpiration out of the pot of celeriac, and benefit from this humidity. Carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, and beets are all stored washed, in perforated plastic bags, in a large Tupperware bin with the lid just balanced on top. This bin is then placed under the floor (basement/crawlspace). Squash are stored on a shelf at room temperature in the room furthest from the woodstove (heat source). Onions and garlic are kept handy under the kitchen counter and seem to do just fine. At the beginning of the winter, when there are too many onions to fit there, the excess are kept in the same area as the squash.
When storing things in a packing material, it is recommended that you use clean materials only, and that you replace it each year in case there is any bacteria or disease from the previous year. When packing your vegetables make sure they don’t touch (again, to help cut down on disease/rot transfer), and pack them in layers (layer of material, layer of veggies, layer of material etc…). The type of container you pack them into makes a difference too. Typically, you want it to breath but not too much (hence the Tupperware with the askew lid). Other ideas are wooden crates, lined boxes, crocks, metal cans with liners, clean garbage cans.
As for getting the vegetables ready to be tucked in there are a few specific things to do:
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