As the last veggies have been picked during fall, you don’t need to mourn that enjoying the fruits of your labor is over. Here are some basics to keeping your veggies through the winter months.
As the weather turns colder and the vegetable garden finishes its final push to provide for our families, it is time to consider how to make those beautiful fruits and vegetables sustain us through the winter. Storing produce is an important aspect of serious gardening and there are several things you need to know in order to succeed.
With all fruits and vegetables, it is helpful to keep the following tips in mind:
• Choose varieties wisely. Some produce stores better than others.
• Store at the ripest point of the season. Make sure that you are picking produce that is ripe but not overripe.
• Always remove damaged or diseased produce. The adage “one bad apple spoils the bunch” is true here. Damage or disease can cause big problems.
• Store under the appropriate conditions. Certain vegetables require more or less humidity and cooler or warmer temperatures.
• And finally, don’t hoard it, eat it. It is wonderful to see all of the produce that you have stored, but if you enter spring with a full larder, what was the point of storing the food in the first place?
Potatoes are a great vegetable to overwinter. The best varieties for storing include Yukon Gold, Kennebec, and Norland. New potatoes are not good for storage and should be eaten just after gathering from the garden.
When the potato plants begin to die back, it is time to harvest. Discard any potatoes that were damaged when pulling or look like they may be rotting. It’s not worth the risk to store a potato that looks questionable.
Prepare your potatoes by brushing off the dirt – do not wash – and setting them out to cure in a dry, cool, dark place for two to three weeks. This allows the skin to toughen, making the potatoes last longer. Make sure to keep them in the dark. Potatoes that are exposed to light will turn green and bitter.
Once cured, potatoes prefer a cool, dark space with good airflow and high humidity. In our area, humidity isn’t much of a problem. An easy way to store them is in a cardboard box of shredded paper. Layer potatoes so that they don’t touch and check every few weeks for rot. Keep potatoes away from other vegetables that exude ethylene gas, which can make your potatoes begin to sprout. Potatoes will store for several months like this.
Carrots, beets, parsnips, celeriac, rutabagas, and turnips fall under the category of root vegetables. When it starts to cool off and you are ready to bring in your root vegetables, go for it. There is no telltale sign for when to harvest these beauties, but don’t wait too far into fall. Root vegetables can become dry and bitter if you leave them too long.
Prepare root vegetables by brushing off the dirt – do not wash them. Cut the greens off of the vegetable, leaving about half an inch above the base. Check for damage or disease and remove. You can always use these veggies by cutting out the bad parts and eating them soon.
Root vegetables like to be stored in a cold and very moist environment. Many people use potting soil or sand to store their root vegetables. Line a box with a sprinkling of potting soil then layer the vegetables so that they do not touch, adding new layers of potting soil as you go. Larger vegetables will store longer, so put your larger root veggies on the bottom of the box. Check and add a sprinkling of water every couple of weeks. When you are ready to eat, just dust the root off and take it to the kitchen to prepare.
APPLES AND PEARS
It is important to pick apples and pears at the peak of ripeness.
If you cup a pear in your palm and gently bring it up to a 90 degree angle from the branch, it should drop into your hand. Do the same for apples, but add a twist at the end. If you have to pull hard, the apple is not ready.
There is no need to wash your apples or pears before storing, but do make sure to check them for bruising, disease, or insects. Any of these things can ruin an entire box of produce. Rather than looking at these fruits as a waste, cut out the bad parts and eat them promptly. An apple pie is always a welcome treat.
When storing apples and pears, you need to keep a cold and moist environment. Wrapping each fruit in newspaper and nesting them into a box of shredded paper will give them the airflow they need while maintaining some humidity. A root cellar or basement are good choices.
Make sure to store fruits away from vegetables. They release ethylene gas and can ripen other vegetables – something we are trying to avoid in storage. And as always, check for rotting fruit every few weeks and remove it so that the rest of the box stays healthy and firm.
Cabbage is similar to tree fruits when it comes to winter storage. They want to stay cool and moist. The main difference is that you want to keep the roots attached when you store them. Otherwise, brush off the dirt, discard damaged or diseased heads, wrap individually in newspaper to control the humidity and store away from other fruits and vegetables. This time, keeping your cabbage away from other produce is used to keep it from sharing its sometimes potent odor.
GARLIC AND ONIONS
If you are a bulb flower gardener, you already know how to store garlic and onions over the winter. They are both bulbs and as such can be stored the same way. For those of us who don’t have experience with flower bulbs, here’s the scoop.
Garlic and onions should be harvested when the outer leaves turn yellow. In the Pacific Northwest, the trick is to get them as large as possible without leaving them in the rain long enough to let them rot. It’s a bit of a balance, so err on the side of caution and pull bulbs before we get into the heavy rainy season even if the leaves are still green.
These two vegetables need to cure like potatoes. Spread them out in a dark, cool, dry place with good airflow for two to three weeks. This allows the outer layers to dry, protecting the inside from trying to sprout prematurely. Once cured, check for soft spots on onions and use those immediately. See a pattern here? Don’t store damaged or diseased produce. Ever.
You can store garlic or onions in a mesh bag or you can create braids with the dried leaves, allowing the bulbs to hang. Either way, make sure that they have good airflow.
PUMPKINS AND WINTER SQUASH
Our last group of vegetables is made up of all winter squash varieties, including pumpkin, butternut, spaghetti, acorn, and delicata.
When you harvest these vegetables, use a sharp knife and cut the vine about one inch above the produce. Do not carry pumpkins and squash by the stem. This allows for cracks where disease can get in and spoil the squash.
Cure squash inside with good air circulation. Squash don’t mind curing in 70-80 degree environments, so you can get away with curing them on the kitchen counter most of the time. Once cured, move them to a cool, dry place. A garage or basement are excellent choices for squash. They don’t want to be too cold and they want to be able to breathe.
Overwintering your vegetables is a wonderful way to get a taste of summer in the dead of winter. There is nothing like brushing off a sweet, crunchy carrot or peeling a homegrown onion to add to a soup on a snowy day. And let me tell you about the joy a ripe apple or pear can give you on a rainy day in December.
Finally, if you are worried about losing your harvest by not storing it properly, start small. Try a couple of pumpkins or a bucket of apples. Keep track in a journal what works and what doesn’t. Bottom line, storing produce over the winter allows you to continue to eat healthy vegetables and fruits from your own garden all year round. And it isn’t hard to do. From harvest to storage, following a few simple guidelines will lead to success.