Storing the Harvest

By Susan Littlefield

In most parts of the country, gardening season is coming to a close. Depending on where you live, you may still be enjoying a harvest of hardy crops like kale, collards, and Brussels sprouts from the open garden. And with the protection of cold frames, row covers, or tunnels, gardeners in cold-winter climates can continue to reap a bounty of cold-tolerant vegetables such as hardy greens, leeks, and root crops well into the frosty months.

But even if you aren't still harvesting directly from your garden, you can enjoy many vegetables fresh long into the winter if you store them correctly. Winter squash, pumpkins, carrots, parsnips, beets, and turnips can all be stored for months as long as you can provide them with the storage conditions they need.

Plan Your Planting Time with Storage in Mind

While you may want to plant some root crops like carrots and beets in early spring to enjoy during the summer, plant the crops you plan to store as late as possible so they mature as late in the season as possible. The exact timing will, of course, depend on where you live, so use your planned harvest time and the days to maturity of the crop you're growing as a guide. Cold weather sweetens the roots and you'll be putting the freshest produce into a cool root cellar, garage, or back porch. Leave your last planting in the ground until the roots are fully mature; they'll store better if they're protected by a thicker skin.

Plant seeds of winter squash and pumpkins after the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past.

Picking Keepers

Here is a selection of some of the many kinds of vegetables we carry that are great keepers. Choose some for next year's garden, then store them at the end of the season for months of tasty eating.

'Tendersweet' Carrot (75 days) - The uniform, deep red-orange, tapered roots are nearly coreless and hold their color well for canning and freezing.

'Ruby Queen' Beet - Round roots have a smooth skin and shoulders and a uniform, dark-red interior with a buttery texture.

'Detroit Dark Red' Beet (60 days) - Globe-shaped beets are uniform with a small tap root and a deep red interior with indistinct zoning.

'American Purple Top' Rutabaga (100 days) - This high-yielding variety is a good keeper with fine flavor and creamy yellow flesh.

'Butternut (Waltham)' Winter Squash (100 days) - This vigorous, vining plant produces uniform, 7-9 inch long fruits with rich orange flesh that keeps well.

'Small Sugar' Pumpkin (115 days) - Valued for pie making, the 6-8 pound, deep orange fruits are smooth and slightly ribbed, with thick, sweet, dry, bright orange flesh.

Keeping Pumpkins and Winter Squash

Harvest properly. Pick fully ripe winter squash and pumpkins when they are heavy and fully colored and their outer rinds are thick and tough enough that they can't be pierced easily with a thumbnail. Be sure to harvest the fruits before they are exposed to frost or they won't keep well. Cut rather than pull the squash and pumpkins from the vine, leaving several inches of stem attached. Select only the best specimens for winter keeping. Any bumps, bruises, broken stems, or slightly rotten spots will spread to other stored vegetables, so eat the less-than-perfect ones promptly.

Cure for longer storage. For longer storage and the best flavor, hard shelled winter squashes and pumpkins must be "cured" - a process that allows their shells to dry and toughen completely for longest keeping. Place them in a warm, well-ventilated spot for a several weeks. Temperatures in the 70-85 degree F range are ideal.

Store cool and dry. After curing, keep your squash and pumpkins in a cool place (from a minimum of 50° F up to 60° F) with low humidity. Any cool, dry, dark spot is fine -- try a spare room, closet floor, attic floor, or even a large, cool cupboard. Wherever you store them, check the vegetables regularly and remove any that are getting soft or look as if they're starting to rot.

Storing Root Crops

Dig and dry. For a longer storage life, dig up the roots from your fall garden after two or three days of dry weather, then leave them out for a few hours in the sun right after you pull them. You'll kill the root hairs, making the plant dormant, and the soil on the roots will dry and fall off easily.

Never wash roots before you store them. Just cut off the tops right out in the garden. Leave about an inch of stem for beets, so they don't "bleed" in cooking. For other root crops, cut the tops close. Wash the roots just before using them.

Store only the best roots. Any that are damaged by insects or harvesting you can eat fresh. Injuries are avenues for rot that can spread to other vegetables. (Yes, one bad apple can spoil the barrel!) Also, don't ever clip off the bottom end of the root before you put it in storage; this, too, can open an avenue to rot.

Storage can be plain or fancy. You don't need an elaborate root cellar to store root vegetables, even for months at a time. To stay crisp and fresh, root crops just need cool, moist, dark surroundings. The ideal place would be about 34° F with high humidity.

Build a root cellar. If you have an unheated basement, you can build a root cellar by partitioning off one corner, installing some insulation and a tight-sealing door.

Box or bag roots. Line a large, sturdy cardboard or wooden box with two to three inches of some insulating material (such as slightly moist sawdust, peat moss or sand) on the bottom. Place a layer of roots on top of the sawdust, leaving two to three inches of space near the sides. Cover the roots lightly with sawdust--1/4 inch is fine. Alternate layers of roots with sawdust, filling in all around the edges with sawdust as well. Add a final two to three inches of sawdust on top. You can also put the roots in a plastic trash bag with a few small holes punched in it for ventilation. Store this "root box" in a cool basement area, unheated garage, back porch, or an unheated spare room; just be sure it's somewhere the temperature won't drop below freezing. To use the vegetables, simply open the box or bag, take what you need, then repack the sawdust around the rest.

Question of the Month: Storing Root Crops in the Ground

Q: Can I store my root crops right in the garden until I'm ready to eat them?

A: The answer is yes! Throw about a foot of straw or hay over your unharvested root crops before the ground freezes in late fall. This will insulate the soil and you'll be able to go out into early winter -- perhaps even later -- pull back the covering, and continue your harvest of carrots, beets, rutabagas, and turnips. Extend the mulch out about a foot and a half on each side of the planting. Or you can fill large plastic trash bags with leaves or straw and cover your roots crops with them, making it easier to remove the insulating cover to harvest the roots. This method works best in Zone 5 or warmer, but even in colder zones it will usually extend the harvest into early winter.

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