Eating fresh veggies just hours -- or less -- after they were picked in the garden is one of the best things about summer! But as the gardening season begins to wind down, there's no need to give up the pleasures of fresh, homegrown produce. Of course, gardeners have long been canning, freezing, and drying the harvest to enjoy over the winter months. But there are also a number of crops that will keep without any additional processing, provided you can give them the storage conditions they need. Some can even be "stored" right in the garden, as long as you give them some protection from the elements.
Not every crop will keep well without processing. Tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, and zucchini are some that provide a seasonal fresh harvest in most parts of the country. But pumpkins and winter squash; onions and garlic; carrots, beets, and other root crops are among the ones that will keep well under certain conditions to provide delicious eating into the fall and winter months. And with the proper protection, leeks can continue to be harvested right from the garden long after frost and cold has shut the rest of the harvest down.
Here are some the many vegetables we offer that are good candidates for fall and winter storage.
'Scarlet Nantes' Carrots (68 days) - These long, blunt-tipped carrots have a sweet taste and uniform orange interior.
'American Flag' Leeks (120-155 days) - Cold tolerant plants have long, thick, white stalks with a yellow heart and gray-green leaves.
'Small Sugar' Pumpkin (115 days) - Great for pie making, the 6-8 pound fruits have bright orange, thick, sweet, dry flesh.
'Acorn or Table Queen' Winter Squash (80 days) - An open-pollinated variety with pale orange, tender, sweet, dry flesh.
'American Purple Top' Rutabaga (100 days) - A good keeper, the globe-shaped roots are yellow with a purple top and have creamy yellow flesh with a fine flavor.
'Early Butternut' Winter Squash (82 days) - This very early variety produces sweet, medium sized fruits that store well.
Keeping Root Crops
Carrots, beets, turnips, and parsnips are all good candidates for home storage. For the longest storage life, dig up the roots from your fall garden after two or three days of dry weather. Then leave them out in the sun for a few hours right after you pull them. This will kill the root hairs, making the roots 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.
Choose only the best roots to store. Ones that are damaged by insects or harvesting are more likely to develop rot in storage, which can spread to other vegetables. (Yes, one bad apple can spoil a whole bunch!) If you should bruise any, eat them right away. Also, don't ever clip off the bottom end of the root before you put it in storage; this, too, can open the plant to rot.
To stay crisp and fresh, root crops just need cool, moist, dark surroundings. The ideal storage conditions would be 34 to 45 degrees F with high humidity. Most gardeners can only approximate these conditions. But even if you can't provide the ideal conditions that result in the longest storage life, you may still be able to store crops for several months or more. Fill the bottom of a large, sturdy cardboard or wooden box with two to three inches of some insulating material, such as moist sawdust, peat moss, vermiculite, or sand. Place a layer of roots on top of the material, leaving two to three inches of space near the sides. Cover lightly with the insulating material. Alternate layers of roots with insulation, filling in all around the sides as well. Add a final two to three inches of insulation on top, and store this ″root box″ in a area that stays cool but remains above freezing, such as a cellar, porch, garage, or shed.
No cool cellar? Try storing roots right in the ground. Throw a foot or so of straw over your unharvested root crops before the ground freezes. This will insulate the soil and you'll be able to go out in late fall and early winter, pull back the straw, and continue your harvest of carrots, beets, and parsnips. Extend the mulch out about a foot and a half on each side of the planting.
Storing Pumpkins and Winter Squash
Pick your winter squashes and pumpkins when they have fully developed the color for their particular variety, when the rind is hard enough that you can't dent it with a fingernail and when the stem turns hard and begins to shrivel. But be sure to pick squashes and pumpkins before the first hard frost. Cut fruits from the vine, leaving 2 inches of stem. For the longest storage, cure squashes and pumpkins in a warm (85 degrees F), humid spot for about 10 days. Choose only fruits that are free of blemishes for long-term storage and wipe their outer surfaces with a solution of 1 part household bleach to 4 parts water to kill mold spores. Store cured squashes and pumpkins in a well-ventilated spot at about 50 F.
Onions and Garlic
Begin by digging bulbs carefully after their tops have died back. As with other crops, bulbs with nicks or bruises don't store well. Let bulbs dry in a single layer in a dry, well-ventilated spot for 2-3 weeks until the outer skins are papery and the tops are completely dry. Then cut back the tops to about an inch (unless you plan to braid them). Store in mesh bags in a cool (40-60 degrees F for garlic; 35-40 degrees F for onions), dry, dark location.
Before the ground freezes, surround your bed of leeks with bales of hay or straw. Fill in between the bales and around the plants with straw, weed-free hay, or shredded leaves, then add a heavyweight floating row cover over the top. You'll be able to go out into the winter months, pull back the protection, and dig fresh leeks for the kitchen.
Q: What's the best way to prolong my harvest of frost-tolerant crops such as kale, collards, and Brussels sprouts from my garden?
A: These crops are quite tolerant of the cold, surviving temperatures down to about 20 degrees F, sometimes lower! In fact, their flavor is often sweeter after they have been touched by frost. To extend your harvest even further, cover plants with low tunnels made of heavy-weight row cover fabric stretched over hoops as the weather gets cold. Clear plastic can offer even more cold protection, but you'll need to be ready to ventilate on sunny days to prevent overheating.