Gardens are still producing bountifully. In most, frost has yet to rear it's head and gardeners are still reaping armloads of tomatoes, beans, and peppers, while cold hardy crops like kale and Brussels sprouts offer plenty of fresh garden pickings still to come. But in most parts of the country the gradually shortening days and cooler nights give hints that the end of the harvest season isn't too far off. While canning, freezing, and drying vegetables will let you enjoy your homegrown produce throughout the winter months, you can also enjoy many kinds of vegetables fresh into the fall and even winter months as long as you can provide them with the correct storage conditions. Winter squash, pumpkins, carrots, parsnips, beets, rutabagas, turnips, and onions are all good candidates for home storage.
For the most successful storage, try to time the harvest of the crops you plan to store as late in the season as possible. While you may want to plant some crops like carrots and beets in early spring to enjoy in the summer, sow the ones you plan to store later so that they are maturing fully just before the time of your first frost (but be sure to harvest before hard frost hits). Cool weather will sweeten the roots and the mature roots will have thicker skins that will store better.
Storing Root Crops
Dig in Dry Weather
For the longest storage, dig your beets, carrots, rutabagas, turnips, and parsnips after the weather has been dry for several days; then leave them out in the sun for a few hours to dry. Don't wash your root crops before storage, but gently brush off the dry soil on their surface. Cut off the tops, leaving about an inch of tops on beets and trimming other root crops even with the top of the root. Leave the bottom end of the root intact, as cutting it can provide an avenue for rot to enter during storage.
Store Only the Best
Check over your harvest and choose only the best roots to store. Set aside any that have insect damage or that were damaged during harvest to eat soon.
Store Cool, Moist, and Dark
The ideal storage conditions for roots crops are close to but above freezing (about 34 degrees F), dark, and with high humidity. A old-fashioned root cellar works great, but most of us don't have access to one. One option is to partition off a section of your warmer basement with insulated interior walls; then add a vent to bring in cold outside air. Another option is a space that is cool but stays above freezing, such as an unheated porch, attached garage, or shed. Line the bottom of a large, sturdy cardboard or wooden box with several inches of insulating material (such as slightly moist sawdust, peat moss, or sand). Place a single layer of roots on the material, making sure individual roots don't touch. Cover them with several more inches of material; then add additional layers of vegetables and insulation, ending with a final 3 inch thick layer of insulating material. To use the vegetables, open the box and take what you need and repack insulation around the remaining veggies. Or root vegetables can be stored in food-safe plastic bags with a few holes punched in them for ventilation.
Choose Varieties That Store Well
Certain types of onions have been bred to last longer in storage, so read variety descriptions carefully when choosing what to plant. In general, onions that are good keepers tend to have a higher sulfur content and are more pungent than those that don't last as long in storage.
Cure Before Storing
This step is vital for long-lasting onion storage. Place the newly dug plants in a single layer in a warm, dry spot with good air circulation. Spreading plants out on an elevated screen works well. Cure the onions until the the tops and necks are completely tight and dry and the outer skins are papery. This usually takes 2-4 weeks. Then the tops can be trimmed to back to an inch from the bulb (you can leave them uncut if you plan to braid your onions), and the dried roots at the base of the bulb can be snipped off.
Store Cool and Dry
For the longest storage, keep onions cool but above freezing (35-40 degrees) in a dark spot with good air circulation. But even at warmer temperatures (50-60 degrees) onions will still usually keep for months. Store in mesh bags or in boxes or cartons no more than a couple of onions deep.
Storing Winter Squash and Pumpkins
Harvest When Fully Ripe
Pick pumpkins and winter squash fruits when they are heavy and fully colored, their outer rinds are hard enough that they can't be dented easily with a thumbnail, and the stems have turned hard and begun to shrivel. But be sure to harvest before they are exposed to frost or the fruits won't store well. Select only the best specimens for storage, without bruises, broken stems, or rotten spots. Cut the fruits from the vines, leaving 2 inches of stem attached.
Cure for Longer Storage
For the longest storage life and the best flavor, hard shelled winter squash and pumpkins should be cured in a warm (70-85 degrees F is ideal), dry, well-ventilated spot for several weeks.
Store Cool and Dry
Keep cured squash and pumpkins in a cool, dry, dark location that's no cooler than 50 degrees F but no warmer than about 60 degrees F. Check the vegetables regularly and remove any that are getting soft or show signs of rot.
Q: My tomato vines are still loaded with green tomatoes, but the end of our growing season is approaching. Is there any way to ripen these tomatoes?
A: Don't panic if the weatherman predicts light frost and your tomato vines are still loaded with green fruit. Often if you protect plants from an early light frost, the weather will turn warm again and you might get as much as several weeks more for green fruits to ripen. Protect plants by covering them with medium to heavy weight row cover fabric, old sheets, and the like before the sun sets; then remove coverings in the morning. But if hard frost is predicted, it's best to harvest what's left on the vine.
Also, once nights remain consistently below 50 degrees F, it's best to harvest any remaining mature green tomatoes (those that are at least 3/4 of their full size and have turned glossy light green to white), even if the vines haven't yet been hit by frost. These tomatoes will ripen better indoors once the weather is this cool. Clip tomatoes from the vine with a short piece of stem attached. Partly red tomatoes well on their way to ripening tolerate cooler temperatures and can be left on the vine until frost threatens.