The Garden Patch: Eat your ‘fresh’ vegetables all winter long with proper storage

Proper storage can ensure ‘fresh’ vegetables all winter, such as these dried serrano peppers, and clean and dry onions and potatoes ready for storage.

Storage. Storage? I thought we were supposed to eat ‘em! But – there’s too many. We’ll store ‘em and we can eat ‘em all winter! Hey, this gardenin’ business is getting to be more fun all the time! Think … year round fresh food! Tasty, huh? Here we go…

Planning for storage

Preparation for storage begins in the garden. Many of the cold-hardy plants, such as root vegetables, cabbage, onions and winter squash, will last until spring if properly stored. When choosing varieties for your fall garden, look for traditional “good keepers” such as Long Season beets, Yellow Globe onions and Kennebec potatoes. To increase their storage life, do not fertilize about a month before harvesting, since vegetables growing in a nitrogen-rich soil late in the season tend to keep poorly. Likewise, withhold water for a month before harvesting; otherwise, the vegetables’ tissues will be watery and more likely to spoil quickly.

All the produce you store should be free of blemishes. Even small breaks in a vegetable’s skin can open the way to bacteria and fungi that cause rot.

Curing enhances the storage life of these vegetables. By drying and hardening the skin, shell or rind, you protect the inner flesh from bacteria and fungi. Pumpkins and winter squash should be cured in a sunny room for 7 to 10 days. Most root vegetables need only a few days in a warm, sunny, well ventilated room before storing. Potatoes, however, should be dried for two weeks in an area protected from the sun; in direct light a toxin that turns the skin greenish often develops.

Storing onions and garlic

For onions and garlic that will keep all winter, select late maturing types with thin necks and, if you plan to braid and hang them, long, strong stems. Gently dig the vegetables and brush off any soil. If the weather is dry, place the bulbs outdoors in a lightly shaded area; otherwise, choose an airy, dry shelter such as a carport. Spread the bulbs on a wire mesh set on a support so that air will circulate on all sides. When the outer skins are dry and brittle and the stems have withered, the bulbs are ready to store. Either braid the stems together for hanging, or cut them off an inch above the bulbs and put the onions and garlic in mesh bags or other airy containers. For best results, store in a dry area at 36 degrees F.

Washing the vegetables

Cleaning the crop is important for prolonging storage life and for retaining flavor, texture and nutritional value. And although you are unlikely to have exposed your garden to dangerous chemicals, even low-toxicity organic pesticides must be thoroughly washed away before you consume the food. Cleaning not only removes dirt and other unwanted substances, in some cases it actually helps preserve freshness. Greens, for instance, will quickly dry out unless they are rinsed in cool water, dried and placed in an unsealed plastic bag before refrigeration. Be sure they are thoroughly dry before storage since water droplets may harbor fungus spores that cause rot.

Vegetables that are grown on trellises or covered with floating row covers do not typically require much cleaning. Similarly, vegetables whose edible parts are protected by thick skins, husks or pods do not usually need to be washed if the exterior covering will be discarded. Vegetables to be stored, such as root crops, should simply be wiped off with a clean, dry cloth. Dip winter squash and pumpkins (including stems) in a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water to kill surface bacteria and fungi.

Storing root vegetables

Even though few homes today have root cellars, it is easy to adapt an area of your home for short-term storage. Root vegetables such as beets, carrots, leeks and turnips keep best at temperatures of 32 to 40 degrees F and can be stored in sheds, garages, porches or barns for up to a month after harvest. For longer storage, however, these vegetables need an area that mimics their underground growing environment – cool temperatures and high humidity. You can experiment with converting a corner of an unheated basement into a root cellar. Place vegetables in well-ventilated containers such as mesh bags, baskets or slatted wooden boxes, or hang them in braids or bunches. Open outside vents or windows periodically to let in cool air on fall nights. If your basement is dry, sprinkle water on the floor as needed. If you have trouble maintaining humidity levels, pack root vegetables in damp sand or sawdust to help them stay crisp.

Root vegetables can also be stored outside in a cold frame. Layer the produce in loose, clean straw or sawdust surrounded with rodent-proof wire mesh. For extra protection against cold, stack hay bales around the frame and cover the top with several layers of heavy canvas and a final layer of straw.

Check regularly for signs of spoilage. Promptly remove any vegetable that has gone bad, along with the straw or sawdust immediately around it. As a precaution, wipe off adjacent vegetables with a dry cloth and, if necessary, add clean sawdust or straw.

Tools and containers

A gentle hand at harvest time will contribute greatly to the quality of your produce. Tearing vegetable stems and yanking fruit from vines can damage and uproot plants, decreasing or eliminating further yield from those plants. Be careful – use BOTH hands!

Timely harvest

Most crops respond to frequently picking by producing more vegetables. As a rule of thumb, you cannot over pick a fruiting crop once it begins to bear mature vegetables. Root crops are usually once-only harvest plants, but plant in stages and you can enjoy production much longer. Diligent and timely harvesting can be critical for many crops. Read the label and follow the directions carefully. If that doesn’t work, visit with your supplier about planting and harvesting.

Finally

There is much to be learned about the preservation and storing of your garden crops. Read everything you can find, and don’t hesitate to ask your supplier for assistance. Remember, they want you back next season, so they’re willing to help you make this season a success!

That’s it for this week, folks! Hope you enjoyed and learned as much as we did! Just wondering…how did our parents do so well without all this material to study about gardening? Who knows? Keep gardenin’! Till next time!


stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch, featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my Mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.

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