Folks, this one’s a keeper, so turn on your printer and save it in your vegetable gardening library.
With cold weather soon upon us, everyone should be working to save your harvest, either by storing or preserving. Canning, drying, and freezing are good ways of preserving your crops such as beans, corn, peas, peppers, summer squash, and tomatoes. They need to be done immediately after picking, while crops are fresh and tasty. Whether you cold-store or preserve your produce depends on the type of food you’ve grown, your facilities, and your family’s eating preferences.
Cold storage of vegetables such as cabbage, beets, carrots, potatoes, squash, and turnips can give you the best tasting and healthiest food of the four methods (with the possible exception of freeze-drying, if that is an option for you), and may even be the least expensive in the long run. And you can eat every one of these garden-fresh even 4 to 6 months after they’ve been harvested! However it requires some careful preparation, so let’s discuss how best to prepare for and store your fall harvest.
The details of harvesting and properly storing your crops are covered in several of the Mittleider gardening books, including Food For Everyone. All are available at http://www.growfood.com/shop
Since tomatoes are many peoples’ favorite garden produce, let’s discuss them first. Before the first killing frost, pick all your tomatoes, including the green ones. Handle them gently, because cuts or bruises will cause them to spoil quickly. Fruit that’s close to ripe can be placed on a kitchen counter, out of direct sunlight, and it will ripen in a few days. Green fruit should be placed on a shelf in a cool, dry place, such as your basement or garage. As they begin to ripen you can bring them into the kitchen. Always remove any fruit that is beginning to spoil. We eat tomatoes into January this way.
Most of your other vegetables need more help to keep them fresh. If your garden is very small and you don’t have much to store, you may be able to use an old refrigerator, or a barrel buried in the back yard. However, for those who are serious about providing fresh food for your families, I recommend a root cellar, either under the house or buried outside. A good size is 8′ wide and at least 10′ long. This gives you 2′ for an aisle and 3′ on each side for storage. A shelf on each side is good for things like onions and garlic, which need to be kept dry.
You can set it into the side of a hill or dig a hole 4′ to 5′ deep in a corner of the yard, build the cellar, and cover it with the excess dirt. This will help insulate it and maintain the low, but not freezing temperatures you need. Provide yourself a small door and insulate it well.
Harvest your crops at peak maturity and store only those which are free of disease or damage. Don’t harvest for storage until late fall, since more starches are converted to sugars by the cool weather. Root crops should be picked fresh and stored immediately. Potatoes and squash, on the other hand, first need to be cured at 60-75 degrees for 7 to 14 days. Most produce should be stored at just above freezing temperatures, except winter squash, which does better at or above 50 degrees.
Your root crops will stay fresh and sweet for months if you harvest them with roots intact and pack them in wet sawdust. Cabbage and other brassicas also need their roots. Remove outer leaves, then pack the roots in wet sawdust, leaving the cabbage exposed. Provide separation between crops to avoid mixing flavors, and to keep squash dry.
Potatoes should not be as wet as the root crops. They will do well in temperatures below 40 degrees, but pack them in slightly moist, rather than wet sawdust. Peat moss and sand, or combinations of all three, can be substituted for straight sawdust, but are not as ideal. I recommend you work with your neighbors to find a sawmill, pallet manufacturer, or cabinet shop that uses hardwoods (not walnut!), and obtain a truckload.
Onions and garlic also store well. They can handle cold temperatures but, like winter squash, they do better with humidity only 60 to 70 percent. Therefore these should be up off the damp floor, on shelves or hung from the ceiling. A cold basement can also work, but be sure to provide separation from living areas to avoid the strong smell.
Remember, cold temperatures are essential for good long-term storage of vegetables, but do not let them freeze! Insulate your root cellar well. Good healthy eating to you! More details are at http://www.growfood.com in the FAQ section.