Here in southwest Virginia, my partner and I take pride in growing and storing most of our fruits and vegetables. Knowing where our food comes from gives us confidence in its goodness, plus we save about $5,000 a year through our gardening and food storage efforts. There is another benefit, which is the utter convenience of having a self-provisioned home. In early winter when our stores are full, I feel like I’m living in a well-stocked organic grocery store.
We bring many years of experience to this quest, and we’re still learning. Measured by weight, stored garden crops make up more than half of our overall harvest, with every onion and potato just about as fresh as it was the day it came from the garden. Our mix of storage vegetables and fruits varies from year to year and we’ve learned that putting by storage crops is something anyone can do — even if your produce comes from the farmers market. By making use of cold storage spots in your basement or garage, and perhaps adding a seasonal second refrigerator, you can use our charts to easily store 20 storage crops for winter eating using simple, time-tested methods.
Sleeping Quarters for Storage Crops
Success with storage crops hinges on finding methods that convince the crops that they are enjoying a natural period of dormancy in unusually comfortable conditions. This typically involves slowing physiology by controlling respiration (usually by lowering temperature) and/or providing moisture so crisp root vegetables sense they are still in the ground. Some staple storage crops, such as garlic, onions and shallots, need dry conditions to support prolonged dormancy.
Most storage crops need to be cured to enhance their storage potential. During the curing process, potatoes and sweet potatoes heal over small wounds to the skin, garlic and onions form a dry seal over the openings at their necks, and dry beans and grain corn let go of excess moisture that could otherwise cause them to rot. Harvesting, curing and storage requirements vary with each crop — see the charts in How to Harvest, Cure and Store 20 Storage Crops for full details. In my experience, harvesting and curing vegetables properly leads to much more flexibility when it comes to long-term storage conditions.
Seeking out good food storage spots in your home or on your property can lead to interesting discoveries. Take storing potatoes, for example. When we asked the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Facebook community to share favorite ways for storing potatoes in winter, we received dozens of great ideas, including these:
Place cured potatoes in a burlap bag, tuck the bag into a plastic storage bin left open a wee bit, and keep in an unheated basement.
Line plastic laundry baskets with newspapers, with potatoes arranged in layers between more newspapers. Place the packed, covered baskets in an unheated garage.
In the basement, make short towers of potatoes by stacking them between layers of open egg cartons. Cover the towers with cloth to protect the potatoes from light.
Place sorted potatoes in cloth grocery bags that have been lined with black plastic bags, and store in a cold space under the stairs. A similar method: Sort different potatoes into paper bags, then place the bags in milk crates to prevent bruising.
Use an old dresser in a cool room or basement for storing potatoes in winter. Leave the drawers partially open for ventilation.
In a shady spot outdoors, place a tarp over the ground and cover it with an inch of loose straw. Pile on potatoes and cover with more straw, a second tarp, and a 10-inch blanket of leaves or straw.
Bury a garbage can horizontally so that its bottom half is at least 12 inches deep in the soil. Place potatoes in the can with shredded paper or clean straw. Secure the lid with a bungee cord, and cover with an old blanket if needed to shade out sun.
Here in Virginia, we have vole issues that require us to harvest our early spuds promptly, so my buried garbage can gets plenty of use for storing potatoes. Buried coolers or even buried freezer bodies (with machinery removed) can work in the same way.
Storing Crisp Root Vegetables
Theoretically, root vegetables that grow well below ground can be mulched over in fall and dug as needed in winter. This often works well with parsnips, but most gardeners would risk losing much of an overwintered carrot or beet crop to wireworms, voles or other critters. Repeated freezing and thawing of the surface soil damages shallow-rooted turnips and beets. It’s always safer (and more convenient) to harvest root crops, clean them up and secure them in cold storage. In Zones 7 and warmer, you’ll probably need a second refrigerator, as you won’t have naturally cooled spaces that stay below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. In colder winter climates, you have several options:
Bins, buckets or trugs packed with damp sand or sawdust and stashed in cold spots around your homestead, such as under your basement stairs or in an unheated garage or storage shed. This method works amazingly well if you can find a place with temperatures in the 32- to 40-degree range. Every few weeks, dump out containers and repack them, eating any roots that are showing signs of softening.
The previously described method of storing potatoes in a buried garbage container works well for root vegetables, but you’ll need a second one (or a buried cooler) for roots that need moist conditions. Pack these in damp sand or sawdust to maintain high humidity.
Working outside the fridge, the biggest challenge in storing crisp roots is maintaining high humidity without promoting molds and soft rots. That’s where packing materials, including damp sawdust or damp sand, come in handy. Sawdust is clean and lightweight, and the residue can be shaken out into the garden. Sand weighs more but is reusable — simply dry it in the sun and return it to a bucket or bin until you need it in the fall.
A seasonal second refrigerator is worth considering if you have a lot of carrots or beets to store, live in a climate too warm for underground storage, or want to store root vegetables to sell or trade later.
When preparing to store carrots, beets and other root vegetables in plastic bags in the refrigerator, sprinkle in a few drops of water as you pack each bag. Ideally, a few drops of condensation should form inside the bags after they have been well-chilled in the fridge.
Now for something really easy: storing winter squash. The hard rinds of winter squash protect them from drying out, so all they need is a cool spot where you can check them from time to time. Look for signs of mold, and promptly consume squash that have developed minor blemishes, such as discoloration or soft spots.
Some types of winter squash store longer than others, so it’s important to eat them in proper order.
Squash and pumpkins classified as Cucurbita pepo tend to keep for only two to three months. These include acorn squash, delicata or sweet potato squash, spaghetti squash and most small pumpkins. Eat these first.
Buttercup and kabocha squash (C. maxima) will keep for four months under good conditions, but after two months the fruits should be watched closely for signs of softening or mold. Many squash pie devotees bake up all questionable buttercups in early winter and stash the mashed squash in the freezer. This is a wise move, because it’s far easier to make a pie or batch of muffins if you have frozen squash purée waiting in your freezer than it is to face down a squash the size of your head.
The smooth, hard rinds of butternut squash (C. moschata) help give them the longest storage life (often six months or more), so butternuts should be eaten last. We grow more butternuts than any other winter squash because they are such a cinch to store.
A Second Fridge for Storing Fruit
As owners of six mature fruit trees, we couldn’t manage our harvest without a second refrigerator for storing apples and pears. Our Asian and D’Anjou pears will last to December, with apples going a bit longer — but only if they are refrigerated in containers that retain moisture. So we plug in an old, semi-retired refrigerator in August, then clean it out and turn it off in January. We don’t mix fruits and veggies in the same fridge, because fruits give off so much ethylene gas that they can cause vegetable crops to deteriorate in wacky ways.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t exactly approve of second refrigerators, in part because most Americans already maintain more refrigerator space than they need. A more serious issue is the age of many second refrigerators and freezers. Newer models are often three times more efficient than older ones. According to the EPA’s Energy Star statistics, a refrigerator from the 1970s can cost an extra $200 a year to operate, while a 1980s vintage refrigerator may cost $70 more to run compared with a new model.
We will eventually upgrade our elderly, part-time fruit fridge to an efficient Energy Star model, but meanwhile, it earns its keep. Storing apples in a refrigerator often greatly improves their flavor, which is definitely the case with our midseason ‘Enterprise’ apples — three weeks in the fridge changes their flavor from good to spectacular. Sometimes how you store a crop is just as important as how you grow it.
I don’t mean to make self-provisioning sound too easy. Only top-quality produce should be stored, and every season some crop I planned to store either fails or doesn’t make the grade. These losses are soon forgotten as August and September whiz by in a blur, with one food storage project after another. Then October comes and we’re amazed at what we have: a basement brimming with homegrown winter squash, onions and garlic; a well-stocked pantry with organic dried beans, peppers and canned goods; and the fridge and freezer full, save for enough space for two turkeys grown by local farmers. If this is not the good life, I don’t know what is.