Image courtesy of iStock.
By Julie Martens Forney
While your grandmother’s house may have had a root cellar to keep her produce fresh for months, most homes today do not. But you can find similar cool conditions in places around the house where produce will be slow to spoil, lingering in a state of very, very slow ripening. Of course, it’s easiest to store veggies without a root cellar in cooler northern regions. In zones 7 and warmer, you’ll need a refrigerator for long storage of some veggies. But even in southern areas, you should be able overwinter at least some of your harvest without refrigeration.
A vinyl-coated wire laundry cart tucked into a dark basement room provides perfect storage for sweet potatoes. Open boxes of garlic fit neatly on shelves and provide handy access.
Where to Store Your VeggiesAny area of your home that stays below 60°F (but above freezing) is a candidate; use a thermometer to monitor the temperature. Some good options to consider include:
• Under basement steps, especially those leading from the basement to an attached garage;
• In an extra room with the heating vents closed (where plumbing is not dependent on the vents to keep from freezing);
• In a closet on an exterior wall, especially one with northern exposure;
• In an unheated attic;
• On an unheated porch;
• On a deck;
• In a well-ventilated garage or shed (produce breathes and can absorb vapor, so skip these areas if gas or chemical fumes are present);
• In an unheated entryway or mudroom.
Whatever location you choose, you’ll want to keep the temperature as constant as possible. You can improve your odds by using insulated coolers or boxes lined with straw or newspaper where appropriate. If veggies do freeze while in storage, you can still eat them, though you’ll need to do so within a few days after they thaw. If rodents are a concern, produce from the “Cold and Damp” section below can be stored in a plastic container within a tightly sealed metal can. (The veggies in the “Cool and Dry” section, on the other hand, need regular airflow.)
Check stored veggies regularly and remove any with rotten spots.
How to Maintain Stored VeggiesCheck your veggies regularly and remove any that show signs of rot. With root crops like carrots, beets, and turnips, pinch off any new roots that have formed and repack, removing any veggies that show signs of spoiling. Be sure your hands are clean before handling produce, and wash them any time you encounter a rotten spot, to ensure you don’t spread any of the organisms that cause spoilage.
These Veggies Like It Cold and DampThey have longest-lasting storage at 32 to 40°F and 90 to 95 percent humidity—conditions that mimic a traditional root cellar. (Storage times listed are for ideal root cellar conditions; veggies may not last quite as long in makeshift storage.)
Tuck a few bulbs of beets, turnips, or radishes into soil and keep in a bright window. You’ll be rewarded with a steady crop of greens you can toss into salads all winter long.
Beets (4-5 months), Carrots (4-6 months), Radishes (2-3 months), Rutabagas (2-4 months), Turnips (4-6 months)
Root crops do best packed in a moistened material like sand, peat moss, or sawdust. (If you use sand, pack the container where it’ll be stored, as it will be quite heavy when full and moist.) Avoid packing roots shoulder to shoulder — that way, if rot starts, it won’t spread as quickly. You can layer different roots in the same container, but think about how your family eats the veggies. If you normally serve each type solo, it will be easier to grab a handful of carrots or turnips when they’re packed in separate containers. The packing material should just be moist, not dripping wet. Remoisten by spritzing with a spray bottle as needed. Good container options include 5-gallon buckets, lidded plastic storage boxes, and coolers (foam or plastic). Just remember that air flow is important, so leave spouts open on coolers and set lids loosely on buckets.
Brussels sprouts can take temperatures as low as 15°F and even snow, so don’t rush to pull them from the garden.
Brussels Sprouts (3-8 weeks)
The best way to keep Brussels sprouts is in the garden until temperatures stay begin to stay below 20°F around the clock. When it’s time to bring them in, keep sprouts attached to the stalk. Break off leaves, clip the stalk at the base, and wrap a moist paper towel around the stub. Add a layer of plastic wrap to keep the moisture in. Or, to enhance humidity, wrap the whole stalk in a cotton dish towel and slip it into a large plastic bag. During storage, check the paper towel periodically for drying or signs of mold, and replace as needed. You can also dig up the plant and repot it in a bucket filled with soil or sand and keep it in a cool indoor area. (Abundant sunlight is not required, since your aim is to “hold” the plant, not grow it.) Don’t forget to keep the soil or sand moist.
Cabbages (3-4 months or longer)
Clean loose leaves from cabbages. For longest storage, gently pull stems from the garden so that a few roots and clumps of soil are still attached. “Plant” the roots in a plastic grocery bag filled with a handful of damp soil, then tie the bag tightly around the cabbage stalk. For short-term storage, clip the cabbage so just a short stem remains, wrap it in a damp paper towel, cover it with plastic wrap or a bag, and seal. Cabbages release a pungent odor as they breathe, so if you keep them in a fridge, you’ll detect a definite cabbage odor over time.
Potatoes (4-6 months)
Keep your spuds in a dark environment to help prevent sprouting. Stashing tubers in a lidded box works great. Some folks store them in slightly open dresser drawers or newspaper-lined clothes baskets. Avoid too-cool temps, which can trigger starches in potatoes to turn into sugars.
Reuse old potato and orange sacks to hang garlic bulbs for storage.
These Veggies Like It Cool and DryThey will last longest at 50 to 60°F and 60 to 70 percent humidity. (Again, storage times are for ideal conditions.)
Onions (5-8 months), Garlic (5-8 months)
To last, these bulbs need dry, dark conditions with excellent air flow. Braid garlic and hang it, or store loose bulbs in mesh bags, uncovered cardboard boxes, or baskets. Onions last nicely when tossed into baskets or stashed in a hanging wire veggie basket. Upcycle bicycle (or other wire) baskets or plastic milk crates, or simply keep your harvest in shallow open boxes or box tops (think copy paper box lids). Don’t put garlic in the refrigerator or it will sprout.
Sweet Potatoes (4-6 months)
These sweet tubers need the warmest temps to store well: 55 to 60°F. Keep sweet potatoes in the dark in a single layer on a plastic shelf, or wrap potatoes individually in newspaper and stash in a laundry basket or ventilated box.
An inexpensive plastic laundry basket makes a wonderful storage container for winter squash.
Winter Squash (see below for storage times)
Store winter squash in a box or laundry basket, or allow it to sit loose on an elevated shelf. Avoid concrete surfaces, which can retain and transmit moisture. Winter squash keeps best at 50 to 55°F. Eat varieties in this order, based on how long they’ll keep:
• Acorn squash, small pie pumpkins, spaghetti squash (1-3 months)
• Buttercup squash, kabocha squash, larger pumpkins (3-4 months)
• Blue Hubbard squash, butternut squash (6 months or more)
Storing your own produce is fun, and the rewards are downright delicious—especially when a winter wind is howling and you’re feasting on fresh food!