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Storing Vegetables for Winter

Vegetable gardens may close down for the winter in cold climates, but that doesn't mean we can't still enjoy the vegetables we grew. Many vegetables will keep for months in cold storage, if you can provide the right conditions. Choose your vegetables well, keep an eye on them through out the winter and don't be shy about using them. They won't last forever.

General Storage Rules

  1. Store only fully mature vegetables. Immature fruits and vegetables will rot quickly. Hold off harvesting as long as possible, especially with root vegetables, that can withstand some frost.
  2. Do not store vegetables that have been bruised or nicked or that show the slightest sign of rot. Be careful when handling them.
  3. Remove all excess soil. Don't wash the vegetables, just let them dry and brush off the soil. You can wash them well before using them.
  4. Thoroughly clean your storage area before each use.
  5. Keep the storage area dark.
  6. Do not expose stored vegetables to temperatures below freezing.
  7. Check on your stored vegetables every week or two. Storage times are just approximations, since vegetables, temperatures and conditions can vary widely.
  8. Use vegetables taken from cold storage as soon as possible. They will not last as long as they would if they had been freshly picked.

Dry Storage versus Moist Storage

Dry vegetables (winter squash, pumpkins, onions, garlic) require less effort to store, but they need more space. Since indoor humidity is generally low during the winter, make use of any unused, dark spaces and corners. These vegetables store best if they are kept up off the floor and are not allowed to touch each other. If you must pile things on top of each other, you will need to check them more frequently.

Moist vegetables (potatoes, root crops, cabbages) should be stored in a container, rather than exposed to air. Traditional methods include storing them in peat, sand, sawdust or newspaper, but you can also use plastic bags or cardboard. If you choose to use plastic, make sure there are a few holes, for excess moisture to escape. To contain the odor of stored cabbages, you can wrap them in a couple of sheets of newspaper first.

An easy way to store these is to fill a cardboard box with about 4 in. of sawdust or other insulating material. Lay a single layer of vegetables on top of that. Do not let the vegetables overlap and keep them about 4 in. from the sides of the box. Add another 2 –3 in. layer of insulating material and another layer of vegetables. Continue layering until the box is almost full. Finish with a 4 in. layer of insulation. If you are worried the temperature will get too cold in your storage area, increase the top, bottom and side insulation to 6 – 8 in. or slip the first box into a larger box, with additional insulation. Since these boxes can be large, using a light insulating material will make them easier to lift and move around.

Good Places to Store Vegetables

  • Basements - Cool, dry basements (50 – 60 F and 60 – 65 % relative humidity) will keep most vegetables for at least a couple of months. Make sure the vegetables have good air circulation and ventilation.
  • Attics and Entryways - If these spaces are unheated, they can be used for spreading out and storing vegetables that like dry conditions. Even an unheated spare room can be put to use storing a few winter squash on dresser or table tops.
  • Root Cellars - For ideal cold, moist conditions, (32 – 40 F and 90 – 95% relative humidity), consider a root cellar. A root cellar can be anything that remains above freezing, from a bucket in the ground, to a crawl space under the porch, to an unheated section of the basement, to a cement enclosure build into the side of a hill. Even in a root cellar, the vegetables will need ventilation and probably some insulation against temperature fluctuations. You also need to ensure that rodents cannot get to them. Here are some suggestions and tips for setting up root cellars, from a simple bucket to an excavated cave.

Storing Specific Vegetables

Cabbages - Harvest cabbages when the heads feel firm and full. Remove outside leaves. Cabbages like a high humidity and can be stored in perforated plastic bags. Any plastic bag will do, if you punch some hole in it for excess water to escape.

Onions and Garlic - Dig onions when the tops fall over. Allow to dry in a warm, well ventilated spot. When the tops are fully dry, cut them down to about 1 in. Let them continue drying for another 1 – 2 weeks. The skins should be papery and flaky. Store in a dry spot that stays just above freezing. The biggest reasons onions do not store well are if they are not fully dried before storage or if they are exposed to warm temperatures and light. Onions with wide necks or green stalks will not store long.

You can braid and hang onions to dry, but as they do, the braids will become brittle and will start braking.

Garlic dries and stores in a similar way. Softneck varieties will keep the longest, usually about 6 – 8 months. Hardnecks should be used within 4 months.

Potatoes - Harvest potatoes when their tops begin to die back. Dig and brush off as much soil as possible. Allow them to dry, in a cool, well ventilated spot. They are ready to store when the skin will not peel off with the pressure of your thumb.

Root Vegetables (beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, salsify) - Dig root vegetables when they have reached the desired size for the particular variety. Most root vegetables are sweeter if you wait until they have been exposed to a frost. Once harvested, remove all but ½ in. of the tops. This little big of top growth will seal in juices and seal out problems. You can also remove the tap root that extends below the edible root, but it is not necessary.

Root vegetables can be prone to shriveling. Storing them in slightly damp sphagnum moss or plastic bags with a few holes punched in them will help hold in moisture.

You can keep carrots and parsnips in the ground all winter, but you won't be able to harvest them once the ground freezes.

Winter Squash and Pumpkins - Make sure these are fully ripened, with a rind hard enough to resist being dented with your nail. Leave a couple of inches of stem intact and do not use it as a handle, or you could injure the squash. Allow to cure in a warm, dry, well ventilated spot for about 10 – 14 days, then store in a cool, dark, dry spot where you can spread them out and keep them separate. (Note: acorn squash stores better if not cured before hand.)

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