With the ground barely free from snow and conditions in Maine still weeks away from being ready to plant a garden, it may seem a bit premature to be thinking about fall harvesting and crop storage. But it’s not.
The time to evaluate your storage options is early spring in April and May, before you put any seeds or seedlings in the ground, especially if you are looking forward to enjoying a winter’s worth of that summer’s bounty.
“Now is the time to be thinking about the varieties that can work with the storage options you have available in your home,” said Vina Lindley, food systems and home horticulture professional with the Waldo County office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension . “You don’t want to grow a giant bed of something and not have the capacity to store it.”
There was a time years ago when homes were built with food storage in mind. Most had root cellars specifically designed for keeping vegetables over the winter. Lacking that, unheated basements with dirt floors provided the right conditions for long term storage.
While some homes still have those options, many don’t. Between finished, heated basements and apartments with no basements at all, it might seem impossible to store food like this. But don’t worry: even those have some space that can be converted to food storage.
Lindley recommends taking a walk through your home now with an eye toward what could be stored where.
“Do you have an unused bedroom that can be left unheated at 50- or 60-degrees [because] that could be a great place to store winter squash,” Lindley said. “Or maybe a crawlspace or closet on an outside wall that could be kept cool and at a humidity between 60- and 70-percent for storing garlic or onions.”
Lindley recommends purchasing an inexpensive home thermometer that also reads humidity and placing it in the space in which you plan to store the food.
If you have space in an unheated garage or even next to a building, try using an insulated food cooler or a garbage can wrapped in home insulation to store vegetables.
“Different vegetables like different storage conditions,” Lindley said. “So always be thinking about storage areas you could use in your home.”
The Old Farmer’s Almanac breaks down home vegetable storage into groups based on the conditions needed for extended storage — no root cellar required. All you need is a space that can be kept in the necessary 50- to 60-degree temperature range.
Root vegetables like carrots, beets, turnips or radishes should be stored in a cool area. Lindley recommends using large plastic totes and packing these types of crops in damp sand, peat moss or sawdust. The leafy tops of these root vegetables need to be trimmed to about an inch long before they are placed in storage, and don’t let the vegetables touch each other. Root vegetables can be stored for up to six months.
Crops like cabbage or Brussels sprouts can be uprooted entirely and replanted in a bucket or bag of moist soil and stored in the same space as your root crops for up to three months.
Potatoes and apples can also be stored in a cool area of the house, but one that has good air circulation to keep them dry. Wrapping apples individually in newspaper can help them last longer and prevent any rot from spreading. Stored like this, apples can last several months and potatoes can last up to six months.
Late fall crops like sweet potatoes, pumpkins and winter squash can be stored in any space that can be kept cooler than the rest of the house, including a closet. No special storage containers are needed. Simply loosely pile the vegetables in a manner that allows good air circulation. They can be stored like this for up to six months.
With any stored vegetables, it is important to check them every several days and remove ones that are rotting or going bad so you don’t lose the whole batch.