As the end of the warm weather garden season rolls to a close and fall and winter grow closer, many gardeners harvest the last of the summer produce before planting the fall crops or putting the garden to bed.
But how do you store all of the extra produce at the end of the season? Especially those things you don’t freeze or can to preserve?
Earlier generations knew how to hold on to produce for long periods of time after they were harvested. Not having the convenience of modern grocery stores, the diet would be sparse over winter without some sort of stored produce. (Side note: The modern food industry has made a science of storing produce long-term. Ever wonder how you can have apples and potatoes year round at the grocery store? Hint: They aren’t harvesting them year-round, they’re storing them).
Old-timers knew to grow crops to store over winter — potatoes, cabbage, apples, squash, dried beans, onions, garlic, and more. While most homes no longer have a root cellar and we have gotten away from storing crops long-term, there are still some simple things that you can do to store crops for an extended period.
Some crops, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, are the ones most commonly stored, since you don’t really harvest them until the end of the season. Most people, though, aren’t storing those correctly, either.
One of my fondest memories growing up (though I probably hated it at the time) was sitting with my grandmother, large needle in hand, stringing green beans onto twine to hang and dry on the porch of the cellar through the fall. We were making, as the old-timers called them, leather britches. We were drying not just the bean seeds as you would for a soup bean such as pinto, but the pod and all.
After they were dried, she would store them in old pillowcases in the freezer. Every once in a while (usually for family reunions), she would cook up a batch (with some sort of “seasoning” such as fat back or bacon, of course). They were an acquired taste, and I loved them.
I had a flashback of this memory this year while I was stringing up the numerous cayenne peppers harvested from the garden. I strung them on thread and hung them up in the kitchen window, and when they are dry I’ll likely grind them into a cayenne pepper seasoning.
I also have garlic harvested in July hanging. I’ll soon take it down, select some bulbs to replant in October, and store the rest — ready to add flavors for winter dishes. Stems of herbs, tied in neat bundles, hang in the workshop to dry.
The key to drying herbs, peppers, and other small, delicate items is finding a dry, warm place with good airflow to hang them. Warmth helps dry them out, and keeping the moisture away will keep them from going bad.
Storing other crops such as potatoes, though, takes a little more planning. Many people make the mistake of washing potatoes they plan to store — this can encourage rotting, so it should be avoided. Rather, potatoes should be cured in a dark, dry place with moderate temperatures and high humidity for a week to 10 days after harvest. This allows the skin to set and toughen up before storage. Skipping this step will shorten the lifespan of a potato in storage.
After this curing process, potatoes should be stored around 45 degrees for optimal lifespan. Any colder and starches convert to sugar and you get weirdly sweet tasting (and oddly textured) potatoes — this is also why you shouldn’t store potatoes in the refrigerator.
If temperatures are too high, the potatoes will go bad quickly. Potatoes also need relatively high humidity to keep them from shriveling up.
Sweet potatoes also require a curing period after harvest, though they need to be cured at temperatures between 80 and 85 degrees with 80 to 90 percent humidity. These conditions can be hard to create in a home or structure during the cool temps of fall. This makes sweet potatoes a little more difficult to store in our area, especially if they are harvested at the very end of the season. My suggestion is to plant them as early as possible so they can still be dug when temps are in the 80s or 90s and humidity is high. After curing, sweet potatoes should be stored at 55 to 60 degrees. If they get too cold, they could develop hard centers that will reduce their quality.
It can be hard to find a place to store produce without a root cellar. An unheated garage, basement, or workshop attached to the house may work if temperatures do not get below 40 degrees. If you don’t have access to such a space, look for cool spots near the floor in your house. I use a bottom cabinet in the kitchen and also stack crates in out of-the-way places where I know the floor is cool (it also helps that I live in an old 1920s mail-order kit house bungalow with questionable insulation).