Variety of vegetables

I purposely grew a variety of things so that I could fill myself with food from one spring until the next. That meant growing lettuces, other greens, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, along with a really big selection of “winter keepers” (vegetables that I could keep through the winter). Except I had no idea how to do that. I started to go into a panic when I realized if I didn’t quickly figure out how to properly store my squash, beets, carrots and potatoes, I’d end up with rotting, wilted produce that I’d be forced to eat because there was no way I was letting all that work go to waste. So over the past few years, I’ve pretty much figured out how to store all of my root vegetables and have them last all winter long.

There are three factors to keep in mind when you want to keep vegetables long term: variety, curing and storing conditions.

Variety


Certain vegetable varieties store for the long term better than others. With squash, those with tougher outer skins are the best, so research which ones have both the best taste and the toughest skin. Butternut and my personal favorite Kabocha squash will both store for months in the proper setting. Acorn squash and Delicata each have a thinner skin. They’ll store well but won’t last as long before rotting.

Potatoes drying outside

Curing & Preparing


Many of the vegetables you want to store all winter have to go through a little bit of a curing process. This helps the vegetables develop a tougher skin and, in most cases, also improves the flavor.

Potatoes: After digging them up, lay them out on a porch or somewhere else out of the sun for a day or two to dry out. Cover them with a lightweight cloth (tea towel) so the sun doesn’t get at them and turn them green. Either put them on a rack so that air can circulate around them or make sure to turn the potatoes so that all sides dry out. After a day or two, the skins will have toughened up enough so that you can brush the excess dirt off of them.

Carrots: No need to cure. Just cut the greens off close to the top of the carrot right after picking.

Beets: No need to cure. Cut the greens off, leaving 1” of the stem so that the beets don’t bleed.

Curing squash outside

Squash: Leave them in the sun for a week or two, rotating them so that all sides are exposed. This accomplishes two things: it sweetens the squash and toughens up the skin. A tougher skin will better protect the flesh inside from bacteria. It also stops the vegetable from rotting, kind of like a good layer of insulation.

Sweet potatoes: These need humidity and heat for curing; 30°C (85°F) and 85% humidity for 10 days. The humidity level can be achieved by piling your sweet potatoes in a plastic bin and keeping the lid on. Because sweet potatoes aren’t dug up until just before the first frost, finding a place that’s the right temperature is more difficult. Put the bin in the warmest room of your house and near a heat register. Or if you have a fireplace that you use often, keep the bin near the fireplace where it can receive the benefits of the heat. Don’t eat your sweet potatoes right after they have cured; they need a month of storage for their sweetness to develop.

Storing beets

Storing


Carrots: To keep them crisp, you can do one of two things. You can leave them in the ground, mulch them with straw and pull them as you need them. But if you have really cold winters, this is a big pain and doesn’t always work. I remember standing outside with pots and pots of boiling water, desperate for the frozen soil to release just ONE carrot. For easier picking, pull your carrots in the fall and keep them in a container (crate, box, bin) layered with damp sawdust, peat moss or sand. Put a ½” layer of sand (or whatever material you choose to use) on the bottom, a layer of carrots (make sure the carrots aren’t touching each other), a layer of sand, a layer of carrots and so on. Cover with a layer of newspaper if you’re using a crate or lightly place the lid on the plastic bin (don’t press it on). This year I’m going to try using peat moss because it seems like the cleanest option and I already have some in my potting shed. Store the carrots in the coolest room in your house.

Beets: Same as carrots.

Different types of squash

Potatoes: Potatoes have to be kept in the dark so that they don’t turn green. They will keep for the longest time when kept at 2°C (35°F) to 4°C (40° F), so a garage, shed or mud room works best. If you don’t have any of those, keep your potatoes in the coolest room you have. Sometime the coolest place is in a kitchen cupboard that’s up against a poorly insulated outside wall! I have always had good luck keeping my potatoes stored in wood crates in my mudroom, but a good old-fashioned burlap sack is great too because it keeps the potatoes dark but allows air to circulate.

Squash: They don’t have to be kept in the dark but they do need cool temperatures like potatoes, so store them in the same place or a similar one.

Sweet potatoes and parsnips harvested in a basket

Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes should be kept between 12°C (55°F) and 15°C (60°F). Again, they’ll keep for a while no matter what the temperature but at the specified temperature, they’ll keep for months as opposed to weeks. If you have a cool room in the basement, keep them there or, again, find a kitchen cupboard that butts up against an outside wall and keep the sweet potatoes to the back of the cupboard nearest the wall.

If you can’t replicate these conditions exactly, don’t worry. Few vegetable gardeners ever come close to creating the perfect storage conditions. All you can do is try and hope for the best. Just follow the rules I’ve outlined to the best of your ability and you’ll be eating butternut squash soup and mashed potatoes until at least January. The closer you get to replicating the above conditions, the greater chances you have of eating these things in March and even April or May.


Karen Bertelsen

Karen Bertelsen is a Gemini Award nominated television host who has appeared on some of Canada's major networks including HGTV, W Network, Slice and MuchMoreMusic. She started the blog The Art of Doing Stuff (www.theartofdoingstuff.com) as a creative outlet for her writing and endless home projects. The Art of Doing Stuff now receives over half a million views per month and has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens, Style at Home and Canadian Gardening magazines.

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