Beyond Canning – Easy, Modern-Day Hacks for Winter Fruit and Vegetable Storage

by Georgie Smith, farmergeorgiewrites@gmail.com

Potatoes are a great crop for home storing through the winter

In today’s day and age, the ‘grocery store’ is the modern equivalent of our great-great grandparents ‘root cellar.’ 

Yet most modern-day American’s no longer have the luxury of a ‘root cellar’ and those who are committed to fresh, local food eating would like to preserve the summer bounty as long as possible without having to hit the grocery store. So, if this sounds like you,  how do you keep as much of the summer bounty for as long as possible within your own home? 

First step – take stock of your resources.  

While you may not have a root cellar (if you do, we’re jealous!), do you have a garage? An outdoor shed? An attached mud-room or sun room? An un-used room or closet? All these places are potential ‘winter vegetables and fruit’ storage locations! 

What temperature do they, mostly, stay through the winter? Depending on what you are storing, different fruits and vegetables keep best at different temperatures. Areas that stay generally anywhere from about minimum 32 degrees to about max 55 degrees have potential for winter fruit and vegetable storage.

An outdoor shed is a great place for storing winter crops. Insulated? Even better!

An un-insulated storage shed in a moderate winter climate zone like the Pacific Northwest may be perfect for certain vegetables that keep well down to freezing temperatures.  But not so great for things like winter squash that need slightly warmer temperatures.  So having an inventory of what you have and what temperatures they get down to (or up to), will help you organize your storeage ability.

It is human nature to want to ‘organize’ everything together, in this case – all the stored winter veggies and fruit. But remember, it is okay to have more than one location – several in fact – to keep your bounty. This allows you to take advantage of different temperatures to keep specific crops for as long as possible.

Think About Rodent Control

One of the most frustrating things about storing fruit and vegetables for the winter is to find that the mice and rats really appreciated all your hard work.  Arrgh! 

If you decide to store in an outside shed or garage, rodents will definitely be an issue. Invest in rodent-proof bins (large Rubbermaid type tubs with locking lids can work great) or plan to screen-out rodents.  In some cases, you might want to provide ventilation to your stored food, in that case you can use screening. But remember mice can squeeze through any opening larger than ¼ inch (or the size of a nickel)! 

You can also use natural ‘rodent repellents.’  Things like peppermint, lavender and cayenne pepper can discourage rodents.

Rodents can stay outside, thank you very much!

Keep your area clean and tidy, check on your store items frequently for signs of a ‘breach.’ Consider a good mousing cat (or dog!). A good mouser can be worth their weight in gold. Many farms (including Garden Treasures!) also use ratting ‘dogs’ to keep the population of rodents under control.  Here’s a helpful link with more tips on natural rodent control ideas https://www.therusticelk.com/naturally-repel-mice/

Pick the Right Spot For the Right Crop

Now that you have identified some locations for winter storage, think about what crop goes where. And how!

  • Warmer/Drier Areas For Storing Fruits – 50 to 55 degrees and 60 to 70 percent humidity
    • Winter squash
    • Pumpkins
    • Peppers (hung in mesh bag, or strung up)
    • Apples
      • Store apples away from other fruits and vegetables. They release a natural chemical that will hasten ripening (aka rot) your other stored items!
    • Sweet Potatoes
      • Winter squash and pumpkins store best if cleaned and wiped with a mild bleach solution before put into storage. This destroys any bacteria on their skin that will lead to wet or mold spots.
    • Tomatoes  – Green
      • Green tomatoes picked at the end of the season can often be successfully ‘ripened’ indoors in warmer temperatures. 
      • If you have room (and grew it yourself) pull the plant, or stems, with the green tomatoes on them and hang upside down to ripen.
      • If already picked, layer into a box with newspaper dividing them. 
      • Check frequently for ripening and remove any with brown spots immediately! 
  • Cold and Dry Conditions – 32 to 40 degrees and 65 to 70 percent humidity
    • Garlic
    • Onions
      • In both cases, garlic and onions store best in mesh bags hung or so they get plenty of air. 
  • Cool and Moist Conditions – 40 degrees and 90 percent humidity
    • Potatoes!
      • Potatoes keep very well in insulated garages, or, in outdoor sheds with a little bit of protection (even just a thick blanket) from freezing temperatures. 
      • Make SURE they are not exposed to sunlight or they will turn green.
  • Cold and Moist Conditions – 32 to 40 degrees and 90 percent humidity
    • Beets, Carrots, Rutabagas, Parsnips & Turnips
    • Cabbage and Brussel Sprouts
    • Celery, Celeriac and Leeks

Pro-tips for Best Storage Practices

  • Always store the ‘best.’  If you put into storage a not fully-ripe (excluding green tomatoes), or damaged fruit or vegetable, it will likely go bad quickly and then affect any others around it.
  • If it came out of the ground, don’t wash it before storage. Or consider storing into sand or peat moss. Vegetables like carrots, beets, parsnips and turnips – for instance – seem to store the best with a ‘bit of dirt.’ It keeps their humidity level up and prevents them from going flaccid in storage.  If you bought them already washed, consider packing into light layers of slightly dampened sand or peat moss and then sealing into a Rubbermaid tub. This will hold in enough humidity and keep out rodents.
  • Check your stored items often. Keep on top of anything starting to go bad, by removing those ones first (and ideally consuming!). You will extend the life overall of everything you have. This will also spot the dreaded ‘rodent problem’ starting before it gets out of hand. 
  • Handle stored items carefully to prevent bruising. Especially important for fruits. Consider layering between things like straw, leaves or even newspapers.  
  • Variety matters. Specific varieties of fruits and vegetables have been bred to have ‘long storage capability.’ Some varieties of winter squash will last seven to nine months if stored correctly! If you are purchasing fruits and vegetables with winter storage in mind, ask your farmer. They can tell you which varieties should work the best in storage!
Pumpkins and winter squash store well at warmer, drier temperatures

Now that you have a few ideas for some easy winter storing hacks, try these out and see what works for you. Oftentimes getting the perfect combination of the right spot for the right crop and the right storage containers takes just a bit of experimenting and trial and error. 

Enjoy your winter bounty!

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