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As the nights bring frost, and your plants reach their maturity, it is time to start thinking about what you are going to do with all of that food out in your garden. While canning, freezing, drying, and fermenting are all great methods of food preservation, it can become an overwhelming task when the first hard freeze is imminent and a garden full of produce is calling your name. I would like to provide some general guidance as to what to do with your garden produce to help it last longer, whether you are backed up with all the fall harvest and can’t get to preserving it all straight from the garden, or whether you just want to extend the season a bit and use up what you have without more complicated preservation techniques.
Hang Them Up
One of the easiest methods of taking some of your produce in from the weather is to cut the plant at the ground and hang it somewhere safe from freezing. The produce will ripen more fully while remaining on the plant than it will picked and sitting on your kitchen windowsill. Ripening on the vine/plant helps to preserve the sugars, vitamin C, and other nutritional content of the produce, and it just tastes better than produce that has been picked prematurely and ripened afterwards.
Plants that do well using this method are sweet peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. Use them up before or as soon as you notice any sign of wilting or loss of moisture.
Warm And Dry Storage
Some vegetables, including the ones above, prefer a place with warm and dry conditions. In this case, warm is around fifty degrees. That means the veggie nook you are looking for is warmer than the refrigerator and cooler than a comfortably heated room. Places that may fit this description for cold weather storage might be a heated basement, attic, or a room of your house that you have closed off to allow most of the heat to stay in the rest of your living quarters.
Vegetables that tend to last longer in warm and dry storage conditions include green beans, cucumbers, eggplant, honeydew melon, peppers, new potatoes, pumpkins, summer and winter squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.
Of the above foods, tomatoes will last the least amount of time (about a week). Pumpkins and other winter squash and sweet potatoes will last the longest (two to six months in optimal conditions with perfect produce). The rest of the list will keep two to three weeks. For more specific, detailed information relating to type of veggie and keeping times, see this chart of Cornell’s Storage Guidelines For Fruits & Vegetables. The chart is accompanied by further information on storing specific types of produce that I have not touched on in this article.
Pumpkins should be left on the vine as long as possible, as they will not ripen further once they are picked. A light frost or two will increase the sugar content of the pumpkin, but a hard freeze will leave your pumpkins and winter squash with a significantly shorter storage life. Inspect each pumpkin when picking, looking for blemishes and pests, and when you pick it, try to leave at least six inches of stem attached to it. This is not a handle for you; rather, it acts as added protection from pests, bacteria, etc. entering at the stem site, should it be torn off.
Cool And Dry Storage
Cool and dry storage is perhaps the simplest way of storing garden produce, as it generally involves storing already-dried foods. Once these foods are fully cured or dried, there is very little tendency toward mold as compared to other storage options.
Vegetables that do well with this type of storage are dried beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and popcorn. Once these foods have been sufficiently dried, store them in lidded jars or in sealed plastic bags in a cool place.
Onions and garlic, once harvested and cured for about a week in a warm, dry place with good air circulation, keep well in a cool and dry environment as well. Garlic can be braided and hung. Onions can be kept in shallow, airy boxes, stacked two deep in a cool and dry environment. Avoid any exposure to moisture, as this will encourage them to sprout and greatly reduce keeping time.
Cool And Moist Storage
Some vegetables prefer a cooler, moister environment to help them last a bit longer. A cool environment in this case would be just above freezing, and should have some humidity added to the usual arid conditions of a typical indoor home in winter. Places that may fit this description may be your unheated (but not freezing) garage, a cellar, or along an unheated basement wall (particularly if your basement is unfinished and tends to be moist). Some adaptations may need to be made in order to increase humidity for optimal storage times.
Vegetables that do well with this type of storage are generally most root crops, greens, and brassicas (cabbage family).
For leafy greens and brassicas, it is best to cool the vegetable quickly and completely before storage. Some recommend misting the greens with a sprayer and then wrapping the produce in plastic wrap to help preserve the moisture content of the leaves. Keep greens away from apples in storage, as the ethylene gas apples emit can quicken the deterioration of the leaves.
For root crops, it is generally best to leave them in the ground until the tops are killed by light frosts. These light frosts help to increase the sugar content of your root vegetables and improve flavor. You don’t, however, want to leave crops that have the tops exposed above ground (such as beets) out for a hard frost, so keep an eye on the weather. When you harvest your root vegetables, twist off the greens as opposed to cutting them. Twisting tears the cells away from each other, while cutting damages the cells and can lead to quicker deterioration of the vegetable. Removing the greens prevents them from pulling moisture from the root after it has been picked. Many root vegetables can be stored in a moist area in airy plastic vegetable bags, while some keep better layered in slightly moistened sand or another medium.
Some vegetables, such as deeply growing parsnips and carrots, can be left in the garden through the winter and harvested before they start growing again in the spring. To make winter harvesting a bit easier, it would be good to cover the planted area with straw or a thick cover of oak leaves or something similar that will not pack down through the winter but will help keep the ground warmer. It should also prove helpful on snowy white days when you are trying to remember just exactly where you planted your carrots.
These storage conditions vary with each vegetable, but there are a few things to keep in mind no matter what you are looking to store.
General Rule #1 – Be Gentle To Your Food
Whatever your vegetable, it is important to use care when handling and harvesting. Any scratching, bruising, or even too much cleaning up can lead to bacteria and fungal growth that shorten the keeping time. Do just enough work to extend the life of your food. Don’t overdo it!
General Rule #2 – Don’t Forget To Check In
It is important not to forget about your produce once you have it put up. Make sure you regularly check on your stores, removing and using produce that shows any signs of deterioration before it has a chance to make a mess of a greater amount of your food storage.
General Rule #3 – Keep Learning
This is only a surface primer meant as an introduction to food storage and preservation. If you have tried one way of extending your food storage and it didn’t work for you, look into other ways that may work better in your situation. Try to figure out how you can better your odds the next time around. This may mean you need to change the variety of produce you are growing to one that is hardier for long-term storage. It may mean you need to create a different food storage system for your particular climate or situation (if you have certain pests or too much/lack of humidity, for instance). Don’t give up!
If you have not yet put up your garden produce, the time has come for you to try it. It is practical knowledge that can help you make the most of your garden. Now, time for me to go check out my own garden and the root cellar and see what needs to be done with it…
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