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The Humble Root Vegetables: Easy Winter Storage

As a child growing up in southern Idaho, October meant one thing: spud harvest time. School was cancelled for two weeks and everyone, young and old, headed to the fields to help bring the potatoes in. Spud harvesting machinery rolled through the fields, digging up potatoes and heaving them onto conveyor belts. Those of us working in the field had two jobs: to grab leaves and rocks off the conveyor belt and to dig up the potatoes remaining in the field. We felt a sense of urgency because potatoes left in the field too long became soft and mushy.

It was cold, hard work and we usually stayed until the sun went down. At the end of the harvest, though, workers were allowed to keep all the potatoes left in the field. My thrifty mother never missed this opportunity. She loaded me and my five siblings into the station wagon to head out to the fields, where we dug the last remaining potatoes for storage in the root cellar. In spite of numb fingers and red noses, we loved scampering through the dirt as evening approached, searching for those hard brown spuds.

After the extravagant harvest of the tender, heat-loving vegetables, there’s something very satisfying about humble root vegetables. Compared to tomatoes, corn, green beans, or melons, they ask for little attention, other than a weekly watering and weed cultivation. And most of them aren’t picky about when you harvest them either. Wait a week or two too long to harvest green beans, corn, or tomatoes, and you’ve ruined the crop. Not so with most root vegetables. In fact, with a bit of protection from the cold, you can even leave many root crops in the ground for months on end. Talk about efficient food storage! Turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips used to be a daily fixture on farm tables. They’ve fallen out of favor in recent years, which is a shame, since they cost almost nothing to grow and store for long periods. Read on to learn more about harvesting and storing these simple vegetables.

Potatoes. Early potatoes don’t store well, but frankly, who cares? We grow early potatoes because we’re anxious for some fresh produce, and we plan to eat them as quickly as we can harvest them. Carefully dig up early potatoes when they’re about the size of an egg, or when the plant is flowering.

Harvest fall potatoes when the plants die back or before severe weather arrives. They can tolerate a few frosts, but you’ll be sorry if you leave them in the ground past early October. Dig them up carefully so you don’t nick them and allow them to dry out on the soil for a few hours. Store them in paper bags or boxes, but avoid plastic, which causes them to rot. Keep them in a frost-free cellar or in a cool basement. Do not refrigerate them.

I don’t live in Idaho anymore, but my mother brings me a thirty-pound box of potatoes every fall. I store it in my basement, where it lasts until late winter. I check the box frequently and remove any potatoes that are soft or showing signs of rot. As the saying goes, one bad apple – or in this case, potato— can spoil the bunch.

Carrots, Beets, and Turnips. In mild regions, you can leave these crops in the ground until March with no worries. In colder climates, cover the soil with a six-inch layer of straw. The straw not only protects the root vegetables from frost damage, but it also keeps the soil from freezing completely so you can dig the vegetables out. Just harvest them as you need them. Leave protected carrots and beets until March, but harvest turnips by Christmas for best flavor and texture. Place a marker or stick in the garden to mark the rows since the tops may die back and make the roots hard to find come winter.

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Salsify and Parsnips. Salsify and parsnips are among the hardiest root vegetables you can grow. These crops actually improve in taste and texture with exposure to frost because cold temperatures transform the starches in the plants to sugar. With a bit of straw mulch, these crops can withstand all but the coldest winter temperatures. Leave them in the soil through spring, and harvest them as you need them.

Harvesting And Storing Beets, Carrots, And Turnips

If you live in a very cold climate, or you just dread the idea of digging vegetables out of the ground come mid-winter, you can certainly harvest them in late fall. Wait as long as possible though because mature vegetables have a thicker skin and will store better.

Dig them up on a dry day, taking care not to nick them. Allow the vegetables to dry out in the sun for a few hours. This process kills the tiny root hairs and sends the roots into dormancy so they last longer in storage. Brush off excess soil, but don’t wash the vegetables. Cut off the tops and discard them, or in the case of beet and turnip greens, steam them and eat them.

Now comes the tricky part: root vegetables store best in slightly moist conditions and at temperatures around 34 degrees. If temperatures fluctuate even slightly, rot can set in. If you have a few vegetables, the produce bin in a second refrigerator works nicely. Stored this way, root vegetables will last for many months.

If you have limited refrigerator space or lots of vegetables though, it’s time to get creative. One of the simplest methods for storing root vegetables is the box method. Simply line a cardboard or wooden box with a couple inches of sawdust, peat, or slightly moist sand. Spread a layer of root vegetables over the packing material and cover them with about ¼ inch of additional packing material. Continue layering until the box is almost full. Cover the final layer with two to three inches of packing material. The roots can touch each other, but don’t pack them tightly. Air needs to circulate freely to keep them fresh. Store the box in a garage, frost-free shed, or cold basement or cellar. Some people store vegetables on a protected back porch. The colder the location, the thicker your packing material should be. Just be sure to check the vegetables occasionally for signs of either frost damage or rot, and remove any spoiling roots.

A really old-fashioned but efficient method of root storage is the clamp. The main benefit of this method is that you can quickly and easily store large amounts of root vegetables. Rodents can be a problem, though. To make a clamp, choose a protected area outdoors, such as near the wall of a house. Dig a four-inch trench around the area to ensure drainage. Now spread six inches of sand or sandy soil over the area and top with four to five inches of straw. Place the root vegetables on the straw in a pyramid, with the largest roots at the bottom. Cover the pyramid with six inches of straw and six inches of soil. Leave a piece of straw protruding from the soil to act as ventilation, allowing moisture and heat to escape. The finished clamp should stand about three and a half feet high. Smooth the sides with your shovel so water drains off quickly.

Keeping a supply of winter root vegetables on hand ensures a source of fresh vegetables throughout the winter, regardless of market conditions or commercial food chains. Use root vegetables in soups or purees or bake them in gratins. Roasted, they become sweet and caramelized. However you prepare them, root vegetables are satisfying and delicious.

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