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Storage Tips 

What do I do with all these veggies?!? 

Julie Allen

July 2020

Seed companies saw record sales this year; hardware stores were sold out of garden fencing; and many local farmers have seen increased sales. It seems that more people than ever were inspired to plant their own garden and to sign up for a farm share through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).  And now, you may be overwhelmed with the abundance! The food coming out of your garden or from your local farmer is MUCH fresher, and therefore tastier and more  nutritious than what is commonly in the grocery store. Yes, flavor and nutrition are one and the same.  Most of the produce in the US and in the Northland found at grocery stores is grown in California or Florida, which means that it traveled thousands of miles to get here. 

Regardless of where you obtained your produce, it all wants to be eaten within its fresh life. And don’t worry - it doesn’t have to be a mystery! Storage of fruits and vegetables is based on temperature and humidity, and the ideal values for each kind of produce is known to us. It only takes a little bit of thought to maybe get into a new practice to ensure that you are preserving the fresh nutrition of the food. You may find that even some of our common practices are not ideal (I’m thinking of storing potatoes on a sunny countertop), and that’s largely because this knowledge has been lost through the industrialization of our food system and the “convenience is king” mentality in our own kitchens. So please don’t feel bad about what you were never taught and get ready to make the most of your summer harvest.

Preserving produce for the long cold winter:

  • Frozen: harvest and cut up produce at peak perfection, blanch in salt water, then store in plastic containers in the freezer. Be sure to label with contents and the year, and consume within one year of freezing. Kale, spinach, chard, carrots, beets, etc. can all be easily frozen. Fruits such as strawberries, tomatoes, zucchini, raspberries, don’t even need to be blanched. Prepare them so they are ready to use right out of the bag. Keep a list of what you put in the freezer. Remember what you actually prefer to eat and refine your efforts next year. 

  • Dry: harvest and cut up produce at peak perfection. Use a food dehydrator, the lowest setting on your oven, or make a solar dehydrator. Store in labeled containers in a cool pantry or freezer. 

  • Preserved: the possibilities here are endless! Hot water-bath canning is for high-acid foods such as tomatoes, pickles, and fruit spreads. Pressure canning is for low-acid foods such as green beans (that are not pickled), carrots, and meats. Always follow tried and true recipes, and try to find a mentor to show you the ropes. 

  • Storage: if you have a basement, the easiest things to store for the average home gardener or homesteader are in the category of “warm and dry,” (See the Cornell pdf guide) which require the temp and humidity of the average basement. This is why I LOVE growing winter squash and pumpkins. Garlic and onions from the “cold and dry” category are also good and will store longer the colder you can keep them. The above mentioned storage veggies do need to be “cured” before storage to harden their skins. Veggies that require higher humidity can be tricky to store, as our average humidity drops dramatically in the winter time. The easiest place is a refrigerator for small quantities, or try some of the methods suggested by Cornell, such as storing carrots in a bucket of damp sand in the basement. 

  • I usually eat our last winter squash in May; I can get good storage onions and garlic to last until we’re harvesting green onions the following year; and I keep carrots and beets in plastic bags in our fridge for the entire winter. Cabbage, brussel sprouts, rutabaga will easily keep in the fridge for 2-3 months. 

Video: A good intro to "putting food by" or preserving it for the winter.

Quick tips from my own experience of gardening and farming for the last 12 years:

  • Think about groupings of vegetables according to what part of the plant they’re from:

    • Roots: potatoes, garlic, onion, sweet potato, beets.

    • Stems, Leaves and Buds: celery, rhubarb, kale, cabbage, chard, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower.

    • Fruits: zucchini, peppers, cucumber, tomato.

  • In general, cold temperatures will keep produce for longer and preserve nutrition. When in doubt, put it in the fridge. The exceptions include if you want fruits to ripen leave them out; and sweet potatoes, winter squash, and hot peppers to be stored all winter at 50-55 degree F (which is the average basement temperature). 

  • Humidity is super important!  Most fruits and veggies are ~90% water! That means that they will dry out (and look wilted, shrunk, or wrinkly) if exposed to our normal atmosphere.  I’ve never met a “crisper” drawer in any refrigerator that sufficiently retains moisture, so I always put my veggies in a plastic bag or container in the fridge. 

  • Leaves, stems, buds should be contained and cold so as to retain moisture.

  • Roots should be kept cool and dark- in the fridge, or in your coolest cabinet for the dry ones. Note- beets and carrots sometimes come with their greens attached- it’s best to cut off the greens and store separately from the roots!

  • Fruits vary in their storage preferences. Cold and humid is usually better, although they also need to breathe - paper bag is better than plastic - and shouldn’t be kept next to other veggies. 

  • Eat it within ONE WEEK- This is the rule-of-thumb time frame for most produce. Many fruits and veggies will store much longer than this if given ideal storage conditions, and most is still good to eat after one week even if it looks funky. For general planning purposes, don’t buy or harvest more than what you can eat (or preserve) in one week. 

  • Warm temperatures, sunlight, and oxygen all have degrading effects on produce. Produce comes from plants, and as soon as part of the plant is not connected to the roots anymore, it can start to degrade, losing nutrition and therefore flavor.  Think about this when you’re harvesting in your garden - minimize time in the field as much as possible before getting to cool shade. And when you’re grocery shopping - don’t let your produce sit in a hot car for very long.

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