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20 Crops That Keep and How to Store Them

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Winter squash keep well in a cool bedroom.
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Corn, beans and garlic are super easy to store.
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A spare dresser in a cool room can provide convenient storage space.
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Uproot leeks, cabbage and Brussels sprouts and place in damp sand.
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Here in southwest Virginia, my partner and I take pride in growing and storing most of our fruits and vegetables. Knowing where our food comes from gives us confidence in its goodness, plus we save about $5,000 a year through our gardening and food storage efforts. There is another benefit, which is the utter convenience of having a self-provisioned home. In early winter when our stores are full, I feel like I’m living in a well-stocked organic grocery store.

We bring many years of experience to this quest, and we’re still learning. Measured by weight, stored garden crops make up more than half of our overall harvest, with every onion and potato just about as fresh as it was the day it came from the garden. Our mix of storage crops varies from year to year, and we’ve learned that putting them by is something anyone can do — even if your produce comes from the farmers market. By making use of cold storage spots in your basement or garage, and perhaps adding a seasonal second refrigerator, you can easily store at least these 20 crops for winter eating using simple, time-tested methods.

Sleeping Quarters for Storage Crops

Success with storage crops hinges on finding methods that convince the crops that they’re enjoying a natural period of dormancy in unusually comfortable conditions. This typically involves slowing physiology by controlling respiration (usually by lowering temperature) or providing moisture so crisp root vegetables sense that they’re still in the ground. Some staple storage crops, such as garlic, onions, and shallots, need dry conditions to support prolonged dormancy.

Most storage crops need to be cured to enhance their storage potential. During the curing process, potatoes and sweet potatoes heal over small wounds to the skin, garlic and onions form a dry seal over the openings at their necks, and dry beans and grain corn let go of excess moisture that could otherwise cause them to rot. Harvesting, curing, and storage requirements vary with each crop — see the charts below for full details. In my experience, harvesting and curing vegetables properly means much more flexibility when it comes to long-term storage conditions.

Storing Spuds

Seeking out good food storage spots in your home or on your property can lead to interesting discoveries. For example, we were impressed by the following food-storage options that were shared via Facebook.

Place cured potatoes in a burlap bag, tuck the bag into a plastic storage bin left open a wee bit, and keep in an unheated basement.

Line plastic laundry baskets with newspapers and arrange potatoes in layers between more newspapers. Place the packed, covered baskets in an unheated garage.

In the basement, make short towers of potatoes by stacking them between layers of open egg cartons. Cover the towers with cloth to protect the potatoes from light.

Place sorted potatoes in cloth grocery bags that have been lined with black plastic bags, and store in a cold space under the stairs. A similar method: Sort different potatoes into paper bags, then place the bags in milk crates to prevent bruising.

Use an old dresser in a cool room or basement for storing potatoes in winter. Leave the drawers partially open for ventilation.

In a shady spot outdoors, place a tarp over the ground and cover it with an inch of loose straw. Pile on potatoes and cover with more straw, a second tarp, and a 10-inch blanket of leaves or straw.

Bury a garbage can horizontally so that its bottom half is at least 12 inches deep in the soil. Place potatoes in the can with shredded paper or clean straw. Secure the lid with a bungee cord, and cover with an old blanket, if needed,to shade out sun.

Here in Virginia, we have vole issues that require us to harvest our early spuds promptly, so my buried garbage can gets plenty of use for storing potatoes. Buried coolers or even buried freezer bodies (with machinery removed) can work in the same way.

Storing Crisp Root Vegetables

Theoretically, root vegetables that grow well below ground can be mulched over in fall and dug as needed in winter. This often works well with parsnips, but most gardeners would risk losing much of an overwintered carrot or beet crop to wireworms, voles, or other critters. Repeated freezing and thawing of the surface soil damages shallow-rooted turnips and beets. It’s safer (and more convenient) to harvest root crops, clean them up, and secure them in cold storage. In Zones 7 and warmer, you’ll probably need a second refrigerator, as you won’t have naturally cooled spaces that stay below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. In colder winter climates, you have several options.

Stash bins, buckets, or trugs packed with damp sand or sawdust in cold spots around your home, such as under your basement stairs or in an unheated garage or storage shed. This method works amazingly well if you can find a place with temperatures between 32 and 40 degrees. Every few weeks, dump out containers and repack them, eating any roots that are showing signs of softening.

The previously described method of storing potatoes in a buried garbage container works well for root vegetables, but you’ll need a second one (or a buried cooler) for roots that need moist conditions. Pack these in damp sand or sawdust to maintain high humidity.

Working outside the fridge, the biggest challenge in storing crisp roots is maintaining high humidity without promoting molds and soft rots. That’s where packing materials, including damp sawdust or damp sand, come in handy. Sawdust is clean and lightweight, and the residue can be shaken out into the garden. Sand weighs more but is reusable — simply dry it in the sun and return it to a bucket or bin until you need it again in the fall.

A seasonal second refrigerator is worth considering if you have a lot of carrots or beets to store, live in a climate too warm for underground storage, or want to store root vegetables to sell or trade later.

When preparing to store carrots, beets, and other root vegetables in plastic bags in the refrigerator, sprinkle in a few drops of water as you pack each bag. Ideally, a few drops of condensation should form inside the bags after they’ve been well-chilled in the fridge.

Sorting Through Winter Squash

Now for something really easy: storing winter squash. The hard rinds of winter squash protect them from drying out, so all they need is a cool spot where you can check them from time to time. Look for signs of mold, and promptly consume squash that have developed minor blemishes, such as discoloration or soft spots.

Some types of winter squash store longer than others, so it’s important to eat them in proper order.

Squash and pumpkins classified as Cucurbita pepo tend to keep for only two to three months. These include acorn squash, delicata or sweet potato squash, spaghetti squash, and most small pumpkins. Eat these first.

Buttercup and kabocha squash (C. maxima) will keep for four months under good conditions, but after two months the fruits should be watched closely for signs of softening or mold. Many squash pie devotees bake up all questionable buttercups in early winter and stash the mashed squash in the freezer. This is a wise move, because it’s far easier to make a pie or batch of muffins if you have frozen squash purée waiting in your freezer than it is to confront a squash the size of your head.

The smooth, hard rinds of butternut squash (C. moschata) help give them the longest storage life (often six months or more), so butternuts should be eaten last. We grow more butternuts than any other winter squash because they’re such a cinch to store.

A Second Fridge for Storing Fruit

As owners of six mature fruit trees, we couldn’t manage our harvest without a second refrigerator for storing apples and pears. Our Asian and D’Anjou pears will last until December,and apples will last a bit longer — but only if they’re refrigerated in containers that retain moisture. So we plug in an old, semi-retired refrigerator in August, then clean it out and turn it off in January. We don’t mix fruits and veggies in the same fridge, because fruits give off so much ethylene gas that they can cause vegetable crops to deteriorate in wacky ways.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t exactly approve of second refrigerators, in part because most Americans already maintain more refrigerator space than they need. A more serious issue is the age of many second refrigerators and freezers. Newer models are often three times more efficient than older ones. According to the EPA’s Energy Star statistics, a refrigerator from the 1970s can cost an extra $200 a year to operate, while a 1980s vintage refrigerator may cost $70 more to run compared with a new model.

We will eventually upgrade our elderly, part-time fruit fridge to an efficient Energy Star model, but meanwhile, it earns its keep. Storing apples in a refrigerator often greatly improves their flavor, which is definitely the case with our midseason ‘Enterprise’ apples — three weeks in the fridge changes their flavor from good to spectacular. Sometimes how you store a crop is just as important as how you grow it.

I don’t mean to make self-provisioning sound too easy. Only top-quality produce should be stored, and every season some crop I planned to store fails or doesn’t make the grade. These losses are soon forgotten as August and September whiz by, with one food storage project after another. Then October comes and we’re amazed at what we have: a basement brimming with homegrown winter squash, onions, and garlic; a pantry stocked with organic dried beans, peppers, and canned goods; and the fridge and freezer full, with just enough space for two turkeys grown by local farmers. If this isn’t the good life, I don’t know what is.

Vegetables and Fruits That Store for Two Months or More

Apple

Dry beans

Beet

Cabbage

Carrot

Celeriac

Celery

Grain corn

Garlic

Leek

Onion

Parsnip

Pear

Potato

Pumpkin

Rutabaga

Shallot

Sweet potato

Turnip

Winter squash

Cool Storage Crops

(45 to 60 Degrees Fahrenheit)

These easy-to-store crops are best kept in a cool place, which could be a basement, an unheated bedroom or an attached garage.

Dry beans

Gather pods as they dry to a tan color and the plants turn yellow, but before pods shatter. Dry whole pods in a warm, dry place until crisp. Shell beans and continue drying in open containers at room temperature for two weeks.

Store in airtight jars in a cool, dark place. Freezing dried beans kills any insects present.

Grain corn

Gather ears after the plants and husks dry to a tan color, but before the weather turns cool and damp. Remove husks. Dry ears in a warm, well-ventilated place for at least a week. Continue to dry until half of the kernels fall when you twist the ears between your hands.

Store whole, dry ears in boxes or bins in a cool, dry place. Bring batches into a warm spot near radiant heat for a few days to lower moisture content, which will make it easier to remove kernels.

Garlic

Dig, then pull when plant is still 60 percent green. Fewer than six leaves should appear healthy. Cure in a warm, well-ventilated place for at least two weeks. Trim back tops to 4 inches, and then cure another week. Trim again before storing.

Store in boxes or mesh bags in a cool place with moderate humidity, such as a cool basement.

Onion

Pull when at least half of the tops are dead or have fallen over. Avoid harvesting in wet weather. Cure in a warm (80 degrees or warmer), shady, well-ventilated place for a week. Trim back tops, and then cure two weeks more. Trim again before storing.

Store in boxes or mesh bags in a cool place with moderate humidity.

Potato

Harvest before soil temperatures fall below 55 degrees to minimize bruising. Protect from sun. Wash only to remove clods of soil. Cure in a cool, dark, moist place (55 to 60 degrees) for two to three weeks.

Store in closed boxes or cloth-covered baskets in a cool place with moderate humidity, or store in buried containers.

Pumpkin 

Cut ripe fruits from the vine, leaving a short stub of stem attached. Wipe with a damp cloth to remove soil. Cure in a well-ventilated place with warm room temperatures (70 to 80 degrees) for between one and two weeks.

Store in bushel baskets or on shelves in a cool place with moderate humidity.

Shallot

Pull when the tops are at least half-dead. Avoid harvesting in wet weather. Cure in a warm (80 degrees or warmer), well-ventilated place for a week. Trim back tops, and then cure two weeks more.

Store in boxes or mesh bags in a cool place with some humidity.

Sweet potato

Dig while the weather and soil are still warm, at least a month before your first fall frost. Cure in a warm (85 degrees or warmer), humid place for one to two weeks until all skin wounds have healed. For perfect conditions, place jugs of hot water into a large cooler.

Store at cool room temperature (55 to 60 degrees) and moderate humidity. Avoid chilling.

Winter squash

Cut ripe fruits from the vine, leaving a short stub of stem attached. Wipe with a damp cloth to remove soil. Cure in a well-ventilated place at a warm room temperature (70 to 80 degrees) for between one and two weeks.

Store in bushel baskets, shallow containers, or on shelves in a cool place with moderate humidity.

Cold Storage Crops

(32 to 45 Degrees Fahrenheit)

Very low refrigerator temperatures (32 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit) prolong the storage life of these fruits and vegetables, but many can also be stored in slightly higher temperatures using time-tested, low-tech methods. According to Iowa State University, these crops can be stored for at least two months when provided proper conditions.

*Produce is sensitive to ethylene gases given off by apples and other fruits.

Apple

Pick when seeds are dark brown and fruits come away with a moderate tug. Choose mid- and late-season apples for storage. Sort carefully to remove blemished fruits. Wrap best fruits individually in paper. Promptly refrigerate to slow the ripening process.

Store in refrigerator or another very cold place, in perforated plastic bags or waxed boxes to maintain high humidity. Check weekly.

Beet

Harvest before hard freeze. Trim tops to ¼ inch, but do not trim roots. Wash in cool water. Pat dry.

Refrigerate beets in plastic bags or pack in damp sand in a sealed container and store in a cold basement, garage, or root cellar.

Cabbage*

Harvest before outermost leaves start losing color, or before hard freeze. Remove outer leaves.

Refrigerate in plastic bags or plant trimmed cabbage heads with roots attached in buckets of damp sand in a root cellar or cold greenhouse.

Carrot*

Harvest before hard freeze. Trim carrot tops to ½ inch. Wash gently in cool water. Pat dry. Refrigerate in plastic bags.

Refrigerate or pack in damp sand in a sealed container and store in a cold basement, garage, or root cellar.

Celeriac*

Harvest before hard freeze. Trim tops to ¼ inch and cut off long roots. Shake off soil but do not wash. Refrigerate in plastic bags.

Refrigerate or pack in damp sand in a sealed container and store in a cold basement, garage, or root cellar.

Celery

Before hard freeze, lift plants with soil attached to roots. Transplant to a shallow bin or bucket, or a bed in a cold greenhouse. Keep celery roots moist to wet, but keep foliage dry. Harvest the stalks as needed by cutting them with a sharp knife.

Store celery in a cool garage or greenhouse and harvest stalks until only small hearts remain. Plants that make it through winter can be replanted outdoors in spring. Established plants are often hardy to Zone 7 and don’t require lifting.

Leek

Dig, and then pull leeks before hard freeze. Transplant to a shallow bin or bucket, or a bed in a cold greenhouse. Trim back tops by half their length after transplanting. Move to a cold place where the roots will not freeze.

Store leeks in a cool garage or greenhouse and harvest as needed until they are gone. Replant trimmed-off roots to a tray of lightly moist soil. Most will grow into new plants.

Parsnip*

Leave some parsnips in the ground to dig in early spring. Harvest most before hard freeze. Trim tops to ½ inch, wash in cool water. Pat dry. Refrigerate in plastic bags.

Parsnips can be kept refrigerated in plastic bags, or packed in damp sand in a sealed container and stored in a cold basement, garage, or root cellar.

Pear

Pick as green fruits turn a lighter shade of green. Seeds should be medium to dark green, with fruits quite hard. Cure in a cool, 40- to 50-degree place for a week to promote even ripening. Sort carefully to remove blemished fruits. Wrap best fruits individually in paper.

Store in refrigerator or very cold place, below 40 degrees, in perforated plastic bags or waxed boxes to maintain high humidity. Check weekly.

Rutabaga*

Harvest before hard freeze. Trim tops to ½ inch; also cut off taproot. Wash in cool water. Pat dry. Refrigerate in plastic bags in the refrigerator.

Rutabagas can be kept refrigerated, or packed in damp sand in a sealed container and stored in a cold basement, garage, or root cellar.

Turnip*

Harvest before hard freeze. Trim tops to ½ inch, but do not trim roots. Wash in cool water. Pat dry. Refrigerate in plastic bags.

Refrigerate or pack in damp sand in a sealed container and store in a cold basement, garage, or root cellar.

*These crops are sensitive to ethylene gases given off by apples and other fruits.


Barbara Pleasant has practiced organic vegetable gardening for 30 years and has authored numerous books. Pleasant lives in Floyd, Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers, and where she keeps a small flock of chickens

Published on Sep 26, 2017

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