Three years ago, I remember staring in bewilderment at the bright-green stem sprouting from my garlic bulb. The closest thing to gardening I had done up to that point was climbing barefoot into my family’s weedy raised bed scavenging tomatoes for my mother’s summer salads; I had no concept of how to sow, maintain, or harvest plants, much less how to store crops after they’d been plucked. So here I was years later, a college student baffled by the garlic on her kitchen counter.
What seemed odd to me at the time was simply the result of not properly storing a crop. And as I became a novice gardener, I discovered there’s more to the harvest-and-storage flow than grabbing a potato, dusting it off, and sticking it on the counter. In fact, the process of curing and storing is perhaps just as important as growing the plant. With a little bit of care and the right conditions, you can successfully prepare your crops for a long winter’s hibernation, and enjoy the bounty for months to come.
More Than Primping Your Produce
Curing fall crops isn’t a beauty pageant. In fact, for them, it’s more like beauty sleep. Crops need time to prepare for long-term storage, and curing gives them a chance to heal small skin wounds, seal up any cracks, release extra moisture, and properly dry. That way, when they’re tucked away, their hardened skins will protect the inner flesh from rotting.
There are numerous storage crops you can cure for winter, but let’s focus on two of the most popular: squash and potatoes. The latter is the fifth most important crop across the globe, according to the National Potato Council. Idaho alone produces 13 billion pounds of potatoes per year. And squash is another important American crop. Apart from growing it domestically, the U.S. imports the most squash in the world, around 300,000 metric tons each year. If you’re among those who love their squash and potatoes, envisioning a winter full of soups, pies, and other hearty dishes, it’s best to get the curing process right.
Properly Prepping Potatoes
Before you think about tossing your potatoes in storage, or even curing them, you first need to know if the spuds are ready to be harvested. Potatoes are mature enough for harvest if the vines aboveground have died, and if the skins on the tubers are firm and don’t easily slide off. Once you’ve tested a few spuds and confirmed the crop is good to go, it’s time to harvest.
Each type of potato is different and needs the right amount of time to cure. Generally speaking, 7 to 10 days will do the trick. Take all your potatoes, lightly cleaned and sorted to type, and lay them out in a dark, humid environment, with cool temperatures around 55 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Something important to note is that the tubers shouldn’t be exposed to sunlight (the nemesis to proper potato curing). If they are, the potato skins will turn green, which will ruin the spud.
Halfway through the curing period, you can flip the potatoes to ensure all sides are getting an equal amount of curing time. After a week or so, it’s time to inspect your spuds one by one to make sure they’ve cured properly. If it’s apparent the potatoes need more curing time — especially if they have thick skins — let them be for a little while longer. Otherwise, go through and look for rotten spots, unhealed blemishes, softness, or other damage — indicators that the potato may pose a problem if left to store with the rest. One rotten potato can quickly infect the healthy ones, leaving you with a tragic scene the next time you grab a spud for dinner. If they’re not a complete loss, take those problematic potatoes into your kitchen and use them as soon as possible.
For the rest, sort them by size before storing them. Smaller potatoes don’t last as long as larger ones, so keeping them organized helps you use up the smaller ones faster. You can store your potatoes a number of ways, but the important factors to keep constant are cool temperatures (around 55 degrees) and minimal light. Tuck your potatoes away in a closed box or basket with a cloth cover, and store them in the garage, basement, or even under the bed. As winter begins, keep an eye on your potatoes for any signs of problems, but more importantly, enjoy all the wonderful dishes you can make to keep you warm and cozy.
Curing Successful Squash
A lot of the tips that apply to potatoes also apply to other storage crops, such as winter squash. Follow the same strategy of checking your squash before harvesting from the vine. If the squash stems are dead and hardened, they’re likely ready to be cured. Some gardeners also slap the squash and listen for a hollow sound, check for a dull color on the skin of the fruit, and ensure the skin is hard enough by pushing it with their fingernail (if it dents but doesn’t break, it’s ready). When you cut mature squash from the vine, leave a little stub of stem, about 4 inches, attached to the fruit. This helps seal up the squash, so don’t handle them by their stems after harvest, as this may “break the seal” and leave the squash in danger of premature spoilage.
Wipe down the squash to remove any excess dirt before curing, being careful not to damage the fruit. Then lay your squash out to cure for 1 to 2 weeks in a warm room, around 70 to 80 degrees, that has good ventilation. Same as with potatoes, some gardeners choose to turn their squash halfway through curing. During this time, the squash’s skin will harden even more, and when you crack it open later, it’ll taste sweeter due to its concentrated sugars.
Once you’ve checked over your squash for damage after their curing period, store the healthy ones in a cool, slightly humid environment. Tuck them away on shelves, in containers, or in baskets, in such a way that encourages air circulation and keeps them off the ground, so the skins don’t soften or get damaged. As with potatoes, keep a close eye on these squash; if any decide to turn, use those immediately. Most squash last at least a couple of months in storage, but depending on the type of squash, this storage time will vary.
Common Storage Crop Problems
No cure-and-store plan is ever foolproof. Sometimes the house has a temperature shift, you accidentally leave crops in an area with too much light, or one of them starts to rot too quickly. Here are a few general issues to watch for, and actions you can take.
- Shriveling: If you notice that a crop has shriveled, it’s usually a sign of nutrition deterioration and spoilage. Remove it immediately from the rest, and it’s best not to take a chance eating it. Give it a good toss onto the compost pile.
- Discoloration: For potatoes, discoloration might mean turning green, a sign that a spud has been exposed to too much sunlight. The green color itself isn’t dangerous, but it’s usually a sign of the presence of solanine, a toxin, within the potato. To prevent further discoloration, make sure your potatoes are in a dark environment, and then either toss the already-green potatoes, or, if there’s not much green skin to them, cook them up. It’s generally safe to have a few green potatoes, but too many will make you sick.
- Sprouting: Typically, when produce, such as a potato, starts to sprout, this means it’s not being stored in the ideal environment. The potato might think it’s time to start growing again because it went from curing in a cool environment to being stored in a warmer one. You can still eat these crops, avoiding the more bitter sprouts (which may also contain solanine), but make sure you keep the remaining produce in a cooler storage environment.
- Rotting: All of us know rot isn’t good. If only one stored fruit or vegetable is rotting, simply remove it from the rest. However, if it looks like the rot is a more widespread problem, it might mean your crops need more air circulation and less humidity. Notably, squash sometimes rot from the inside out. Shake a squash to tell if that’s occurring; if you hear a sloshing sound, it’s probably time to bid the fruit farewell.
A Healthy Collection of Crops
Curing and storing fall foods isn’t a difficult process, but knowing what to watch for could be the difference between a healthy collection of crops and a diseased one. No one wants to be the person staring shocked and confused at a sprouting garlic bulb on their counter. You’ve worked hard to grow your squash, potatoes, and other produce, and curing and storing them properly gives you the peace of mind to enjoy winter and the delicious foods that come with it. (Learn more tips for potatoes, winter squash, and several other crops at “20 Crops That Keep and How to Store Them.”)
One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato Caves
An ideal place to store crops is in a cave. With their cool temperatures and lack of light, caves were a favorite place for early American settlers to stash their food, notably potatoes, and they named these caves accordingly. Several sites in Missouri are dubbed some rendition of “Potato Cave.” (These settlers weren’t being lazy in their naming, just practical.)
Most of us don’t have the luxury of strolling by a nearby cave to drop off our potatoes anymore, but that doesn’t render potato caves obsolete. In fact, food growers in Turkey are using space in ancient cave systems in Cappadocia to store their potatoes, lemons, cabbages, and more. What’s surmised to have been a vast underground civilization thousands of years ago is now empty, and has become the perfect place for an array of food to stay fresh.
For the rest of us, we’ll have to make do with the storage areas in our houses.
Jessica Mitchell is an editor for Heirloom Gardener. She loves to study and write about the interactions between plants and people. Follow her on Instagram.