Of course a root cellar is on my wish list, and I will get one someday … but for now there are many ways to help prolong the life of your homegrown produce in a regular home. Between your coolest closet and using your refrigerator to its full potential, you can easily keep your veggies happy for months to come, even without a root cellar. And I think we all want to reduce food waste in any way we can.
The process that slowly sucks the life from produce is called transpiration. Even after plants are harvested, they are still “breathing.” This natural process lets harvested foods lose moisture through their skins. This is also a good reminder that a plant’s purpose is to grow again, not feed us. There are lots of simple ways to slow this down and keep food in good form longer—without a root cellar.
Set Your Goals
Start by knowing that certain varieties of potatoes, squash, onions, etc. simply store better, so if your goal is long-term storage, growing a crop developed for that purpose can get you extra months of storage. Harvest at the peak ripeness and take time right away to sort through and use any produce that has cuts, bumps or bruises first.
You’ll also add lots of storage time by curing your crop as needed. Curing is leaving harvested crops in a warm, protected area at a certain temperature with good air circulation for 10 to 30 days depending on the crop.
All these measures work towards slowing transpiration. It’s common sense then that the relative humidity plays a big part in storage time. In general, our homes hover around 50 percent humidity. Expect lower humidity in homes during the winter months when heaters are on. In general produce prefers higher humidity than our typical human comfort levels.
But we can play with those levels. We all know the coldest place in the house, usually a basement corner, or closet that we never go into. Even a few degrees and a little higher humidity can add weeks to your food. Storing potatoes in paper bags and cardboard boxes lets them breathe while holding a little extra moisture.
Refrigerators run between 35 and 50 percent humidity. Using your crisper drawer and wrapping in plastic (we wash and reuse our plastic bags until they fall apart) can easily increase that to 65 percent. Many refrigerators also give the option of adjusting the humidity levels inside drawers, so make use of being able to increase that as well.
Some crops that do great in long-term refrigeration include apples, beets, carrots, cabbages, turnips and daikon radishes. I routinely store these for three to four months in my refrigerator. I will often add a damp paper towel in with my refrigerated veggies.
I also have great luck storing my carrots in damp sand in my attached garage. We live in Minnesota, though, and it can get down to 20 degrees F in our garage, so I do have to watch once January rolls around.
Cool Storage “Best Practices”
The guides below are to get you thinking where you have an environment closest to this in your home, not to stress about exact numbers you must hit.
Harvest before frost, leaving at least 2 inches of stem. Cure 10 to 20 days. Store in 50 to 55 degrees F with humidity around 60 percent. Pumpkins prefer slightly higher humidity at 75 percent.
Harvest once tops start to flop over, leaving tops intact. Cure three weeks or until tops are fully dried out. Store onions in something with good air flow at 45 to 55 degrees F and 60 to 70 percent humidity.
Harvest when it’s been dry and do not wash. Cure in a dark area 60 to 70 degrees F for around two weeks. Store between 45 to 55 degrees F in the dark with humidity over 80 percent. Do not store in refrigerator.
With a little planning we can be eating healthy from our gardens long into winter and spring. Isn’t that part of the homesteading dream?
- Don’t store onions next to potatoes. Potatoes release moisture quickly and will speed onion deterioration.
- Apples (and many other fruits) release ethylene as they ripen and can hasten the rotting of other nearby produce, so it’s best to keep them in a separate place.