5 Environments for Storing Vegetables Until Spring
It was not long ago that the preservation of homegrown foods for year round use was a practical necessity. As a result, root cellars and large, unheated pantries were common features of the home. While most farms will have established storage systems, smaller farms and gardeners may have to get a little creative. However, many crops can still be stored through the winter with minimal equipment. The trick is to do as our ancestors did and make use of all the existing microclimates around the house. With a simple digital thermometer you can easily determine the high and low temperatures (and even humidity) of a given environment, and make any modifications needed before putting your harvest in storage. When investigating your microclimates, try a variety of locations, since there can be big differences in temperature across a single room like a basement.
Adjusting the Environment
To create a warmer environment, locate the source of any drafts and use insulation, spray foam or weatherstripping to enclose the space and/or reduce air circulation from the outside. Most people won’t want to make their home any colder in winter, so it’s best to start with an environment that’s a bit cooler than you’d like, then insulate. For larger growers it may make sense to build a cooler or walk-in using a CoolBot. Just keep in mind that temperatures will be lower in mid-winter than they are now, and plan accordingly when making modifications.
Humidity can be adjusted in most locations, and can be increased by keeping produce in bags, using a humidifier or by keeping a dish of water filled in dry environments. Humidity can often be decreased by using a de-humidifier or by increasing air circulation to the home or outside, depending on the ambient conditions.
Ethylene is another important factor to consider. It is known as the “ripening horomone”, causing fruits and vegetables to ripen and turn sooner – and some fruits, especially apples, give off large amounts. For this reason it is best to store apples separately from all other crops to prevent spoilage.
Cold & Moist
An environment that is cold and moist (about 32°F and 90% humidity) is ideal for storing a wide variety of crops including beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, greens, leeks, parsnips, radishes and rutabagas—in general crops that are not harmed by near-freezing temperatures, or may even benefit by turning carbohydrates into sugars. Some good options for creating these conditions include using an old refrigerator turned to a low setting, placing these crops in insulated but unheated garages, sheds, bulkheads or mudrooms, or by building a root cellar. Roots like carrots, beets and parsnips will store well packed in a crate full of moist sand or in perforated plastic bags in cold storage.
Cool & Moist
Cool and moist environments (around 40-50°F and 90% humidity) are ideal for crops that suffer from chilling injury (or too much sugar production) at temperatures below 40°F. These include melons, potatoes, eggplant, cucumbers and snap beans. Of these crops only potatoes will store until spring, but you can at least extend the season for the others by storing them appropriately. Some good options for creating these conditions include basements, a crisper drawer or perforated plastic bag in the fridge, insulated porches, bulkheads or entryways, or an unheated room or summer kitchen.
Cool & Dry
A cool, dry environment that is 40-50°F and 50-75% humidity works well for crops like onions and garlic. Try an unheated room, dry basement, insulated entryway or just inside the basement door, where they’ll get good air circulation. Mesh bags, baskets or crates all make good containers that allow air to circulate freely. Some people store onions and garlic at room temperature, but they’re likely to rot or dessicate under these conditions.
Warm & Dry
A slightly warmer but still cool environment that is 50-55°F and 50-75% humidity is ideal for crops like winter squash and sweet potatoes. Once these crops have cured they will go bad quickly at room temperature, but in the cooler environment of a basement, pantry or mudroom, they can easily last until spring. Try to arrange them in a single layer, if possible, to ensure good air circulation and avoid bruising – shallow, stackable crates work well for this.
The ordinary temperature inside your kitchen (usually 65-75°F) is fine for some things—dried hot peppers, dry beans and dried herbs will all last just fine in this environment. For short-term storage, room temperature is fine for onions, garlic and potatoes (in a dark cupboard) too. However these will start to turn if kept at room temperature for more than a few weeks. A closet, pantry or other space that is even slightly cooler will help your storage crops last longer, so experiment and see what else is available.
To learn more, check out some of the great storage resources online such as:
The Green Mountain College Report on Cold Storage Options for Diversified Farms
Barbara Pleasant's Mother Earth News Article, How to Harvest, Cure and Store 20 Storage Crops
and UVM Extension's Crop Storage Resources
And if you missed it, check out our recent article The Cure All: A Guide to Curing Vegetables for Winter Storage