It’s the end of the harvest and our storehouse is full to overflowing. Here are some highlights from this year’s garden:
- We got a bumper crop of blackberries and Nanking cherries. Gallons and gallons of blackberries and cherries in the freezer. Plus a couple batches of jam and several pies.
- Our apple tree produced a record-setting 20 gallons of apple juice.
- After the disastrous demise of our old Connell Red trees in the flood of ’09, our new Connell Red apples are now producing well. These are a delicious late season and long-storing apple. They ripen in mid-October and will store for several months. We have a bushel of Connell Reds in a basket in the basement.
- We have a new record for carrots: 110 lbs.
- Vinegar production was a huge success: 3.5 gallons of apple cider vinegar and a gallon of plum vinegar (which makes a very nice salad dressing.)
- I grew enough cabbage to make 28 lbs of sauerkraut.
There’s Nothing Like A Root Cellar
It’s no surprise that I do a lot of canning, freezing and drying. But it’s the root and squash harvest that fills the basement with goodness. I would love nothing more than to have an honest-to-goodness, bona fide root cellar. But the water table where we
We wrap each apple with newspaper. This extends storage life because there is less bruising and spoiling apples aren’t touching any other apples.
Store apples away from other food because they emit ethylene gas which is a ripening hormone that triggers changes in color and texture.
Potatoes and onions that are stored close to apples will soften and sprout roots and new growth.
Trim the tops of carrots and place them evenly on a layer of sand or peat moss so that they are not quite touching. Continue to add layers of peat moss and carrots until the bin is full. Top with peat moss so that no carrots are visible.
I line plastic laundry baskets with newspaper to make sure the peat moss doesn’t leak. Then I put a plastic lid on top so that it doesn’t dry out too quickly. That way I can stack the baskets without putting any weight on the vegetables that are inside.
live is quite high (it was 2 ft when we first moved here. Recent dryer weather makes it about 4 ft now.) and the frost line is over 5 ft deep. So building a root cellar would be quite an engineering feat. We hope to build one sometime soon, but we’re still working out the logistical (and financial) challenges.
So, until I can get the root cellar of my dreams, I store our roots and squash in our unfinished storm cellar. The temperature in the basement/storm cellar is not ideal (50° in early fall, 40° in the dead of winter but freezing near the door that leads outside) and neither is the humidity. But if I am careful about watching for spoilage and removing damaged or spoiling food as soon as I see it, I will be using fresh food from the basement as late as late April. The Hubbard squash (known for being a good long-term storer) will last even into August, giving us fresh veggies well into the new garden season.
How to Store in the Cellar
For long term storage, you need a moist medium (sand, sawdust or peat moss all work well.) And you have to make sure nothing touches each other. Touching increases the chance for spoilage to spread. Store only vegetables that are not cracked, broken or blemished. Can, freeze or use up the blemished foods right away.
I use old laundry baskets because they have holes and that means there’s more air circulation. But it also means that the medium may dry out faster, so watch the moisture content. I line the baskets with newspaper so that the peat moss doesn’t leak out of
the holes. I put a lid from a plastic bin on top of the basket to keep moisture in and to allow me to stack baskets without putting any weight on the food inside the basket.
When I’ve run out of baskets, I use plastic bins that I get at the thrift store for $2. Since the plastic bin is not air or water permeable, I need to be more careful about making sure the medium is not too moist. One solution is to can drill holes around the bottom and sides to get a little more air.
For long term storage, you need the medium to be a bit moist but not soggy. Think of the moisture in your refrigerator. You want something like that. And you have to make sure nothing touches each other. Food that is touching gives place for the moisture to collect and increases the chance for spoilage to spread. Store only vegetables that are unblemished. Can, freeze or use up the blemished foods right away.
For the celery, I fill a bin about 1/3 with peat. Then I dig up the celery, trying to keep the roots as intact as I can and put the celery into the bin and then finish filling the bin with peat moss in between all the stalks of celery. I’m sort of re-planting the celery in a porous, moisture-bearing medium. Then I spray the celery with a fine mist to re-moisten the leaves and make sure that the peat moss is also moist.
With the right amount of moisture, celery stored this way will keep for 2-3 months. If it starts to spoil before we’ve finished eating it, I will dehydrate what’s left and grind it into celery powder.
The squash sits on top of buckets or slats of wood so they aren’t in contact with the moist ground.
See the giant kohlrabi? One is next to the green tray of tomatoes, the other on top of the blue water barrel. Each one weighs about 20 pounds! I wrote a post (and later a cook book) about how we used them.
The tomatoes are all segregated.
Next to the outside door, where temps are coldest, are the carrots, leeks and beets.
I dig up the celery, preserving the roots as well as I can. They I sort of replant them in basket or bin of peat moss. Be sure to keep the peat moss moist, otherwise the celery will dry out quickly.
Leeks have the shortest storage life of all my vegetables, so they go on top of the carrots so that I can get to them first. Cover with damp peat moss.
Onions and Leeks
When the stems on the onions in the garden dry up, the onions are mature enough to store all winter long. Put them in small batches (1-2 pounds) in mesh bags. (I always save the mesh bag from our frozen turkey.) Then hang these bags from hooks in the rafters or the wall.
Leeks will not store very long, so put them on the top layer of a bin with carrots or other roots and use them first.
I sort tomatoes into three categories: Almost Ripe, Starting to Ripen and Mostly Green. This year, I have a fourth category: the long-storing, slow ripening Golden Treasure variety (far left.)
Truly green tomatoes are unlikely to ever ripen. I try to use them right away: pickled, in preserves or in our favorite green tomato recipe. See my ebook Harvest of Green for dozens of recipes using green tomatoes.)
Tomatoes in the Winter
Tomato storage is another challenge. Of course, we eat and can as much as we can all summer long. But when killing frosts are predicted, it’s time to bring everything in and it’s usually a lot. I sort them into three piles: mostly ripe, starting to ripen and mostly green. If a tomato has started to turn (has a blush of yellow color on the shoulders) and has not been bruised during harvest, it will ripen. It may take a while and you need to handle it gently. But eating garden tomatoes in the dead of winter makes this extra care worth it.
I store all the tomatoes that are turning in flat bins so that they do not touch. I will check on them every few days to see which are ready to eat and to cull out any that are spoiling.
This year I tried a new yellow variety, Golden Treasure, that is very slow to ripen. If it performs as advertised, we could be eating fresh tomatoes as late as Februrary. This variety got its own bin separate from all the others so I can better track its performance.
Part of the Big Picture
Root cellaring is just one part of my food storage strategy. But it’s a big part and it ensures that we can have fresh food all year long. After canning, freezing, drying, fermenting and root cellaring all summer and fall, I can finally rest, content to have a nice store of food to get us through the winter.
Want to Get More from Your Garden?
Check out the PHC Store, where we have several cookbooks focusing on different vegetables, each with dozens of recipes. And my super-eBook on dehydrating includes all the basics you need to start drying your garden produce. It includes drying charts, information on choosing the right dehydrator and recipes to get the most from your dried foods.