As a child growing up, I remember our root cellar where we stored a number of crops for use during the winter months. In particular, I remember potatoes stored in the cellar, a tradition that we carry on today utilizing our unheated garage. For the early pioneer families, a full root cellar was critical to their survival until the next spring when they could again harvest fresh vegetables. With the advent of modern refrigeration technology and supermarkets with produce year-round, the root cellar and storage of vegetables at home has become a footnote of history in most homes.
Successful storage of vegetables depends, not only on the storage conditions, especially proper temperature and relative humidity, but also on the conditions under which the vegetables were grown and handled previous to storage. Here are a few key points to remember when thinking of storing some of your bountiful harvest for use during the winter months.
Vegetables intended for storage should be planted at a date that will allow them to mature near the end of the growing season.
A good program of soil fertility and spraying for diseases and insects will help ensure high quality vegetables that have a potential of long storage life.
Harvest the vegetables at their proper maturity.
Select for storage only vegetables that are free of disease, insect injury and mechanical damage.
Handle the vegetables gently at all times. Remember even though winter squashes and potatoes look tough they are indeed living organisms that are respiring. A wound caused by rough handling can cause an increase in the rate of respiration or entrance point for disease organisms and result in deterioration in the quality of or total loss of the vegetable.
Store each vegetable according to its special requirements of temperature and relative humidity.
Certain vegetables such as cabbage, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, celery, salsify, beets, kohlrabi and carrots will keep best if temperatures are maintained at 32 to 40 degrees with the humidity as high as possible without moisture condensation to prevent shriveling. Vegetables such as winter squashes, pumpkins and sweet potatoes can be stored in a moderately dry cellar or basement through fall and winter at 50 to 60 degrees.
To avoid chilling injury, store peppers, green tomatoes and cucumbers for a short time at temperatures between 50-60 degrees at moderately moist humidity.
Dry onions (cured full-size bulbs) store best at a temperature as near to 32 degrees as possible in a dry, well-ventilated place.
For potatoes hold them in moist air for one to two weeks at 60-75 degrees. This allows any wounds to heal on the potatoes. Wounds on the potato do not heal properly at 50 degrees or below. After curing, and as soon as outdoor temperatures permit, lower storage temperature to about 35-40 degrees for winter storage. Store potatoes in the dark to prevent them from turning green. We accomplish this in a wooden box in our unheated garage. In our potato storage coolers on the Penn State campus we have held Eva, a beautiful white-skinned, white-fleshed potato variety at 41 degrees until the following May/June timeframe, when it could still be eaten.
Try storing some of your favorite vegetables this fall and make a hearty beef or venison stew this winter with your own potatoes, carrots, celery, turnips and squash.
Bill Lamont is a professor and extension vegetable specialist in the department of horticulture at Penn State and can be reached at email@example.com.