We store a wide array of vegetables, herbs, fruits, berries, grains, and nuts every year to help nourish us during the tedious winter season. When you get right down to it, however, there are only a few crops that we can count on to see us through the year with a high degree of certainty. They are, in order of importance to us, carrots, beets, potatoes, squash, turnips, parsnips, dried beans and peas. We are able to readily grow all of these in dependable quantities year after year no matter the weather, insects, or any unforeseen conditions that may arise.
For over 15 years, the first 10 being rather intermittent and my horticultural endeavors being somewhat questionable, I have never been let down in any significant manner by these particular crops. No doubt others have a different variation of dependable crops, but these are ours. A veritable who's who of carbohydrates. Each of these food items is put into storage sometime between September and October and will last us at least until early spring and usually well into June if they are properly stored.
Carrots, turnips, and parsnips are all stored using the same approach. We harvest after the first light frost, or just before if suspecting a hard freeze. After digging, the tops are cut off about an inch from the root and they are then packed in layers. A cooler, tote, crate, bag (plastic wood pellet, or feed sacks work great) or anything that will hold up to the weight as they are then layered on top of each other with sandy soil in between. I find that coolers really work well as they are sturdy, insulated, and come with a good set of handles...an old cooler can be picked up at a garage sale for next to nothing. We simply dig down a couple feet until sandy soil is contacted and use that to separate the produce. I am careful not to use any top soil as it may contain insects or other malicious organisms.
We find this storage method to be quite effective as long as the temperature is kept right around 35-40°, humidity at 80-90% and the soil is not allowed to dry out or get too damp. Using soil not only allows the vegetables to remain alive, but also seems to help maintain the flavor as well. Sandy soil works best for us, many people use sawdust, or even dry leaves.
The best of these three biennials can then be planted back into the garden in the early spring at which point they will generally go to seed and thus their life cycle is continued.
Beets are stored in a similar manner, the only difference being that they are packed in single layers so that we can not only use them for the root but top growth as well. I like to store beets in deep wooden boxes that I constructed and have also found wheel barrows to work quite well. Many of our beets are cylindrical in shape and can easily be over a foot long so it is necessary to provide deeper accommodations for them.
Potatoes are dug in late September before any frost and always before the rains of November. We are careful to remove any that have been exposed to the sun and have turned green due to solanine, a potentially poisonous alkaloid that is increased with exposure to sunlight. They are usually just tossed into the forest to decay as I have learned the hard way never to put them into the mulch pile unless one wants little potato plants sprouting all over the garden. We lay them in a dark area of our porch and cover with seed sacks to help keep them devoid of light. The tubers are then left to cure for a couple weeks while their skin hardens and they are ready for storage. The larger potatoes are stored in single layers on shelves and the small (baby potatoes) are put into baskets and used first as they normally do not last as long in storage. Four or five of the best of each variety are kept separate to be used as the next years seed potatoes.
Squash (including sugar pie pumpkins) are harvested in late September before any frost and allowed to cure in a warm dry area for two weeks or so. When picking, it is advisable to leave at least 3" of stem on, this will significantly improve their storage life. The best place for them unfortunately seems to be in a corner of our living room as they need to be kept warm and dry. We never let them touch and always watch to see if any soft spots develop and immediately use any that exhibit an issue. For us, the most difficult part about keeping winter squash is keeping small (grandson) children from standing on them or attempting to use them as bowling balls.
Peas and beans are not too burdensome, we let them dry on the vine or take any late ones and let them finish in our greenhouse or another warm dry area...we often use our porch for this. If it is really cold and damp they can always be brought inside and put in baskets near the firplace. Once dried they are put into well sealed jars, and the best ones are set aside for next years seed. They will keep that way for several years to be rehydrated for soup or even replanted in a pinch. The pole pea seeds in the above photo have been saved by us for over 8 years now, and seem to perform better every year.
Right around April the weather starts to warm a bit and I can no longer keep my basement root cellar at the appropriate temperature. At this time all remaining root vegetables, including potatoes are removed and buried in a cache of sorts about 2 1/2' deep with plywood boards over the top to keep the rains from saturating. This easily keeps them cool well into June. If you have an issue with the "Yellow Toothed Subterranean Vole" as we do, it is important to take care where you make this cache. It may be prudent to leave the crops in the coolers or totes or at least make a wire barrier around them to keep hungry visitors away. I never bury wooden crates as they will begin to decay. Natures refrigerator is really quite amazing, in the fall we have even buried excess beet, endive, and rutabaga greens in plastic bags for over a 1 1/2 months so that they could be distributed to the chickens at our leisure.
These crops constitute a very large percentage of what we grow. Not only do we depend upon them but the recent addition of a flock of collaborators in our gardening enterprise rely on them as well.
Please forgive the picture quality as I had to 'steal' these pictures from my video camera. More of our root cellar pictures can be found in this previous post. Summer's Over