Storing Vegetables Root Cellars | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Preserving your Harvest for Weeks—and Months!

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Storing Potatoes
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Winthrop Brookhouse

Which vegetables and fruit to store, freeze, and dry

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Imagine the pleasure of enjoying summer’s bounty come the dead of winter. Here’s a primer on how to keep your produce for many weeks—and months! We’ll tell you which vegetables and fruit are best for storing in a pantry or cellar, which are best for freezing, and which are great for drying.

Which Vegetable and Fruit Can Be Stored

In general, many vegetables simply need a cool, dry, dark, well-ventilated location to prevent rotting. You can buy storage boxes, but a wooden crate or shallow cardboard box will work just as well. Some boxes and crates will be designed so you can stack them, but if you do this, make sure that air can circulate between the levels.

  • Apples and pears are well suited to storing. Wrap each fruit in newspaper and place in a single layer in the bottom of your container.
  • Root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and beets store really well in damp sand. If you can’t get your hands on sand (any kind will do), some gardeners use sawdust, vermiculite, or coir instead. Cut the leafy tops off beets and carrots and place them in a single layer without wrapping them. Then, cover them with a layer of sand to prevent them from becoming rubbery. Potatoes can be stored in hessian or paper sacks. Harvest them on a dry day and leave them out in the sun to dry. Remove any mud from the potatoes to prevent mold from forming. Store them in a dark place to avoid poisonous green patches forming on the skins. Parsnips are best left in the ground over winter and harvested when needed.
  • Onions, garlic, and shallots are best dried thoroughly and then plaited before storing in a dry place. You can also cut the tops off and hang the bulbs in an old pair of tights or netting.
  • Winter squash can be stored for 2 to 4 months, depending on variety. (If you are growing this crop, cure all winter squash except for the acorn types at a temperature of 80 to 85°F and a relative humidity of 80 to 85 percent. Curing helps to harden the squash skins and heal any cuts and scratches.  Do not cure acorn squash.) When properly cured and stored, the storage life of butternut squash is 2 to 3 months, and hubbard squash is 5 to 6 months. Acorn squash lasts up to 2 months. Pumpkins and marrows don’t keep after midwinter, but other squashes (such as butternut and spaghetti) may keep until early spring. Ensure they are in good condition and store them in a cool, dry place like a cupboard. (NOTE: Summer squashes, such as zucchini, don’t store well and should be kept in the fridge for a maximum of three weeks.)
  • Leafy crops such as lettuce and spinach do not store well and should be eaten within a few days of harvesting. Sow regularly right into early autumn, so you still have leaves to harvest in the colder months.
  • Legumes such as peas and beans can be dried for use in stews or blanched and frozen.

The Room Where You Store Crops

  • Any place you store crops should be well-ventilated, and any storage containers should be kept off the floor or ground on blocks or pallets.
  • Within this space, however, the optimum storage condition for each crop varies somewhat. Root crops such as beets, carrots, and rutabagas are best packed in sand or sawdust and prefer 35° Fahrenheit. Potatoes like it a little warmer—about 45°. Winter squash prefers 50 to 55°F.  But, assuming you are a home gardener without multiple rooms, keep temperatures a little above freezing but never drop below it. (At a depth of five feet, the natural temperature of the ground is 50°, which means that most cellars will require a source of colder air.)
  • You can achieve various temperature requirements by using various elevations and wall surfaces. And also you can mitigate temperature fluctuations with insulation. Place your box of roots inside a bigger box then fill the gap between the two on all sides with some insulating material such as straw, bracken, or scrunched up newspaper. Or for a more permanent solution, partition off a section of your garage or shed and insulate it with sheet insulation.
  • A vent with removable cover on the outside wall of the structure would probably be necessary to ensure sufficient ventilation. But keeping boxes of roots a few inches off the floor, for instance on lengths of wood, will help regulate temperatures too.

As much as you want to enjoy them at the time of harvest, your very finest, healthiest crops are the ones you should set aside for storage. Do not store any vegetables with nicks or gouges as they can rapidly turn to rot when stored, and it’s frightening how fast decay spreads from one root to the next. Use up damaged roots as soon as possible.

  • Harvest vegetables for storage when the weather is dry.  Leave roots to sunbathe on the soil surface for a few hours before storing to kill off the root hairs and toughen up the skin.
  • Don’t wash the roots, but brush off any loose soil and shear off the foliage just above the crown.
  • Do not rub the dirt off, as this will bruise the skin, and leave the stems intact.
  • Dig up root crops after they’ve been in the ground through a cold spell, (this will fill the cells with sugar and starches instead of water) but not through a hard frost (except parsnips, which can be left in the ground through the winter and harvested in the spring) and leave them outside in the sun for a day or two to cure.
  • Onions should cure for several days, and squash and pumpkins should be given weeks, if possible, for their skins to toughen.

Not all of your storage crops make the best of neighbors.

  • Apples give off a gas that causes potatoes to sprout and promotes the ripening of tomatoes—neither of which is desirable while in storage. Keep apples away from most vegetables.
  • Do not store squash near apples, pears, or other ripening fruit.  Ripening fruit release ethylene gas which shortens the storage life of squash.
  • Turnips and cabbage give off a strong smell, which can eventually flavor surrounding vegetables as well.
  • Seeds and pods are not candidates for the cellar. They need to be thoroughly dried in a dark, moisture-free location (try the attic) and may then be stored in jars in the pantry or kitchen.

More Tips on Storing Root Vegetables

Keep in mind that many late crops such as rutabaga, beets, carrots, parsnips and turnips are quite happy to be left in the ground until after the first frosts; this even sweetens their flavor. Winter weather also plays its part in determining how long you can leave roots in the ground, because frozen soil is hard to dig. 

Wooden boxes and crates make good storage containers, but strong cardboard boxes are fine too. Plastic boxes are okay as long as they’re well ventilated, for instance by leaving off the lid. Spread a layer of damp (but not wet) sand on the bottom of your container then arrange your vegetables on top, making sure they’re not touching. Repeat, alternating between layers of sand and vegetables. Cap it all off with a final layer of sand.

Store the containers somewhere mice and other rodents aren’t an issue, such as inside a rodent-proof garage or shed. The ideal place would be an unheated cellar where you can partition an area off to use as a root cellar. If you’re lucky enough to have such an area beneath your house, see how to build a root cellar

Whatever your storage setup, check on your produce regularly for temperature, moisture, and animal infestation. Check stored roots every week or two to make sure there’s no sign (or smell) of rot, and remove any that have gone bad straight away. If your vegetables have started to grow, they’re too warm and you need to ventilate more. If they’re shriveling up, they’re too dry – mist the sand to re-wet it. 

If you can keep light, temperature and humidity under control you can look forward to garden-grown roots for months to come.

Freezing the Harvest

Freezing is another way to preserve your harvest, especially when it comes to fruit. Freeze in usable quantities so that the produce can be easily defrosted. 

Choose only firm, just-ripe fruit and vegetables and freeze them as soon as you can after harvesting. 

For best results, freeze fruit first on a quarter-sheet pan before packing them into an airtight freezer bag or vacuum sealing (which sucks all of the air out). This ensures they they not only keep well but also don’t suffer from freezer burn. Don’t forget to date and label the bag before returning it to your freezer.

The following freeze particularly well:

  • Raspberries
  • Blueberries
  • Blanched apples
  • Blanched beans (including runner and French)
  • Cranberries
  • Gooseberries
  • Peas
  • Rhubarb

Note: Some fruit and vegetables will need blanching before freezing. This prevents the water in the fruit and vegetables crystallizing and rupturing their cell walls, resulting in a soggy, soft consistency when defrosted. Simply plunge the fruit or vegetable into a large pan of boiling water for about one third to one half of the normal cooking time, and then transfer to ice cold water, before patting dry and freezing.

See our guides to freezing different fruits and produce!

Drying Vegetable and Fruit

Crops that dry well include tomatoes, peppers and apples. Drying can dramatically alter the flavor and texture of your crop and can make interesting additions to dishes. Simply wash and thinly slice your fruit or vegetable and arrange the pieces in a single layer on a baking tray. 

Traditionally this would be left outside over long sunny days to dry out. An easier method is to set your oven to its lowest temperature setting (250F) and leave the trays in for several hours until the pieces have shrunk in size and are almost crispy. Once dry, store the pieces in a sterile, airtight container and consume within a few weeks.

Learn more about drying your harvest. Drying fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers is very satisfying.

Pickling Your Vegetables

Beets are delicious when pickled and will keep for several months. 

  1. Wash and prepare beets (don’t remove the tops too close to the root, this can cause the color to leach out). 
  2. Boil in water for 30 minutes or until the skins and tops rub off easily. 
  3. Slice them and place in a sterile jar and cover in pickling vinegar. (Jars can be sterilized by washing them well and then placing them in a cool oven at 250F for 20 minutes) 

Shallots are wonderful when pickled and also keep through the winter.

  1. Peel and trim the tops and bottoms. 
  2. Place them in a shallow dish and cover with salt to draw out excess moisture. 
  3. Leave them overnight then rinse thoroughly and place in a sterile jar and cover with pickling vinegar. 

Of course, there are MANY other vegetables that you can pickle. Learn how to pickle.

Canning and Making Jams

If you wish to go beyond the fridge, freezer, pantry, and room storage, learn about how to “cook” your food. From tomato sauce to sauerkraut, canning is a way to capture the taste of summer and allows you to store through winter. See our beginner guide to canning.

One of favorite ways of canning fruit is making jams which will keep for up to one year. See how to make jam.

We hope this primer helps you learn more about making the best of your food and the fruits of your labor!

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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