Best way to keep root vegetables to enjoy all winter!
How do you store root vegetables so they remain in perfect condition throughout the winter? Here’s an article (with video demo) on how to harvest, cure, and store potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips, and all those roots to enjoy those stews, roasts, and comfort food during the cold months when little else is growing!
When to Lift Carrots and Parsnips
Let’s start with carrots. They can actually be either lifted out of the ground when ready OR left in the ground to dig up when you need them during the winter months. Parsnips are the same, and actually improve in taste with a few frosts. And many beets or beetroot will happily sit through mild winters without fuss.
However, this assumes your soil drains nicely and can stay in the ground without risk of them going rotten. In heavier, wet soils, there’s an increased risk of rotting.
But also there are plenty of reasons why you might want to lift and store your root vegetables. First, the longer you leave roots in the ground, the greater the risk of them getting riddled with holes from the likes of slugs, wireworm or rodents. And, of course, if your soil freezes solid for weeks at a time, pickaxing them out of the soil isn’t much fun either! So you’ll need to lift them.
How to Store Root Vegetables
Check over roots before storing and set aside any that are damaged or in any way imperfect to use up as soon as possible. Only intact roots of a good size should be stored. Begin by twisting off the foliage like this, then brush off any lumps of soil. The roots don’t need washing, just store them as they are.
You can store roots in any container that allows for a bit of ventilation. Sturdy cardboard boxes work well, or crates like this, with the lid left off. And laying them down for the winter couldn’t be simpler. Start with a layer of damp – but not wet – sand or old potting mix in the bottom of your container. Use whatever you have to hand – it just needs to keep the roots ever so slightly moist and protected from each other. Lay out your roots on top so they’re not touching, then add another layer of your damp packing material. Continue in layers like this until you get to the top, finishing with a layer of sand or potting mix. You could also use hay, straw, sawdust or a mix of any of the above.
Bear in mind that larger roots will store much better than thin or small roots, which can quickly dry out and turn rubbery. Smaller roots can always be sliced up then either frozen, dehydrated or perhaps canned. Store your roots in the cool and dark. You want it cool but frost-free, so a cellar or basement, outbuilding or some other vermin-free space is ideal. The back of my outbuilding is built into an earth bank, which helps to keep the temperature inside much steadier. It may help to raise boxes or sacks off the ground to keep them out of reach of rodents, or try storing them in metal bins. And if there is a risk of it getting below freezing, consider adding some extra insulation – more straw, scrunched up newspaper – anything held in place around your boxes of roots.
If you have a standard shed you could try creating a root vegetable store by securing insulation boards like this together to keep temperatures from either dropping or soaring too far. I’ve also seen makeshift stores made from old refrigerators or freezers, part-buried into the ground.
How to Harvest and Store Potatoes
To harvest potatoes, work methodically from the front of the row to the back, start digging well away from the centre of each plant then carefully – and I do mean carefully – work the fork in underneath to lift the whole plant and its tubers up from beneath. This way there’s a less chance of accidentally spearing a potato, though don’t be too hard on yourself if that does happen!
Instead of bagging or boxing the harvested spuds up immediately, leave them on the soil surface for a few hours so they can dry out. This way any lumps of soil will also come away easily with a light brush of the hand. Choosing a dry day with a light breeze will help them to dry out. These potatoes were grown in straw, so they’re very clean.
With them dried off you now have a couple of choices. My potatoes were bagged up into nets and hung up in the gloom of my outbuilding shed. We’re potato mad in this family – they’re great for homemade fries, which my daughter absolutely loves – so I’m not too worried about using them up in time, because I suspect this lot will be gone within about a month.
If you want to store your spuds for longer, take a little extra time to cure them properly first. Lay them out in a single layer, somewhere dark and well-ventilated so the skins can harden further. You could do this by laying them out in trays, with some burlap, hessian or other breathable fabric thrown over the top to exclude light. It will take up to 10 days for them to cure, after which they can be bagged up into dark, breathable sacks, such as paper, burlap or hessian potato sacks.
Again, store them in a cool environment with good air circulation. Check your stored produce every couple of weeks. Inspect boxes for signs of rot, such as a suspicious ooze or foul smell. Remove any roots that are on the turn immediately.
Get it right and you could be enjoying your homegrown roots well into next spring!
If you love growing your own food, why not take a look at our online Garden Planner which helps you to plan and design your garden to maximise yields and get more out of your garden all year round.
Learn more about the Garden Planner here.