Photo Credit: Paul Glover
Storing Fresh: How to keep tasty fruits and veggies for winter
In February, the spaghetti squash in my coldroom was still as crisp as the previous autumn. Even the five large zucchinis had not moulded or withered.
“What are you going to do with five huge zucchinis?” my visitor asked.
That was a good question. I contemplated having a separate table of winter fruit and vegetables to give away at the local Heritage Week celebration. A hundred years ago, having fresh produce throughout the winter months was essential in the prevention of winter diseases such as bleeding gums, scurvy, and constipation. The techniques used to maintain fresh apples, carrots, potatoes, pumpkins, and even cabbage were part of every homesteader’s winter survival arsenal until new growth became available in the spring.
Saving fruits and vegetables for winter use was a way of life for the old-timers, and it is not that difficult for the modern gardener to do the same. There are five simple points to follow if you want to be eating your fresh produce when the winter storms are swirling outside.
When to harvest
The first consideration is to choose when you harvest. Harvesting vegetables like potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, and fall varieties of cabbage, onions, and garlic while summer temperatures are still dominant will lessen the hardening process in the tissues and lower their keeping qualities compared to those harvested in later fall.
Do not wait too long, though. If the fruit is a squash or zucchini which can be damaged by hard frost, it should be harvested before temperatures dip below -1º C. Some vegetables, such as potatoes, are deep enough in the ground that a later harvest is possible, as frost will take some time to reach the tubers.
Ripeness is also a factor. A ripe fruit is unlikely to survive months of storage, whereas fruit that will ripen in storage will last longer. Pioneers specifically grew late-maturing varieties to extend storage times. Winter apples such as the Herb Schmidt, Red Rome, and Cortland varieties are designed to store well and not ripen until mid- to late winter.
The second consideration is to be very selective as to which pieces you are trying to save. The fruits or vegetables should be free of bruises, cuts, blemishes, or any means by which decomposers can enter the tissues. The old saying, “One bad apple spoils the bunch” is absolutely true. A piece of fruit with a coddling moth hole in it, or a potato with a broken end, will serve as an incubation site for bacterial or fungal growth which can spread to other pieces nearby. If the piece is not in good shape, and if the skin is not intact, that vegetable or fruit will be unlikely to last even two months in storage.
Small and immature fruits or vegetables are also less likely to store well compared to large, mature pieces. When sorting your potatoes, put aside the smallest ones. These tiny, sweet ones are filled with sugars which have not yet been converted to starch. If these potatoes start to ferment, they might explode in your potato sack, spreading decomposition bacteria throughout your other potatoes. Save your largest, healthiest non-seed potatoes for eating in the later winter months and eat the small and moderate-sized ones first.
Keep it clean
Having chosen intact fruits and vegetables, the third point is to ensure that the material is clean and you are not storing earwigs, spiders, earthworms or other wildlife along with your fruit or vegetables. Insects and their larvae can both damage your stored materials and act as decomposition points when they die.
For potatoes, there are two schools of thought: some of the old commercial potato farmers in the Terrace area stored their potatoes with the dirt brushed off but the tubers unwashed. I personally like to wash my potatoes, having found that lumps of dirt on the potatoes can act as decomposition points.
Cleanliness should also mean removal of leaves and stems from vegetables, as these materials rot faster than the thicker-skinned taproots or tubers. Even leaves on fruits such as tree fruits and squashes will act as decay points. When apples were shipped from the Skeena Valley orchards in the 1930s, the fruits were wrapped in tissue before being packed into boxes so that even the skins of the apples did not touch each other.
The moisture factor
Probably one of the most important factors for successfully storing winter fruits and vegetables is avoiding excess moisture. With the exception of carrots (traditionally stored in moist sand), fruits and vegetables stored wet or with moist skins will mold and decay. After washing potatoes, leave them for at least a week in a cool, open, well-ventilated location until they are completely dry and have started to form their tougher, winter skins. Do not dry them by exposing them to sunlight, as potatoes turn green in light and can form solanine, a bitter chemical that is toxic to humans.
All fruits, from tree fruits to squashes, zucchinis, and pumpkins, need to be dry and to have developed mature skins before they are put into storage. Garlic and onions are very sensitive to moisture levels and are traditionally stored by hanging the bulbs in well-aired locations. My open basement area is full in the late fall with drying bulbs, tubers, and fruits, all developing tough skins for the winter ahead.
The next step for winter storage of fresh fruits and vegetables is to find a suitable storage area with conditions that prevent fungal and bacterial growth. Decay organisms do not grow well under conditions that are too cool, salty, acidic, or dry for them to multiply rapidly. For fresh fruits and vegetables, a dry, well-ventilated location with temperatures below 6º C provides ideal storage conditions. In the early 1900s, root cellars were built into sidehills or in well-drained ground at depths below the frost line, where temperatures hovered close to 3 to 6º year-round.
Most of us do not have root cellars, but if you have a basement, then a corner under the stairwell or along the north wall might be cool enough for good storage. The coldroom in the northwest corner of my basement, complete with insulated walls, stays well below 8º all winter. A spare refrigerator (plugged in) can also act as a cold storage facility for root vegetables like potatoes and carrots. I have had trouble storing cabbages in a fridge but others have reported good results. I prefer to hang the cabbage heads upside down in a cool, ventilated area.
There are also options for pit storage outside, with produce being put into the ground and covered with hay or other insulating materials. This was historically an effective method for storage in the colder, drier northern interior (pits were often built underneath the cabin itself), but, unless the pit is carefully located and protected from rain and runoff, it is a less successful method for the inland valleys of the North Coast.
In the last days before winter when plants are retreating into dormancy, the closure of gardens does not need to be the end of fresh produce. Although pickling, freezing, and canning are effective techniques for preserving food, the reduction of vitamins, especially Vitamin C, during these preservation methods can make saving fresh produce important for local food users who prefer home-grown produce. All you need is a dry, cool, moisture-free environment for good storage, and quality fruits and vegetables properly prepared for winter use.
One of the interesting sources of winter greens in the early 1900s was the use of forced greens from taproots or bulbs. For example, dandelions successfully grow in moist sand. The young leaves are quite edible and full of Vitamin C. Beets can be forced in the same fashion, as well as young onions and garlic. Cut back the tops to 2 to 3 inches and plant so the moist sand is slightly below the top of the taproot or bulb. Place in a dark, cool corner and harvest throughout the winter. In February you can bring your mini-greens garden to the light of a south-facing window.