Do you like to store some of your garden harvest for the winter? Do you wish you had a root cellar to store it in?
In this episode of “The Evergreen Thumb,” the focus is on how to harvest and store crops for winter without a root cellar. Your host, Erin, provides valuable insights into the ideal conditions for storage and more practical options for home gardeners. The episode covers various vegetables, starting with garlic, emphasizing factors like timing, watering, and proper harvesting techniques. Apples, summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, and potatoes are also covered, including advice on curing, temperature, humidity, and potential storage challenges.
Check out these other episodes
- Pollinators In Winter with David James – Episode 009
- Greening Your Space: Caring For House Plants with Ann Amato – Episode 008
- Beneath the Blooms: Creepy Garden Critters with Todd Murray – Episode 007
- Bringing the Outdoors In: Indoor Gardening Essentials – Episode 006
- Surviving Winter’s Wrath: Preparing Your Garden for Winter Weather – Episode 005
Welcome to the Evergreen Thumb. I’m your host Erin Landon, a Washington State University Extension Master Gardener since 2015, and a certified permaculture designer and modern homesteader. I’m here to share up-to-date research-based horticulture and environmental stewardship knowledge to help you grow and manage your garden and to share what the WSU Extension Master Gardener program is all about.
WSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers are university-trained community educators who have been cultivating plants, people, and communities since 1973. Are you ready to grow? Let’s dig into today’s episode.
Welcome to the Evergreen Thumb episode three. Today we’re gonna talk about harvesting and storing crops for winter. In episode one, I talked about the gardening calendar for September, which included harvesting fall squash and other root crops. So I’ll give the ideal conditions for storage and then some more realistic conditions for the home gardener.
But before I jump in, I want to give a brief disclaimer that WSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers are not trained in food preservation techniques. All the information regarding the curing and storage of vegetables is gleaned from WSU and Oregon State University publications that I will link to in the show notes. If you have questions regarding the curing and storage or other food safety questions, please contact your local WSU Extension consumer food safety program.
The first vegetable I wanna talk about is garlic. Now garlic is usually harvested in July or August. So by the time this is airing initially, you should already have it harvested, but I thought I’d touch on it. Next year’s crop should go in the ground about two weeks before your average first frost date. For garlic, you wanna stop watering garlic when the scapes form. This is with hard-neck garlic.
Soft neck garlic doesn’t typically create scapes, but when the tops start to dry up, the first few leaves, you wanna stop watering, and that’s about two to four weeks before harvesting. It’s time to harvest when the lower third of the leaves have dried up. You wanna remove the bulbs gently with a spade or a fork, and if any of the cloves are damaged during the harvest, you wanna set those heads aside to use right away.
You want to store them with the tops still attached in a dry, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight for at least two weeks. Soft-neck garlic can be braided at this time if you like. After two weeks, you want to cut the tops of the unbraided garlic about one inch from the top of the head and then trim the roots as well, leaving all the skins intact and removing any excess dirt from the bulbs.
Ideally, you want to store garlic at 32 degrees at 65 to 70% relative humidity, and it will keep for six months or more. Seed garlic you can keep at 50 degrees because it’s going to be going back out into the soil within a couple of months. Realistically, most home gardeners don’t have fancy root cellars that are temperature-controlled and control of the humidity. You want to store them in the coolest, darkest place you have where it is protected from
it is dry, it’s protected from damp. This could be your garage, a well house if it’s well insulated, a root cellar if you have it, but really it just needs to be cool and dark and it will last for several months.
Next, I’m gonna cover onions. Onions are harvested when the tops fall over, usually in, it can be anywhere from late August into October.
Once the tops have kind of fallen over, onions will not get any larger, so there isn’t any benefit to keeping them in the ground, but you can wait until they’ve all fallen over and harvest them all at once. I usually just, if I see them when I’m out in the garden, I’ll pull those ones up and set them out to dry. Just like garlic, you wanna dry them in a shaded area with good air circulation. And if the weather is really warm, this could only take a few days for them to dry.
I mean, you wanna dry them until the green tops are no longer green. Onions store best with their tops on, but it’s okay to cut them off if it’s necessary for space. But they must be totally dry or rot will set in. If the neck is tight and the skin is dry, they’ll lose about 3% to 5% of their weight and then they’re considered sufficiently dry. Sweet onions like Walla Wallas do not store well and will store for only one to two months.
So keep that in mind and also know what the storage life of the variety. Some yellow varieties will store for six to nine months. Some red varieties will store longer than others. I like to get longer storage varieties of yellow and red just so that I have more of them throughout the year. So when the skin is dry and crispy, ideally you want to store them in mesh bags because they need air circulation. And you want to store them also at 32 degrees.
Garlic and onions are stored very similarly and then can be stored together. But if the onions sprout, then that means your temperature is too warm or they weren’t dry enough. So cool, dark, but not damp. That’s the big takeaway for onions and garlic to be able to store them. And they will store for several months.
I’m taking a quick break to tell you about the 2023 Advanced Education Conference. The Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State, in partnership with the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program, will present the 2023 WSU Master Gardener Advanced Education Conference taking place at Marriott Tacoma, downtown, on September 27-30, 2023. This conference will be the culminating event of a year-long 50th anniversary celebration.
The 2023 Advanced Education Conference offers top-notch classes and instructors with 35 classes taught on research-based gardening and environmental stewardship practices including integrated pest management, native bees and pollinators, native plants, rainscaping, healthy soils, water-wise gardening, home irrigation systems, and more. The WSU Master Gardener Advanced Education Conference is open to the public. For more information or to register, visit www.mglearns.com
Just really quickly, summer squash, like yellow crook neck and zucchini, do not store well. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for one to two weeks, but they really cannot be cured for longer term storage than that. Winter squash and pumpkins are ready to harvest when the skins can’t be pierced by a fingernail, but you wanna harvest them before the first frost. You wanna make sure when you harvest them that you are cutting the stems so you have.
a couple inches of stem still attached. If the stem breaks off during harvest, you wanna set those aside to use first because they will not store as long or as well. And again, you wanna cure winter squash and pumpkins in a warm, dry place. You’re probably seeing a theme here. This is a lot of curing takes place in a warm, dry place. In commercial operations, oftentimes they will cure them in a temperature-controlled environment at 70 degrees at the…
perfect humidity that they’ve figured out. But for the home gardener, once they’re cured, you want to store them at room temperature because if they get stored below 50 degrees, they will deteriorate rapidly. And you don’t wanna store squash near your apples or pears as the apples and pears will emit ethylene gas and that can shorten the storage life of the squash.
For potatoes, you want to reduce watering in the weeks before harvest and make sure the tops have died back completely before harvesting. New potatoes are harvested before the tops die back and do not store well. Make sure to use bruised or damaged potatoes right away as they will deteriorate quickly in storage. Sometimes, if you’re pulling them up with a fork or a spade, it’s easy to stab them or to cut into them. Make sure you use those ones. Set them aside to use right away. You can cut out those blemishes.
Potatoes should be cured for 7 to 10 days in a dark, warm, well-ventilated area. According to the University of Idaho Cooperative Extension Service, it’s important to cure and store potatoes in a completely dark environment because when they are exposed to any light, whether it’s in the ground or after harvesting, that green indicates a glycoalkaloid compound called solanine.
Tubers with a lot of solanine will be bitter. So just to be safe, it’s best not to eat the green parts of the tubers because the solanine can be harmful in large quantities. You don’t need to throw them out. You just need to peel the skins and any green color. After curing, you wanna brush off as much soil as possible and then store the potatoes at 40 to 50 degrees at 90% humidity.
Now that’s very high humidity, and it would be difficult to attain in a homestead or a home garden. But temps below 40 degrees cause the starch to turn to sugar and can make the potatoes taste sweet. The storage life of potatoes varies from variety to variety. So you wanna pay attention to the storage qualities of the variety of potato you’re planting. Again, you wanna avoid storing potatoes near apples and pears because of the ethylene gas that will
shorten the storage life of the potatoes. Realistically, you wanna store potatoes in a cool, dark location, slightly warmer than garlic and onions. So you could do something as simple as storing the potatoes on an upper shelf versus storing the onions and garlic on a lower shelf, you know, because heat rises. And so that could make a couple of degrees difference. The higher the humidity, the better for the life of the potatoes, or they will begin to dry out and shrivel.
I also wanted to touch on apples. Apples are usually ripe anywhere from the end of August into October. Apples don’t particularly need curing, but they do need to be stored between 30 and 40 degrees at 90% humidity, depending on the variety between three and eight months. Realistically, store apples in a separate location from vegetables in a cool, dark area.
and the closer you can get to 32 degrees, the longer they’ll store. Apples should be stored in clean boxes. Cardboard or wood is fine, and use boxes that are ventilated for air circulation. Don’t line the boxes with paper or individually wrap the fruit, and do not wash apples before storing them. The excess moisture from washing can actually speed up the decay of the apples.
Don’t store apples that are bruised or have insect or disease damage. Damaged fruit will spoil in storage. And the presence of spoiled fruit can cause healthy fruit to ripen and rot more quickly. Storage temperatures for apples is between 30 and 32 degrees, although fruit may be stored at temperatures up to 40 degrees. Apple varieties like Macintosh or Honeycrisp are prone to chill injury and should be stored slightly warmer at 38 degrees.
The best place to store your apples is in a refrigerator, but a cold basement or root cellar would work if you can maintain the temperatures between 30 and 45 degrees. Apples will spoil faster at temperatures above 45 degrees and they will freeze at 29 degrees. Apples should be at 90% relative humidity, but it’s challenging to achieve for the home gardener or backyard orchardist. So placing fruit in perforated plastic bags can help maintain humidity while also allowing excess moisture to escape. Low humidity causes fruit to dehydrate and shrivel.
Root Crops (Carrots, Beets, etc)
Finally, I wanted to touch on some other root crops such as carrots, beets, parsnips. I have found, this is my personal experience in Western Washington, with enough mulch, I can keep my carrots and beets and potatoes even in the ground all winter. The key is to know how
deep your frost line is and the more mulch you have, the shallower that frost line is. If you have longer periods of snow on the ground, especially if you’re in higher elevations or in parts of Eastern Washington where snow will last for long periods of time, you want to try to harvest before the snow falls just so you’re not out there digging in the snow. It won’t hurt it to do that. It’s just more convenient.
Beets, carrots, and turnips can also be stored in a pit or a bucket of sand as close to 30 degrees as possible. So you can do layers. So put a layer of sand in a bucket and then put the carrots or the beets that have removed the greens, brush off excess dirt, and lay them in a layer of sand and then put another layer of sand on top and do another and just keep layering it all the way up the bucket and you can just work your way down through the winter. Same thing in a pit.
and you just put a cover on it. If you have the ability to dig a pit, I have very rocky soil and I would rather do the bucket method. So then that kind of mimics the root cellar so you can store vegetables longer term. I have had carrots with about four inches of mulch on top. Carrots have lasted all winter long. I have picked fresh carrots in February to eat.
The tops do die back. So you do need to pay attention to where they are because you won’t have the green tops as an indicator of where the carrots are. That about wraps up this episode of the Evergreen Thumb. I hope you were able to get some useful information on how to store your vegetables in the winter and we’ll see you next time.
Thank you for joining us on this episode of the Evergreen Thumb, brought to you by the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program volunteers.
and sponsored by the Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State. We hope that today’s discussion has inspired and equipped you with valuable insights to nurture your garden. The Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State is a nonprofit organization whose primary purpose is to provide unifying support and advocacy for WSU Extension Master Gardener programs throughout Washington State. To support the Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State, visit www.mastergardenerfoundation.org
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