Gardening Tips: Putting Food By

Editor’s Note: We’re reaching into Michelle Smith’s archives for still-timely gardening tips like these — first published on 19 September 2018.


What to do this week

This week I want to talk about the best ways to store your veggies once you pick them, both long term and short term.

Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, for example, should not go in the fridge. They should be stored at room temperature. These vegetables are actually alive, even after you pick them, so if you keep them at room temperature or just a tad cooler, they will continue to ripen. If you put them in the fridge you will kill them. They just go soft.

Dan Goodland Downstairs Root Cellar Municipal Heritage Structure, Elliston, Newfoundland. (Photo by Magicpiano CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Dan Goodland Downstairs Root Cellar Municipal Heritage Structure, Elliston, Newfoundland. (Photo by Magicpiano, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Another option is to leave tomatoes in a cooler space, not as cool as in the fridge but cooler than in your heated living room. Don’t go below 10 degrees C or you will get the fridge-kill effect. This option temporarily suspends the ripening, allowing you to bring them into the warmth later in the fall or winter.  I have had fresh ripened tomatoes from my garden well into January doing it this way. You might lose a few from a blemish that rots, but it is well worth doing if you have a cool room somewhere. People don’t generally have root cellars in the city any more, but you might have an unheated porch or basement that would do the trick.

Don’t leave your tomatoes out in the garden, on the plant, once it gets below 10 to 7 degrees C or you will kill them. You will have to bring them in. Store them on trays or in cardboard boxes, with as much space for each tomato as possible. I usually end up layering mine because I have so many, but if you have the luxury of giving each tomato its own space, not touching other tomatoes, that is ideal. Good air circulation is a plus. Don’t put them directly on plastic. If you use plastic trays, put newspaper down under them.

Potatoes can be kept at room temperature for two or three weeks, but no longer. They like it cool.  Four or 5 degrees C is ideal. Do not wash your potatoes before storing them. Try to dig them when it is dry. You can brush off any clumps of dirt, but save the washing until you are going to cook them. This is because water breaks down the delicate skin of new potatoes, and allows bacteria in to do their dirty work. They will rot prematurely.

Root cellar and bunkhouse building at the lower tract of the Birch Creek Historic Ranch, Oregon. (Photo by Ian Poellet, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Root cellar and bunkhouse building at the lower tract of the Birch Creek Historic Ranch, Oregon. (Photo by Ian Poellet, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

You can wash your carrots. Don’t go at them with a steel brush, but washing doesn’t damage them like it does with potatoes, and they do tend to get discolored when clumps of dirt are left on.

With carrots and beets, you cut off the stems to within half an inch of the apical bud. Carrots and beets should then be stored in cool, moist conditions, a bit damp but not wet. Some people buy an old fridge just for storing this kind of veggie, as it can be ideal.

Onions have to be stored dry. It is helpful to keep them cool, but they must be dry. Bundle them and hang them from the ceiling of the root cellar or a cool room. If you bag onions, you will encourage different kinds of rot. They won’t do as well.

You can also keep cabbage for months in the root cellar or cool room. You might lose some of the outer leaves but the rest will be fine. Cabbage does tend to lose some of its nutritional value from storage — it is better to learn to make sauerkraut. Be sure to use winter cabbage for storage or for sauerkraut. Look for dense and tightly wrapped heads. Winter cabbage is a different variety from the loose cabbage heads you may still be seeing at the markets. You can use that for kimchi, but not for sauerkraut.

Leeks are similar to cabbage in that it is common to find summer and winter leeks. The summer varieties do not store well. Choose winter varieties for storage.

Garlic is like onion. It should be kept cool and dry. Hang it in bunches in the coolest part of the house and once you’ve done so, leave it there (same goes for onions). If you bring it out it will think the winter is over and start to sprout. Do remember to reserve some of your garlic, the best bulbs, to plant around Thanksgiving time. We don’t get reliably cold weather before then.

Other vegetables that you might want to freeze, like peas or green beans or corn, have to be blanched before freezing.  Blanching is important because it kills the enzymes on the surface of the vegetable that can rot even frozen food. Usually it’s a two-minute boil. For methods and times just consult a reference book or the internet. My favorite reference on this subject is Ruth Hertzberg’s Putting Food By.

For all the city dwellers who don’t have root cellars, there is a possible fix: a second fridge. A basic second-hand one will do. You can store it out of the way and use it as a root cellar. Another option is an old chest freezer. Buy an external freezer temperature controller. They are not expensive, and allow you to set the temperature as if the freezer were a fridge. The chest style is best, as you don’t lose all the cool air every time you open it. With this you will actually have a root cellar, and can follow all of the tips I have given you here.

Featured image: Old root cellar at Törnävä outdoor museum, Seinäjoki, Finland, March 2013. (Photo by Kotivalo CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)


Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.