Gardening Tips: Storing the Harvest

Editor’s Note: The Spectator is reaching into Michelle Smith’s gardening column archive for some weekly advice that is as relevant now as when it was first written. This column last appeared on 16 September 2020.


What to do this week

This time of year there is a lot going on for gardeners. You may be very busy figuring out how to store your harvest. This week is a good time to review a few basic storage tips for the most common Cape Breton garden products. I talked about tomatoes last week, but if you have had a successful season, you will be dealing with lots of other great fruits and veggies. Perhaps you have an abundance of potatoes, carrots, beets, maybe apples, and you certainly don’t want to let any of your work go to waste.

Take potatoes, for example. It is best if you can dig them when the ground is relatively dry. This is not always possible during harvest season in Cape Breton, but if you have the chance to dig them up on a dry day, do it.

Vegetables in a root cellar. (Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Vegetables in a root cellar. (Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t put them in plastic bags, they need to breath. Don’t put them directly into cold storage. Leave them in a warm place in the house, in a cardboard box or something similar, with a sheet over them so the light doesn’t get to them. The cardboard will help to dry them out. Their skin will thicken up a bit during this time. Once the skins are toughened up you can knock the dirt off. Do not wash them. That is the best way to ruin potatoes during storage. Put them into dark, thick, paper bags and put the bags into your cold storage location. Remember, potatoes prefer to be dry, and need to be protected from light. The heavy paper bags will help with both. Put the bags into rubber bins. Rubbermaid bins are not airtight, so your potatoes will breath, but they are critter proof! I repeat, don’t wash them. You can wash your potatoes later, before you cook them.

Most people don’t have a root cellar nowadays, so some people use an unheated garage or barn. This can be a good solution, but the temperature can drop below freezing in there, which is not good. To prevent that kind of disaster, use an old freezer (not working, not plugged in). You could also use old coolers, these will insulate your produce against freezing.

You can wash carrots and beets before storage. For carrots, that stops the staining, which doesn’t hurt you but can be unsightly. With both carrots and beets, you cut the leaves but leave about half an inch of stem. Don’t cut into the actual beet or carrot because that will introduce bacteria and cause them to rot during the winter.

The secret to carrot and beet storage is to prevent major moisture loss. Some people recommend damp sand but that has never worked for me. I just take plastic bags and perforate them. The perforation is important — carrots and beets need to breath, but don’t need as much air circulation as they would get in mesh bags, they lose too much moisture that way. Once in their perforated bags, you can put them into heavy plastic bins to keep the critters out.

Onions and garlic also like to be stored in a cool and dry location. These two in particular do not like to cycle through temperature changes. Your basement may not be cool yet, but it will be soon, and will likely be stable temperature-wise. If onions or garlic are cool and then warm up, they mistakenly sense that winter is over and start to sprout. Consistent temperature is good for all the vegetables I’m discussing today, but it is essential for garlic and onions. The ideal temperature, if you can manage it, is 0˚- 4˚C, not below freezing unless the veggies are protected in a cooler or an old freezer box.

Apples also need to be in cold storage if you want to keep them through the winter, but don’t put them anywhere near the other vegetables we’ve been discussing. Apples give off ethylene gas, which is wonderful if you want your bananas to ripen, but not so wonderful for other vegetables during long storage.

You may be lucky enough to have plums or peaches or many other types of produce, each of which has its own preferred storage method. Canning or freezing should be considered, but these techniques have food safety (or even just food quality) concerns. You have to get it right for each specific item. The best thing to do is to get a good reference resource. Google is great, but it won’t give you the solid overview that a reference book will. My favorite book on this subject is Putting Food By. It is a classic, continually reprinted and updated, that gives you exact times and details for any food you may want to can, preserve, freeze or dry. It is my bible on this subject. Treat yourself to a copy.


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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.



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