By Julie Boudreau
Whether for simple pleasure or a desire to know what’s on your plate, gardeners can eat vegetables from the garden, even in winter, thanks to storage.
The storage and preservation of vegetables is not new. Upon their arrival, the first colonizing Europeans looked for methods to preserve vegetables during the winter. Seeing that European techniques were not suitable for the harsh winters of Quebec, they were ultimately inspired by the techniques used by the First Nations. In the beginning, they were simple holes dug in the earth, wide and deep, lined with bark. Then, the storage options diversified. We witnessed the construction of cellars, half-buried buildings, and the development of root cellars, those famous basements in houses which are accessed through a hatch in the kitchen floor or through a door leading from the outside.
Secrets of Good Storage: Harvest Conditions
Many vegetables need to be “conditioned” before storage. Poorly treated, vegetables die quickly and are more susceptible to mold. For example, it is best not to wash vegetables, but to gently remove the soil with a cloth. Harvest times also matter a lot. Cabbage, beets, carrots should be harvested as late as possible, after the first light frosts, but before severe frosts. This is not the case for potatoes which are harvested two weeks after the leaves have completely yellowed. As for onions, you have to wait until all the leaves fall naturally to the side.
At harvest time, certain special care is added. The onions must dry for two weeks in open air, protected from the rain. The potatoes are left to sit on the ground for a day or two. The leaves of carrots, beets, rutabagas, turnips and parsnips should be cut 5 cm (2 inches) from the root. For pumpkins and squash, you must leave 10 cm (4 inches) of the peduncle.
Good Storage Conditions
The goal of storage is to preserve the vegetable in its current state as much as possible, that is to say fresh and firm. This is why, regardless of the storage method used, it is important that it is in a very cold and very humid environment. For the majority of vegetables, the temperature must approach the freezing point without ever reaching it, that is to say between 33 and 39 F (1 and 4 C). The humidity level must be around 90%. Under these conditions, vegetables sweat little, which allows them to remain firm. If root vegetables shrivel, it’s often because it’s not cold enough or humid enough.
Where to Store Your Vegetables?
Some houses already have a cold room, a summer kitchen or an unheated garage, or perhaps even a dirt basement, for older houses. All of these locations are potentially interesting for storage, provided that the temperature and humidity conditions mentioned above are met. If you do not have one of these rooms, it is possible to build a root cellar in the basement of any conventionally built house.
To do this, you should preferably install the cold room in a corner of the basement located in the northeast or northwest. Access to a window is ideal for controlling the temperature of the cold room. We open the window in winter if it is too hot and we close it tightly if it is too cold. The two missing walls are erected using 2′ x 4′ and gypsum sheets and insulated with mineral wool. Of course, you need a door, also insulated, to access the room! Each crack is carefully sealed to prevent the coolness of the cold room from circulating throughout the rest of the house. And, conversely, to heat the cold room through the house. A thermometer combined with a hygrometer (which measures humidity) completes the room.
Regardless of the room, root vegetables (carrot, rutabaga, etc.) are placed in wooden boxes filled with slightly damp construction sand and the vegetables are buried. Onions are collected in a mesh bag and hung. In a cold room, it is generally colder and more humid near the floor. So, tubers near the ground and bulbs in the air!
Carrots, parsnips and rutabagas can remain in the ground during the winter. Late in the fall, simply cover them with at least 15 cm of straw or dead leaves. Harvested early in spring, these vegetables are particularly tasty, sweeter than vegetables picked in the fall. Jerusalem artichoke is another interesting case. In fact, the only way to preserve this vegetable is to leave it in the ground until ready to eat. Even if the Jerusalem artichoke tuber takes the shape of a small potato, it does not keep long, regardless of the storage conditions.
Always Have an Eye on Your Vegetables
Except for storage in the ground, you must check the condition of the vegetables often and quickly remove any vegetable that shows signs of rot, so as not to contaminate the entire harvest. Damaged vegetables should be eaten quickly.
Take advantage of fall to stock up and have access to proud locally grown vegetables.