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Plan winter food storage in the spring

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The trend of many green advocates is to live off the grid when possible. One major way is through growing one’s own food, especially vegetables. Gardeners can control their varieties for climate and personal preference. Part of responsible gardening is learning how to save seeds and vegetables for winter and to start new plants the next spring. Here are some tips from Off the Grid News. More references are at the article’s end, too.

There are several effective and easy ways to store roots and vegetables using only the extra space you already have around the home. Root cellars are great but not everyone has the space or ability to make one. The idea is to extend the life of fresh produce to have in the non-growing season.

You can store your root vegetables directly in the ground in some climates by mulching heavily and protecting from moisture in order to keep the soil from freezing. The same garden bed that these vegetables grew in now serves as storage, eliminating the need for space or construction.

Another option is to bury a sturdy container, such as an old cooler or plastic barrel, directly into the ground. When surrounded inside with insulation such as straw or sawdust, vegetables store very well in these mini root cellars. Then it’s just a matter up picking them out whenever you need to cook with them.

There are numerous other underground storage structures and techniques to choose from. Some are even effective for climates with very short or mild winters. This handout on vegetable storage from Colorado State University illustrates a few of these below-ground storage methods.

A shed or back corner of a cold garage or basement may also do as a root cellar. The idea is to keep the vegetables cold and ventilated, but never completely frozen. In addition, root cellars and similar structures can be effective places to store live potted plants that would otherwise find your climate’s winters too harsh.

Tubers (potatoes, carrots, turnips, and beets), bulbs (Onions, garlic, and scallions), beans and squash are the easiest to store. They do well in in very cool but not frosty conditions and can last 6 months. Some like dry, some like damp, so research before you store.

The seeds of your favorite heirloom vegetables can be saved and stored for planting next spring. For best results, store the seeds in a cold and dry environment, either in sealed or paper bags. When properly stored, some seeds can remain viable for four or five years.

Healthy crops with no sign of damage are suitable for winter storage. For vegetables that have suffered light frost damage, or were picked too early, it’s best to cook or eat them right away, or else prepare them for freezing and canning. When harvesting seeds and vegetables, it’s important to wait for a dry day, even if the vegetables need to be stored in a moist area. Otherwise, problems like rot and mold can make themselves known later on.

Check on your stored vegetables periodically throughout the winter, and promptly remove any soft or rotting food—otherwise you risk letting the rot spread to everything else. Another important note is to keep stored vegetables away from ripening fruit like apples and pears, which release ethylene gases that shorten the shelf-life of nearby crops.

All stored vegetables should be kept above freezing, and some even need protection from temperatures below 50°F. If your storage area does experience a light frost, however, never fear. Root veggies like carrots will become sweeter, and most healthy vegetables can experience a light frost with minimal damage. Even damaged vegetables, or those that experience a hard freeze, will still be usable for a few days after defrosting.

For more information on the storage requirements of vegetables, take a look at this handout from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which describes storage methods in more detail.

Additional references:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/2005-12-01/Store-Root-Vegetables-This-Winter.aspx

http://nchfp.uga.edu

http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07601.html

http://www.garden.org/foodguide/browse/veggie/roots_harvesting/623

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