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Winter stores

December 4, 2010

Growing and storing food means managing the stockpile too.  I have to be my own produce manager.  For the most part, in my climate I can store hardy root vegetables  (my outside staples) in the ground were they grew without too much fussy, just hilling with soil to protect from freezing, usually.  I don’t have a root cellar except my gardens.  My inside staple crops like potatoes, winter squash, onions and garlic need different handling and storage.

Sweet Meat winter squash.

I grow Sweet Meat squash for many reasons.  A dear friend gave me the original seed so they have provenance.  I have reselected for a strain that is better acclimated for my mountain soils and temps, so now this squash carries even more weight.  It stores until June, allowing me to process and eat squash when I want, not a in a flurry of hurried activity in the busy fall time, and I like pumpkin pie.

After a careful harvest and cure period, these babies are stored upstairs in our farmhouse.  Cool and dry is what they like, and our unheated upper floor is perfect.  Now my job is to eat them and check periodically for any signs of spoilage.  These squash have a tough skin, and very thick flesh, even with a soft spot it can be cut away and the rest of the squash salvaged.

The fruitroom in the basement where our canned goods are stored has ideal storage conditions too for onions and garlic.

A barometer makes it easy to keep track of the temperature and humidity.

And lo and behold, used onion bags are a good way to store onions. 😉  They hang from ceiling hooks for good air circulation.

The closest thing we have to a root cellar is a poor boy root cellar for potatoes  in a tie stall in the barn.  My door handle is  the orange twine on the front bale.

Remove the door bale to reveal potatoes under even more insulation.

Potatoes require  darkness, high humidity and cool temperatures but need to be protected from freezing.  In our maritime climate, my barn fits the bill with the straw bales for insulation and keeping the potatoes in the dark.  Growing and harvesting are only part of the deal when planning for a years supply of produce.  With the right storage conditions you can easily store enough potatoes to last until next spring.

I have tried a variety of containers for storing potatoes, and have settled on these 20# recycled fruit boxes.  They hold about 25 – 30 pounds of potatoes, the potatoes can breath, they are light enough to be moved and checked periodically and they stack easily protecting the potatoes on the bottom from the weight of those above.  I keep one box in the basement for daily use, since I can use it before the warmer temperature and lower humidity get to the spuds.

It’s fun to grow exotics and try different vegetables, but staples that I can store easily and eat every day, rightfully demand more of my time as a gardener and the keeper of the pantry.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2010 1:23 am

    Stunning – you are very organised, and prepared for the months ahead. Makes all the difference. Your basement is what I aspire too 🙂

    • December 4, 2010 7:08 am

      Dani, it only appears that I am organized, in some areas of my life I am not 😉 I agree on the basement. A wonderful space in a house, it’s sad so many new houses these days are built without basements.

  2. Eliza J permalink
    December 4, 2010 4:18 am

    Thank you for all of those wonderful ideas, you certainly answered a lot of questions that I have had. Great blog and definitely a keeper!

  3. December 4, 2010 5:15 am

    Thank you for sharing your clever storage methods! I’ve been experimenting with root cellaring and food storage for a few years now, with mostly unfavorable results. Hopefully by this time next year I’ll be able to put your ideas into action for myself! 🙂

    • December 4, 2010 7:15 am

      Michelle, root cellaring depends on so many things, and depending on the winter weather conditions in each area, results can vary a lot. I am fortunate to live in an area that doesn’t have severe bouts of freezing weather. We just have mostly cold rain for the winter months.

      It takes experimentation – I have ruined lots of food trying different methods. My “favorite” bonehead idea was to switch from burlap sacks for spud storage to plastic feed sacks. The white sacks provided enough light to green up my potatoes even though they were in the dark buried in the straw stack! I never would have thought that would make that much difference. I like the smaller boxes though, with potatoes sorted in each, and easy to move – perfect!

  4. Lucy permalink
    December 4, 2010 5:18 am

    What are the acceptable temp and humidity for storing the potatoes?

    In my barn they would be frozen solid already.

    • December 4, 2010 7:18 am

      Lucy, just above freezing to 40F and humidity of around 90% – 98%. Our coldest temperatures here don’t normally go any lower than 10F or so. And humidity is usually around 100% in the winter – at least where I live. So the straw bale trick inside an unheated building works well for me.

  5. December 4, 2010 5:38 am

    I have been reading a book called the “The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-reliance in Uncertain Times” by Carol Deppe and she sings your sweet meat variety the highest of praises. I hope to try growing this variety myself next season, perhaps it will grow and store as well for us too.

    What an excellent way to keep potatoes.

    • December 4, 2010 7:33 am

      Mike, yea, I bet she does. Anyone from near Portland that has grown much food knows about the Sweet Meat. I have been growing mine since right after high school (is that nerdy or what) and I have to say it is a huge staple in our personal food supply. If you grow them, give them lots of space and wait to direct seed if possible – they do not like transplanting! They will do OK transplanted, but it does set them back. And give them lots of space – 4′ x 8′ spacing between hills and rows respectively works the best.

      I have heard mixed reviews about that book (from seasoned gardeners). A good friend bought one and was disappointed in the heavy corn aspect, and the general microwave and cooking methods with lots of electricity. She thought it would be more about self-reliant living in place, not recipes and high fertility needs grain crops on rented or leased land, she seemed to think those things made it less “resilient.”

      But everyone has an opinion, I liked her Breeding Your Own Vegetable variety book, so I have no doubts it is written well. Hopefully the library will get it soon, so I can take a peek! You can always glean an idea or two even from books that don’t seem that interesting at first. 🙂

  6. treatlisa permalink
    December 4, 2010 6:43 am

    Really love to see your setup! I am quite a ways behind you – but headed the same direction which is why I find your blog so fascinating. Thanks for shining the light on the trail ahead. Keep it up!!

    • December 4, 2010 7:34 am

      treatlisa, thanks! It’s two steps forward, and one back it seems. Now I need to get back up to speed on my milk supply!!

  7. December 4, 2010 7:31 am

    My Aunt gave me some of the same kind of squash. Now, thanks to you, I know what to do with it.

    • December 4, 2010 7:38 am

      Konnie, they are so good! And lend themselves to many methods of preparation. I hope to make a pie today and post about it – and actually eat this one before the dog gets to it!

  8. December 4, 2010 9:10 am

    I wonder if I could grow those squash in Alaska?
    Its at least worth checking out.
    I need something like that, that will store well and eat well for us and the animals.

    • December 4, 2010 9:44 am

      Paula, maybe…they need about 95 – 100 days to mature. And over time if you save seed from the squash that do ripen you can acclimate the variety to your specific conditions. They are good, we’re eating through the not quite mature ones now (which are the greener ones in the photo as opposed to gray.) which may require a little more sweetener for desserts, but are pretty good. They will increase in sweetness as the continue to cure in storage. It definitely worth checking out!

  9. December 4, 2010 1:55 pm

    I liked the Resilient Gardener, because there was a lot in it for me to learn. However, I agree her leased land idea wasn’t useful. Most folks want to be able to get enough out of their own yards. But I think a lot of why she leases is so she has enough for her experiments and all that. I’m going to try Sweet Meats next summer as well. I also thought her idea of using early varieties a good one, and she had some interesting info on dried beans that can be harvested during the rainy season that will be alright. Not everything she wrote was useful, but a lot of it was.

    I have one of those newer houses (1976) that doesn’t have a basement, and cold storage is a bit of a puzzle for me. Don’t have a hill, either. The straw bales in the unheated building is a good idea, but last winter got warm. I’m still not sure what to do for spuds. Maybe figure out making a hill out of a slightly higher portion of the yard and digging into that. I have Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel, so I’ll look there again for more ideas. Good to know about the white plastic.

    Do you find that onions in the bags keep better than braiding them, or do you do it because it’s a whole lot easier?

    • December 4, 2010 3:28 pm

      Paula, I think I will like Carol’s new book since I liked her last one. I can always learn something new. Another thing my friend brought up about the book was the rainfall quotes for the mid to lower Willamette Valley, she thought they should be lower or at least not higher that Portland, since it is much drier in Corvallis than Portland. But I think she was disillusioned by the title, and thinking it would be an end-all book for gardening in the PNW. So I’m taking that “review” with a grain of salt, and will read it despite what she said. For me it has been a continual process of trial and error to see what works in good years and bad and going from there. And always growing enough variety to have at least something to rely on for the long dark days of winter and into spring when things get really lean.

      If you made your straw bale storage area in the north side of your building where it never receives the sun that may make the difference. The straw holds in the coolness too. And one thing to remember with many storage vegetables is to resist the urge to plant to early so you aren’t harvesting too early for storage. I plant an early spud variety and a late variety and never on the “traditional” St Patrick’s Day date. If you store when it is cool the vegetables usually will stay cool.

      As for onions, it is too much work (for me) to braid and takes up too much space for storage. I do braid some of my soft neck garlic if I am using it for gifts, but besides that – off with their heads. 😉

      Thanks for the objective review of RG, if it is controversial in gardening circles it must be worth a look 🙂

  10. December 4, 2010 5:01 pm

    Do you have any trouble with mice or rats getting into your straw root cellar and eating the potatoes? I know you have barn cats. are they able to keep the vermin under control enough to prevent that?
    I will have to try those sweet meats next year, they sound good:)

    • December 4, 2010 7:35 pm

      Karen, not usually, but this year a pack rat moved in and he tipped me off by nibbling some potatoes that hadn’t been put in storage yet. He was easy to trap though. The mice don’t seem to bother with the potatoes – and I see them occasionally so I know the cats haven’t got them all. If you can get the Sweet Meat to ripen, it can’t be beat, but I know I’m a little biased 🙂

  11. December 5, 2010 1:20 pm

    This is really a smart way of keeping everything, I have my potatoes under the shed, and we eat them long before they go bad, I hang my onions, until the dry then bring them in put them in a basket, then all my can stuff is stored in the back room, we could not make it without our fruit and veggies, Thanks so much, I really enjoy your blogs. Kay

  12. December 5, 2010 4:57 pm

    Always love to hear about cellaring veg!! This is my first year with a functional root cellar, and it’s extremely rewarding already, only a few weeks in. We’ve already had -30C, so I’m envious of your ability to store vegetables in the soil. I’d have vegcicles.

    • December 5, 2010 7:10 pm

      Kevin, it’s pretty rough living in the banana belt! We even have to resort to beef for jerky no moose here 😉

      I’ll just admire your temps from here!!

  13. Clare permalink
    December 6, 2010 5:42 pm

    Hello, just thought I would add my 2 cents worth on the Resilient Gardener book by Carol Deppe. I have my copy from the library now,and I am thoroughly enjoying it, learning many things, and thinking of you and your setup came to mind several times while reading! There are parts that I am more interested in than others, but reading is always educational. I think she leases because of the scale with which she and her farm partner experiment and grow, plus she mentions several times in the text that this is not ideal and they wish to purchase land at some point.

    I find your blog, and her book both quite helpful, even though I will not be growing on the same scale. Thank you for your thoughtful and educational posts with excellent pictures!

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