That frosty cold snap last week almost "caught me flat-footed," as my dad used to say. But it did make me realize that we need to talk about storing some of our garden produce for winter eating.
Perhaps you have seen root cellars in your travels, or maybe remember these storage places from your grandparents' homes — or even your own, if you grew up in a climate with much colder winters than we have in the Rogue Valley.
If not, let me explain that a root cellar is an underground storage space where vegetables keep well over the winter because the temperature is cool and even, and the humidity is high. In the days before freezers and refrigerators, they may have helped satisfy our "squirreling instinct" to keep food we've raised, to enjoy through the winter months.
While root cellars do save on time, energy costs, and supplies needed for canning and freezing, many of us simply do not have the space on our property to construct one. So, instead, we use refrigerators, garages, barns or other outbuildings, or even the soil where the vegetables grew, here in our milder winter climate. Today, we'll discuss storing root vegetables, winter squash, and tomatoes.
An important aspect of storing vegetables for winter use is selecting the right varieties to plant. Consult your seed catalogs to find which ones are best for storage. A rule of thumb is that late-maturing varieties keep the best.
A good example of this is onions — the late-maturing, thin-necked ones are the best for storing. Pull them when more than half of the tops have fallen over. Then let them cure in the garden for three to seven days, if there is no rain. Cut the tops off to 1 inch in length, let them cure for two to three more weeks, and then store in mesh bags or slatted boxes. Good air circulation is needed for them to keep well. If there is rain expected during this period, the curing process must be done under cover, as wet onions will rot.
In the Rogue Valley, root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, rutabagas and even beets can be left in the ground and pulled as needed. For long-term keeping, however, it would be wise to put a few inches of straw or other mulch on them. Or you can pull them, trim the leaves to about an inch and store them in damp sand or sawdust in your barn or unheated garage.
Potatoes are really not classified as a root vegetable, so they must be dug, or in our climate they will resprout or rot if left in the ground. After digging, cure them in a dark, dry place for about a week to toughen the skins. Potatoes like it cool and damp, but do not store them in the refrigerator, because temperatures near 35 degrees will change the starch to sugar, giving your potatoes a peculiar, sweet taste. Always keep potatoes in the dark to prevent sprouting, and turning green.
Pick winter squash and pumpkins when the rind is so hard you can't penetrate it with your thumbnail. Leave a piece of stem on, and keep where it is dry and cool. Many people, like me, keep them under the bed, or in an unheated room in the house.
Green tomatoes will keep and ripen best if they are of a mature size and have no cuts or blemishes. Put them in a single layer in a box, at 60 to 70 degrees. No need to wrap them individually, but do check frequently for any signs of rot. Or, hang the tomato plant by its roots in the garage, and pick the tomatoes as they ripen.
If you want to increase your ability to store food for winter use, I suggest you read "Root Cellaring," by Mike and Nancy Bubel. It even gives you directions on how to dig and construct a true root cellar and store an even greater variety of veggies!
Coming up: Circle the date of Saturday, Nov. 2 — that's when the all-day gardening symposium, "Winter Dreams, Summer Gardens," is scheduled. More information later; call 541-776-7371 to register.
Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at email@example.com.