I grew up with a root cellar and an attic, and my parents and grandparents heavily relied on them for storage. Gardening wasn’t just a means to provide fresh vegetables when they were in season. Instead, my family focused on crops that stored well throughout the winter and into spring. What started as a necessity became a habit and a family tradition.
The best crops to store over winter are root crops, leeks, and cabbage, as well as pome fruit which can last a long time in a cool, dark place. Freezing is the next best thing for summer veggies like peppers or eggplants. Dry things like herbs, chilies, cherry tomatoes for a delicious winter treat.
If you’re serious about gardening, then your goal might be to become as self-sufficient as possible in terms of vegetables and mostly eat food that’s in season. Even if we have access to all this bounty of food, it doesn’t mean eating a fresh tomato in the dead of winter or an exotic fruit is something that nature intended for us.
I feel good relying on my garden for fresh nutrients – bonus points for the kinds of roots, tubers, fruits, pumpkins, and leafy greens that can stay dormant for months to come without sacrificing vitamins and taste. Here’s a comprehensive guide to what a bountiful garden can provide for us to feed us through the winter:
1. Crops that keep well in the root cellar
I get it, few people have a root cellar anymore, and honestly, that’s a shame. If you have a garden or want to get serious about gardening, you’re probably starting to feel the need for one right now. Before you give up altogether, there are still plenty of alternatives for storing your precious harvest, as long as you keep them insulated and provide proper humidity levels.
If you don’t have a root cellar, think about storing your vegetables in:
- the basement, as long as it’s sanitary and dry;
- the garage or a shed that’s insulated and doesn’t go well below freezing;
- any unheated room in your house;
- a crawl space under your house, with plenty of insulation;
- an unheated attic that’s well insulated
Just like different vegetables require different care, you need to know how the particularities of every fruit and vegetable in your garden in order to store them well. Here is a comprehensive guide for those crops that thrive in the darkness and moisture of a root cellar:
Potatoes are a staple in our diets worldwide, and nothing can really compare with the taste of this homegrown tuber. Storing potatoes correctly starts at harvest time – leave the dirt on and lay them in single layers over a tarp to dry. Protect them from any dew or rain so that they don’t get wet. You will most likely harvest them in the heat of summer, so drying them shouldn’t take more than a day or two.
When moving potatoes to your root cellar or cool basement, it’s important to note that potatoes need complete darkness to keep well and not form any shoots. Otherwise, they’re forgiving in terms of temperature and store well anywhere between 50 and 75°F (10 to 24°C), depending on what season you’re in. What they hate, though, are extreme temperature variations, which can cause them to sprout.
Store in a single layer if you have the space, or place in stacked crates to improve air circulation. Relative humidity levels should be around 85 to 95%, and if you notice premature shriveling and wrinkling, your storage space is most likely too dry.
Depending on the variety and the quality of your root cellar, potatoes should last anywhere from 5 to 8 months, sometimes even more.
Beets, Carrots, Parsnip, and Celeriac
I’ve grouped these root crops together because they’re stored in a similar way, and they all can last for a very long time. Beets, carrots, and similar root vegetables need more humidity than potatoes, and airflow is not much of an issue, so you can store them in closed containers.
When growing beets, carrots, and even parsnips you should have a strategy in mind for winter storage. These are cool weather crops that love low temperatures and do well in spring as well as autumn and can be grown in half a season. If you want to enjoy beets and carrots over the winter, I suggest you grow them as fall crops. I’ve successfully stored beets and carrots harvested in July for more than 8 months, but having a fall harvest is a safer bet.
With celeriac, it’s a more straightforward process, as it takes a long time to grow, but its final size is well worth the wait. Horseradish is another similar one that few people grow, and it stores well in a dark place, covered in moist sawdust or sand.
After harvesting your root crops, don’t wash the dirt off. Remove the tops with a scissor, leaving only one inch of growth. Place the vegetables in tubs layered with sawdust or sand so that they don’t touch each other. Make sure that the sawdust or sand is moist, to begin with, and cover the bins with lids so that the humidity levels stay constant. Regularly check the bins for moisture and any spoilt vegetables.
I’ve had great success with storing root crops in sawdust. I’m guessing that not only is it a great absorbent, but it has antiseptic properties as well, which discourages any mold growth and keeps the vegetables crisp and crunchy for a long time.
Kohlrabi, Rutabaga and Turnip
This group of vegetables tastes like a mix of cabbage, radish, potatoes, and even apples. Top that with a nutty flavor, and you get a strange-looking (and tasting) crop that few people know how to store and even cook.
Harvest kohlrabi when it’s young because it gets woodier the larger it grows. Cut the leaves off and only keep fruits that aren’t bruised. Turnips are ready to harvest in about two months, while rutabagas (or swede if you’re British) take about 90 to 110 days to mature. Lift them carefully and discard the leaves in the same way.
The truth is, kohlrabi don’t store very well. They tend to dehydrate quickly, so make sure you consume them when they’re fresh and in season. But if you insist on storing them, they will keep for one to two months, if you provide them with high humidity levels, using the sawdust or wet sand method.
Turnips and rutabaga (swede) can last for several months using the same method, as they’re larger and hardier than kohlrabi plants.
Storing leeks is very easy to do, and they keep surprisingly well, even though their top leaves may wilt a little. It’s best to harvest leeks after a light frost so that they become even more tender and delicious. Lift the underground roots carefully, so as not to damage the plants, and snip their tops off with scissors. You can cut the dark green leaves as short as you like – I usually cut them halfway.
Prepare buckets or bins and fill them with garden soil or sand. In my experience, garden soil works best – in fact, they will anchor their roots in the soil you provided and enter a state of dormancy. Place the leeks close together in the bucket, roots down as if you were planting them. Store the bins in a root cellar or a cool, dark place. Darkness is important, and the cooler it is, the better. If your area doesn’t get deep freezes, you can even store them in the ground.
I realize that temperature is a difficult thing to control, so don’t worry too much about it. Instead, make sure you focus on darkness and perhaps keeping the soil inside the bins a little moist. You can store leeks in this way for about 4 months.
Winter Radishes: Daikon and Black Radish
Except for Asian cuisine, winter radishes aren’t exactly a staple in our diets. Daikon radishes are packed with vitamin C, beneficial enzymes, and cancer-fighting phytonutrients. Black radishes may put some people off with their pungent and spicy flavor, but they’re great for pregnant women and an excellent source of vitamin B9 and potassium.
Daikon radishes are one of the easiest fall crops to grow – sow them in midsummer to harvest in late fall. These low-maintenance vegetables can withstand light frosts, but don’t wait until the weather gets too cold to pull them out. Just like with any other root crops, chop the top leaves off and avoid washing the roots for storage. Store in sand and sawdust in a dark and cool environment for 2 to 3 months.
Black radishes are a turnip-like variety that has a long shelf life and can be consumed all year round, even though they’re mostly grown in late autumn or early spring. The key to storing black radishes is keeping them dry. Hang them in perforated or mesh bags and you can enjoy them for months to come.
Cabbage and Brussels Sprouts
Cabbage stores best in cool and damp conditions and people have been trying out various methods to keep it fresh for a long time. Storing cabbage begins at harvest: pick them when it’s cool and damp, and don’t leave them out in the sunlight for too long so that they don’t wilt. Cut the stems – don’t twist them, and leave the outer leaves on for protection.
Some people wrap cabbages in newspaper and place them so that they don’t touch each other. This way, if one cabbage goes bad, it doesn’t contaminate the others. Other gardeners prefer to hang their cabbages heads-down from the ceiling. As the cabbage gets older, they remove the outer leaves that begin to spoil.
Another way to make sure your cabbage lasts for a long time is by uprooting it, as it has shallow roots. Transfer the entire plant, roots and all, into a container filled with garden soil which will keep for a long time in a cool, dark place. You can do the same with Brussels Sprouts plants.
Brussels Sprouts may look different, but they need the same conditions as cabbages to store well. You can keep the Brussels Sprouts attached to the stalk or pick them individually and keep them in a perforated plastic or mesh bag.
Apples and Pears
People have been storing pome fruits like apples and pears since the dawn of times, and for good reason – not only do they keep for a long time, but they tend to taste much better as they age and ripen. Storing apples and pears starts with delicately handling them because any cuts or blemishes can lead to spoilage.
Some varieties are better suited for storing than others. Traditionally, the best apple varieties for storage are known to be Fuji, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Gala, but these storing principles remain the same for all apple varieties.
Winter pear varieties such as Anjou, Bosc or Comice store well, although they will need a few days for ripening after you get them out of storage.
Store your pome fruit harvest in the best conditions by individually wrapping each fruit in paper and placing it in a cardboard crate. Ideally, the fruits shouldn’t touch each other, as the “one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel” saying is true, but that’s not always realistic or possible.
Apples and pears release ethylene gas – a ripening hormone – that may cause some vegetables to spoil faster. For this reason, it’s best to keep apples in a separate area of your root cellar or basement.
Lastly, make sure you protect these delicate fruits from freezing. Anything below 32°F(0°C) and apples and pears will freeze beyond recovery, which will change their texture and lead to rapid spoilage. You can still use them in cooked pies and sauces, but they won’t be very good when eaten raw.
2. Crops to keep in a cool, dry part of the house
Wouldn’t it be great if we could have just one designated area to store all our harvest? Unfortunately, not all vegetables keep well in the same conditions. We usually need a second area of the house that’s dry and slightly warmer than what a root cellar has to offer. This room could be a pantry, a cool closet, or a well-insulated attic. As long as humidity is low, you can use it for storing these vegetables:
Onions and Garlic
When growing onions and for storage, we want them to swell to their maximum potential. Harvest time for onions is usually by midsummer, while garlic may take a little bit longer, depending on the variety.
We can tell onions are ready for picking when their stem bends at the neck and the leaves flop over. With garlic, browning foliage is usually a sign that the bulbs are mature and ready to harvest.
After pulling them out of the ground, both onions and garlic require an extended curing process until their skins become papery thin and their tops dry out completely. Cure the bulbs by laying them down in a single layer, without touching each other, on top of newspapers or a tarp.
While curing, alliums need to be kept in a dry place, where rain doesn’t get to them, for 2 to 3 weeks. Once they’re completely dry, you can choose to braid them or cut the stem short and place them in mesh bags.
Onions and garlic store for a long time – 6 months or more – in a cool, dry place, especially when hanged in a braid. They can withstand a wide range of temperatures, from room temperature to below freezing, although long and prolonged frosts will damage them.
My parents used to store huge amounts of onions and garlic layered in our attic, and they endured the winter with no issues at all. During the coldest months, my father covered them with a wool blanket for protection. I forgot my onions in an unheated, uninsulated attic for the entire month of December, and they didn’t show any sign of damage. Even more reason to love these versatile plants!
Pumpkins and Squash
All pumpkins and hard-skin winter squash can be store well into the winter if you provide the correct temperature and humidity levels. Pumpkins and squash keep best between 50 to 60°F (10 to 15°C), 60-70% relative humidity. Anything colder than 50°F, and the pumpkins will spoil quickly.
Most squashes need to undergo a process of curing, to heal their skins from cuts and scratches and harden off their exterior. Cure them for 10 days, at temperatures of 80 to 85°F (26 to 30°C) and relative humidity of 80 to 85%.
Avoid storing pumpkins and squash directly on concrete floors – it’s best to keep them elevated on shelves, where they receive more heat and better airflow. Try not to stack them on top of each other, and discard of any pumpkin that shows signs of spoilage.
Humidity may be too high in a root cellar for storing these crops – a cooler part of the house may be a better option. But, if that’s not always possible, they keep well at room temperature, not to mention they look quite festive.
When storing squash and pumpkins, keep in mind that some have a shorter shelf life than others. Plan to consume the ones that don’t last long first:
- Spaghetti Squash – 2 to 3 months
- Butternut Squash – 2 to 3 months
- Banana Squash – 3 to 6 months
- Delicata Squash – 3 to 6 months
- Table Queen Acorn Squash – 1 to 2 months
- Hubbard Squash – 3 to 6 months
- Sweet Meat Squash – 4 to 6 months
- Most pumpkins – 6 months or more
Drying herbs and chilies
Drying some of your harvest is not exactly zero-processing but it’s well worth it. If you have a dehydrator, the sky is the limit to the amount of vegetables and fruit you can dry, but most people don’t have that fancy equipment at home.
Drying herbs is at simple as it sounds. Collect your favorite herbs from the garden: thyme, basil, rosemary, mint – tie them up in little bouquets and hang them upside down from a hook. Your house will smell amazing and you’ll have access to your favorite herbs and flowers at all times.
Chilies are another great option for giving you some heat in the dead of winter. Harvest the ripest ones in autumn, get a needle and a thread, and string “necklaces” of chilies that you will hang to dry much like the herbs. Once the chili peppers are dried, blend them into a fine powder or chop them into fine chili flakes.
3. A different way to store veg: in-ground and undercover
If you live in a milder climate where temperatures don’t go well below freezing in the wintertime, you’re fortunate enough to have the option of keeping much of your winter veg in the ground and undercover. This cover can either be a cold frame or better yet a greenhouse or polytunnel.
The cover provides a few extra degrees of heat and protection from snow, which means you can extend your season well into the winter while also saving on storage space. Some of the vegetables we plant for autumn harvest are extremely hardy and they will have no problem keeping in the ground:
- Brussel Sprouts
While you can harvest winter greens all throughout the winter months, they enter a state of hibernation and don’t grow many leaves in cold weather. A good supply of winter greens starts with early autumn sowings so that the plants have enough time to grow until the frosty weather arrives:
- Collard Greens
- Corn Salad (Lamb’s Lettuce)
Harvest these crops as you need them, and they may last you for a couple of months. Check the weather regularly and apply extra layers of fleece or plastic covers whenever a hard frost is announced.
Whether your goals are to become self-sufficient or you have an unplanned overflow of vegetables, winter storage is a necessary step to ensure that your crops keep well for many months to come. Nothing beats the feeling you get when you go “shopping” in your own cellar and pantry for fresh fruit and veg, packed with nutrition and flavor.
If this is your first time storing vegetables, don’t be intimidated. There’s a learning curve to it, and you’ll most likely learn through trial and error. Hopefully, this article has equipped you with the skills you need to get started.