There is much to know when it comes to keeping fruits and veggies as house guests, especially if you don't want them to ooze into an ugly science project in your crisper. With the harvest season upon us, gardeners know that there is nothing like crunching on a tender carrot or a tree-ripened apple in the middle of winter. We also know that harvesting our produce is the easiest part of gardening. Now the challenge is keeping those picked edibles fresh for later use.
Because overripe and rotten fruits and veggies aren't too appealing, we go through all sorts of trouble trying to slow down their aging processes. In the olden days people used to have walk-in root cellars to store produce. Few gardeners today have a root cellar or even the space for one. Instead, refrigerators, freezers, basements and garages are used to store the garden's bounty. But for those of us without a basement or an empty fridge (yours might already be overflowing with dolphin-sized zucchinis), there is another way.
Making outdoor veggie storage units is as simple as finding a junked refrigerator or plastic garbage can. Just sink the garbage can or fridge (laying on its back) into the ground. That will take a little digging. The edge of the can should be two or three inches above ground level so water can't leak inside, ditto for the fridge. Lining the garbage can with dry straw or clean sand will help insulate the veggies you stack in there. Pack more of the same insulating material between the layers of produce as you fill it.
When the tight fitting lid is in place, cover it with a deep layer of straw (12 to 18 inches) and a tarp to keep moisture out. Anchor the tarp with stones, and there you have it!
If you are using a dead refrigerator or freezer for your "cellar," remove the motor and compressor before burying it. Either unit will insulate your produce without needing straw or sand. Sheets of newspaper or cardboard laid on top of the produce before the door is shut will soak up condensation droplets that collect on the lid inside. Remove the lock to prevent any safety hazards for kids.
Easier still is the trench "cellar." Just dig a trench 2 to 3 feet deep and however wide you desire. Line the trench with dry straw or sawdust. Place your fresh edibles like cole (cabbage family) and root crops into this soft bed and cover them with a second thick layer of dry straw or sawdust to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. Put a tarp over the trench to keep the insulating materials dry. In place of the tarp, or even on top of it, add a 6 to 8 inch layer of soil for more insulation.
If digging trenches and holes isn't your thing, try leaving your carrots and other root crops (except potatoes) right there in the ground where they grew. Simply insulate the row or bed with an 18-inch deep layer of straw, leaves or hay. Mark the area well at all four corners so you can find it in the snow, and extend the mulch out past the bed or row by a foot on either side. With this method, you will be able to dig carrots and other root crops well into the winter.
Whether you opt to store your produce outside or indoors, the first secret to successful storage is to cull out any fruits or veggies that show signs of decay or serious injury. By taking this step, you can help prevent decay from quickly spreading throughout your secret cache. Produce can be individually wrapped in newspaper or tissue paper to further hinder shriveling decay. If you notice any dirt on the produce prior to storage, just brush it off; produce that is washed before storing tends to rot more quickly.
You can't expect every vegetable or fruit that you put away to keep forever--unless you decide to freeze, can or dry them. However, checking stored produce periodically and monitoring temperatures will certainly help keep your losses to a minimum. Some produce, like potatoes, squash and onions, cannot be stored at very cold temperatures. To learn the correct temperatures and procedures for storing produce, stop by your local University of Idaho Extension office and speak with a Master Food Advisor. They will even advise you about freezing, canning and drying methods. And let's face it, a homemade canned peach in January is quite a tasty morsel.
Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.