Extending the Harvest
by Rose Mirabai Lord
This is the time of year when many of us find ourselves with too many tomatoes or peppers or onions to know what to do with. We have worked hard to grow this wonderful produce and the last thing we want is to see it go to waste. Of course there is always the option of putting the excess on the compost heap and allowing it to contribute to next year’s harvest but wouldn’t it be nice if we could salvage at least some of it for our nutritional needs and culinary pleasure during the long winter months? Here are some suggestions for making that possible.
For storage purposes, choose your most perfect specimens, un-bruised or damaged fruits and vegetables. Pick them on a day when the weather is cool and dry so the produce is not wet or heat stressed. Brush off loose dirt but do not wash.
As far as the bulbs (onions, garlic, shallots) are concerned, the first thing you should do is to cure them. That involves 1.) spreading them in a dry, shady spot, 2.) cutting off the tops and roots – near the base of the bulb and 3.) letting them dry until the tops are quite dry and the outer skin is papery thin. If the weather is rainy, step one should be done on screens indoors. Once these bulbs are sufficiently dried they can be hung in mesh bags from the ceiling of your basement, garage or a spare room. However, be forewarned that the “fragrance” of the bulb, especially garlic, will permeate the area in which they are stored, at least for a while. Humidity in the bulb storage area should not be higher than 70%.
Types of Storage
Many vegetables can be stored indoors in wooden crates or boxes but this should be done in a cool, dark area such as a basement or un-heated spare room. Some vegetables, especially the root vegetables will require high humidity, in the 80 – 95% range. The vegetables should be set in such a way in their storage boxes so they do not touch each other. Such root vegetables as carrots, brussel sprouts, Chinese cabbage and leeks should be dug up with their roots intact and stored in boxes of moist (not wet) builders sand, exactly as they were growing in the ground and, again, not touching each other. They should be sprinkled occasionally with water. The roots will not grow but will draw moisture from the sand. Carrots will keep all winter.
Window Well – Line the bottom of a window well with dry twigs, leaves and some straw or hay. Alternate layers of straw or hay with the vegetables, making sure that the veggies do not touch each other. Put a board over the top and cover the entire thing with a tarp or heavy plastic held down with bricks or stones.
Pit – Dig a pit or a trench, 2-3 feet deep. Cover the bottom with layers of stones and cover the stones with dry leaves or straw. Put vegetables in a barrel or metal garbage can, alternating layers of straw, dry leaves or wood chips with the vegetables. Put the containers in the pit and pack straw or hay around them with a 6 inch layer on top. Cover the pit with a board and anchor the board with bricks or stones.
Cold Frame – Cold frames can be used for storage as well as for growing vegetables in the cold winter months. Layer the vegetables with packing material (same as for window well or pit) ending with a 6 inch layer of packing material. Cover the lid of the cold frame with a tarp to keep out light and anchor the tarp.
If you are going to process some of your fall harvest by freezing or canning, process them as soon after they are picked as possible and store them in usable quantities.
Most fruits and vegetables, with the exception of leafy greens, can be frozen and, if properly prepared, will keep well from one harvest to the next. They should be prepared for freezing as soon after picking as possible; immediately is best. All produce should be thoroughly washed in cold water and drained before preparing for freezing but should not be left soaking. Wash small amounts at a time with frequent changes of water. Cores, pits, seeds, skins or shells should be removed. Vegetables are generally scalded or parboiled and then plunged into ice water. Many fruits can just be peeled, if necessary, and sliced before “dry-freezing” but many people like to sprinkle the fruit with a little bit of sugar to bring out some of the juice and create a syrup. A natural sugar such as Sucanat is recommended. All frozen produce should be stored in good quality freezer bags or heavy-duty plastic wrap and packages should be sealed so that they are air and moisture-proof. It’s also important to label and date each item. You may want to make a puree of certain items such as spinach, pumpkin, squash, cranberries and strawberries before freezing. The purees can be used in recipes, as sauces or simply served by themselves.
A Word About Canning
My German born grandparents lived on a dairy farm in Albany, Minnesota. When I was a child my grandmother would send us a box of goodies for Christmas which included canned fruit spreads from her own garden. They were wonderful! Canning is time-consuming, tricky and, if not done properly can be dangerous. Very few people in our society have the time to learn about this process or to do it properly. For those reasons we will not discuss it in this article. However, if you do have the time and want to learn this time-honored means of extending the harvest, there are still books on the market that will tell you how to do it. Or, better yet, find a grandmother who can teach you.
Recommended Reading: Too Many Tomatoes, Squash, Beans and Other Good Things by Lois M. Landau and Laura G. Myers.