How to Store Vegetables in a Typical Suburban Home

by Richard C. Harrison

In our great-grandparent's day almost every non-city dweller grew their own vegetables and had a root cellar in which to store them. The root cellar was dug below ground in an unheated area and was cooled by the surrounding soil, a constant temperature equal to the average year round temperature in the region. The Boston area averages fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit. A root cellar surrounded by earth was also quite humid, probably forty to sixty percent. Apples don't store well with potatoes so most root cellars had two chambers, permitting separation. Also onions and squash need a cool, dry storage setting so were usually stored in an unheated attic. So what can a suburban homeowner do with no root cellar?

First, identify the areas in your house that do not freeze and may be suitable for storing vegetables. The following table might be helpful.

Description of Area

Temperature

Humidity

What to Store

Refrigerator

40 degrees

30-40%

Carrots, celeriac, beets, apples, pears, kale, bok choi, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnip, rutabaga,

Unheated entrance or attic or spare room

40 degrees to 50 degrees

10% - 30%

Butternut squash, delicata squash, onions, garlic

Cellar, cool damp corner

33 degrees to 50 degrees

30% - 50%

Potatoes

 In the house 65 to 75 degrees  40%-60% Sweet Potatoes (keep above 55 degrees)

Second, prepare the vegetables for storing. Each vegetable will be discussed below under its storage area. Before discussing each vegetable observe the following rules of thumb when storing vegetables.

  • Never wash a vegetable that you re preparing for storage. Washing shortens storage life, sometimes by months.
  • When storing in a plastic bag in the refrigerator make sure that you remove as much air from the bag as possible before storing

1. Refrigerator

  • Carrots
    Cut the carrot tops off just above the carrot being careful not to bruise the vegetable. Store in a plastic bag in the back of the refrigerator. Carrots will keep for months this way. After being stored a long time there may be a white root substance on the carrot. Not to worry. Just peal it off. As long as the carrots are bright orange underneath they will taste wonderful. Organic carrots actually gain sweetness when stored.
  • Celeriac
    Tops will probably be off. Store like carrots. If any part is a bit rotty when you take it out merely cut it off. Chances are the rest is just fine.
  • Beets
    Cut the tops off just like carrots. If the tops are in good shape wash them and cook them just like Swiss chard. Stir fry. Yum. But remember, don't wash the beets. Same as carrots when you take them out. The tops where you cut off the greens might be a little rotty. Not to worry. When you peel them the insides will be great. Inside that plastic bag beets in the back of the fridge will keep for months.
  • Apples and pears
    Best to keep these in the crisper in your fridge. You have probably already been doing this. They also will keep for several months.
  • Kale and bok choi
    These are not long keepers. Best to eat them within two or three weeks of the delivery.
  • Brussels sprouts
    We usually cut the little sprouts off the stem and store them in a plastic bag in the back of the fridge like the carrots. They will keep for at least a couple of months.
  • Cabbage
    Again, store cabbage in a plastic bag. When you take it out some of the outside leaves may look mildewed but not to worry. Simply strip off the outside leaves and the inside is as good as new. Cabbage will keep this way in the back of the fridge often for three months.
  • Turnip (summer variety, that is a light root crop)
    Store these like carrots. They will usually keep for up to six weeks.
  • Rutabaga
    Store rutabaga like carrots.

2. Unheated Entrance, Attic Space or Unheated Spare Room

Make sure that this area doesn't freeze. For example a bulkhead might freeze.
The rule of thumb that I use for vegetables stored in this category are as follows:

  • Store items one level deep on trays, preferably open at the bottom for air circulation. I often use the black trays that you get at garden centers when you buy plants. Great recycled item.
  • With squash don't let the items touch each other
  • Make sure that some ventilation is feasible. For example store trays on a rack with some circulation
  • Keep the area dark. This is particularly important for garlic and onions that will begin to sprout if exposed to light
  • Inspect all items when taking something from storage. If there are signs of spoilage, noted below, use the item as soon as possible
  • Always store the best specimens the longest. Use broken stem squash first. 
  • Butternut squash
    Has the longest storage life of any squash. It will sometimes last the whole winter if the storage location is cold and dry enough. If you see any spots developing use as soon as possible. Spots develop into rotty areas and eventually the whole core will rot, and the squash will be unusable. If you need to fix too much squash because it is spoiling simply cut up a whole bunch, steam it, and freeze the pieces for consumption later in the winter.
  • Delicata squash
    Delicata does not store well. Use this squash within six weeks of the delivery. If delicata is starting to go it will probably be too late to salvage anything. It is too small a squash to recover rot.
  • Onions
    The length of time that onions will store is highly dependent on the variety. Onions that feel hard to the touch and have a solid skin such as Prince or Copra and are advertised as storage onions may last almost the entire winter. I have grown and stored Copra onions harvested in August that lasted to the following June. Ask whether the onions are a storage variety. If not plan to use them within two to three months. When onions start to sprout they gradually become unusable. If you see an onion sprouting use it as soon as possible. If onions become soft they are rotten and should be removed from storage.
  • Garlic
    Garlic will often store for the entire winter. Larger bulbs don't last as long as smaller bulbs so use the large bulbs first. If you see garlic sprouting use that bulb as soon as possible. I have best success storing hard neck garlic but not soft neck garlic, although the books often describe the opposite phenomenon.

3. Cellar in a cool damp corner

The rules of thumb for the cellar storage are:

  • Store items one level deep on trays as above.
  • Some ventilation is helpful.
  • Keep the area dark. This is particularly important for potatoes that will begin to sprout if exposed to light
  • Inspect all items when taking something from storage. If there are signs of spoilage, noted below, use the item as soon as possible
  • Always store the best specimens the longest. 
  • Potatoes
    Potatoes will usually store 2-3 months. Potatoes specifically noted as a storage variety will often do better. If possible store on flat trays. The benefit is the avoidance of the "bad apple" syndrome, and one can inspect all the potatoes as you use them up permitting you to take ones that are beginning to sprout. A soft potato usually means that it is rotten, but cut it up to make sure.

4. Inside the house at room temperature

  • Sweet potatoes
    Do not treat sweet potatoes in the same manner as regular potatoes. They will keep up to 7 months if stored inside the house in a dark box at 70 degrees.

Remember, supervise everything you store. Pretend that you are “shopping” in your storage areas. We usually inspect everything weekly. Check for “rotters” or produce getting spots of rot. Get them out and use them if you can. Consider checking every other week as the absolute minimum.

I will be glad to answer storage questions via email (pic@marbleharbor.com) or via phone 781-631-1667, cell 978-808-2470.

Richard “Pic” Harrison, Co-founder of FDC