When you grow your own food, either in a polytunnel or elsewhere in your garden, it is important to prevent waste. To reduce the amount of food that is wasted in your home, learning how to store harvested vegetables is key. The better informed you are about how to store harvested vegetables, the longer you will safely be able to store them and the less waste there will be.
Storing harvested vegetables is also important if you want to make sure you enjoy a good, home-grown diet all year round. You can grow and harvest some vegetables over the coldest months of the year. But it is likely that you will have to rely on stores to get you through the whole year with a varied and healthy diet.
In autumn and early winter, it is likely that you will work hard to preserve a lot of the produce that you have grown over the summer and harvested towards the end of the season. You might have made some jams, jellies and chutneys, or dried fruits, vegetables and herbs for later use. But another big part of the equation is learning how to store fresh vegetables for use over the coming winter months.
How Can You Store Fresh Produce?
You can, of course, store fresh produce in your fridge for a certain length of time. But in order to keep your crops for longer, you will have to consider one of the following options. You can:
Store harvested vegetables in the ground.
Keep them in a suitable location in your home.
Create a root cellar for storage in your garden.
Freeze your vegetables to preserve them.
Use ‘canning’ techniques to preserve fresh produce for longer.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these options:
Keeping Vegetables in Your Growing Areas
Before you harvest some of the last crops of the year, you might want to consider one thing. Certain vegetables will store better if you do not harvest them all at once. Some, like leeks, brassicas and root vegetables, for example, can be left in the growing areas (with a little protection) and harvested as and when you need them.
As we discussed in a previous article, some vegetables actually taste better after they have been exposed to a few frosts. What is more, the ground temperatures can provide an ideal environment in which to store vegetables.
Traditional gardeners often dug pits in their gardens in which to store produce such as potatoes too. These pits are sometimes referred to as ‘potato graves’. Potatoes harvested from other parts of the garden were placed in these cool, damp pits and dug up later in winter.
The main problem, however, with keeping vegetables in the ground is winter pests. Choosing to store harvested vegetables in the ground in your garden leaves them vulnerable. They can easily be accessed and eaten by pests like rodents and slugs. Pests can be more of a problem for vegetable gardeners during the winter, when less wild food is available for them to eat.
Store Harvested Vegetables in Your Home
Some fresh, harvested vegetables can be stored in your home over winter. For example, root crops can be stored in boxes of damp sand. Pumpkins and squash can be stored on shelves in a cool, dark location, often for a number of months. Crops like onion and garlic can be braided and hung somewhere with plenty of ventilation, out of direct light and in a location with fairly low and steady temperatures.
How long it will be possible for you to store vegetables in your home will depend on the vegetables in question. Some fruits and vegetables will last much longer than others. Provide the right storage conditions for the types you have grown. It is also important to use up any damaged or sub-par vegetables first, as these will not last as long in store.
The ideal place to store harvested vegetables in your home is in an unheated space. They can go in a pantry or larder if you are lucky enough to have one. You can consider putting them in a garage, or spare room, if you are not. If such a space is not available, consider creating your own small, well-insulated cupboard for vegetable storage. The insulation will allow you to create more suitable conditions, even in a kitchen where the temperatures will fluctuate more broadly than is ideal.
Store Harvested Vegetables in a Root Cellar
Of course, some people are lucky enough to have a space below their home that can be used as a root cellar. But for those of us who do not have such utility, it can still be possible to create a root cellar in the garden. Some home growers have managed to make root cellars in the ground in their outside space in which to store harvested vegetables securely.
Traditionally, the best way to keep vegetables was to keep them cool in an underground storage area. The ground around a traditional root cellar will tend to keep produce frost free in winter, yet cool during the summer months. The humidity levels of a root cellar can also be kept to suitable levels to allow for the safe storage of a number of harvests.
An underground root cellar can be simple or complex. It can be, at its simplest, a box inserted into the ground. At its most sophisticated, it can be a fully walk-in underground ‘room’. There are plenty of different options that you could consider when thinking about creating an underground root cellar. Which you look at will depend on your budget and needs, and how much space might be available.
Freezing Harvested Vegetables
You may have an ideal space to store harvested vegetables in your home or garden. However, there will still be certain vegetables that will not store well over winter. Today, fortunately, most of us have access to freezers. Freezing your home-grown produce is a great way to lock in nutrients and keep food fresh over the winter months.
Green, leafy vegetables should be blanched (placed, briefly, in boiling water) before being frozen. You can wash and chop your vegetables before freezing, and freeze the pieces on trays before putting them into containers. This will make it easier to separate and use the pieces when you want to cook with them. You can also consider cooking up meals with your produce and freezing these to use over the coming months.
If you want to be as green as possible, make sure you are using an efficient freezer. Not only will it use less energy to keep food cold, it will also save you money on household bills. Those who want to be eco-friendly should also think about what they use as containers. Rather than opting for plastic freezer bags and freezer containers, consider opting for glass, metal or silicone options instead.
Canning Harvested Vegetables
Cool storage and freezing can both be useful ways to store harvested vegetables. But there will inevitably be times when there is not space to preserve your produce. There will also be times when you wish to store it for longer. Canning can be the solution.
‘Canning’ is the name given to preserving food in glass jars or bottles. Canning is better known in the US and Canada than it is in the UK. But the techniques of hot water canning and pressure canning can help you to store harvested vegetables safely over the winter months.
Pressure canning can be used to preserve a wide range of polytunnel produce. You can also use it to preserve products made from the things you have grown. You can preserve jars of low-acid vegetables, soups, stews, pastas sauces and more, without needing to add salt, sugar, or vinegars.
The amount of pressure and temperatures required for different foods are different. So it is important to get a good reference book on pressure preserving. You must use this carefully in order to make sure that you are safely preserving your polytunnel produce. However, when you get it right, the techniques used will allow you to store produce almost indefinitely as long as the seals on your jars are not breached.
How do you store harvested vegetables over the winter? Share your stories, tips and suggestions in the comments below. Help others eat their own home-grown food all year round. Do your part to aid others in their transition to a zero waste lifestyle.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.