PHOTO: Gardener's Supply Co.
Years ago, before I started urban homesteading, I saw a few adorable, pocket-sized pears for sale at the grocery store. They were packaged up in a plastic, snap-together box, six baby pears in a clamshell. I bought a box and brought them home, excited to try this fun, petite pear.
They were the most grainy, insipid, pointless pears I’d ever eaten. I choked down the first bite and did not go back for a second. I live in Washington, the largest pear-producing state in the U.S., and I’d never experienced pears like that before. Turning over the plastic box, I saw it: “Product of Argentina.”
Before a global food distribution system made it possible to ship rock-hard peaches and unripe plums from South America to South Dakota in January, people stocked their pantries and root cellars with enough locally grown storage crops to see them through the harshest of winters.
Imagine your own private larder stocked with storage fruits and vegetables — apples, pears, squashes, brassicas and roots. Imagine knowing where and how your cold-weather crops were grown and stored between farm and table.
There are many reasons to revive the root cellar. I grow and store my own produce to save money, increase my food security and decrease food miles, and because the flavors of locally grown, fresh-picked crops are just superior to out-of-season imports.
My neighbor doesn’t garden much, but every year she buys several hundred pounds of winter squash from a local farm. She gets a great price and knows that when the weather gets chilly and she wants to make butternut squash soup, she can. She learned the hard way one year that many grocers simply stop selling winter squash after Thanksgiving.
It seems silly to buy flavorless fruits and vegetables that have more frequent flier miles than you do, when with only a little work, you can build a living larder of storage crops at home.
Certain fruits and vegetables are better adapted to root cellar storage than others. Typically, produce with a tough skin and dense flesh store best. Produce intended for root cellar storage should mature as late in fall as weather allows without risking damage to the crop, so as to maximize longevity in storage.
Many root vegetables are ideal for cellar storage — roots or tubers are themselves energy storage for the plant. Some well-cured winter squash can last nearly a year in storage. Certain varieties of alliums have been bred to have incredible storage longevity, and with proper care, the right varieties of cabbage-family crops will last months in good condition.
Apples, pears and quince are the classic storage fruit, but citrus does well, too.
Of the classic winter storage items, here are some of the best.
If you cut into a typically sweet, full-flavored storage winter squash right off the vine, you might be shocked by how dull and flat it tastes. Most winter squashes require at least a few weeks of storage for their sugars to come up and their flavor to mature. So, this is a crop that not only can be stored but often must be for the best eating experience. Generally, larger squashes with thicker skins keep longer than small and thin-skinned winter squash.
The longest keepers can last in good condition for seven months, and many winter squashes easily store four months. Select varieties known for their exceptional keeping qualities and rich, sweet, delicious flesh. A few of my favorites include the following.
Acorn-type squashes are poor keepers that should be eaten within a month or six weeks of harvest. They don’t require curing. Delicata types are also short keepers and best within two months of harvest.
These three alliums — garlic, leeks and onions — have storage longevity:
Brassicas can be used as winter or rotational cover crops.
Apples, pears, quince, some citrus and tomatoes can be stored without too much fuss.
All produce has optimum conditions for storage. When these conditions are met, the fruit or vegetable lasts as long as possible in good condition. The two most import things to consider are temperature and humidity.
Nearly all storage produce fares best in one of four categories:
A root cellar needn’t take a lot of space or money. Many modern homes have spaces that can be adapted for long-term storage without too much hassle. All that’s required is a bit of knowledge about what fruits and vegetables store well, how to store them naturally to retain maximum quality over the longest time, and a willingness to search your home for spaces that meet those needs.
This article appeared in Living Off the Grid, a 2018 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. Aside from this piece on long-term produce storage, Living Off the Grid includes stories on renewable energy, growing plants without seeds and permaculture. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such as Best of Hobby Farms and Best of Urban Farm by following this link.