There are a variety of methods available to store your fruits and vegetables. I generally prefer to use the least amount of time and energy necessary to preserve my extra harvests, but everyone has their own favorite preservation methods. If you plan to preserve part of your harvest, it is very important to select the right varieties, to harvest them at the right time and in the right way, and, for some storage methods, to plant them at the right time.
Decide how you want to preserve your food before you plant your garden, as different crop varieties may work best with different storage methods. This applies for both fruit and vegetables.
For example, tomatoes are usually canned, and a few people will put extra tomatoes in their freezer. Most varieties of tomatoes will work well with either of those methods. But if you choose to dry your tomatoes, you will be more successful if you choose a variety that has been bred to dry well.
If you would like to eat fresh tomatoes over as long a period as possible, there are even a few varieties of tomatoes designed to be picked green and allowed to slowly ripen in your home over 6-12 weeks or more after harvest. Most tomatoes will ripen over a 2-4 week period after being picked when still green, but storage tomato varieties will keep far longer. It is important to plant them later than your regular tomatoes, so that they barely start ripening at around the date of your first fall frost.
The quality of storage tomatoes are not like sun-ripened tomatoes from your August garden. They mostly have very firm flesh, a fair tomato flavor, and are not very sweet and juicy – but they are usually better than the cardboard tomatoes sold in the stores in January. I would recommend experimenting with a few varieties over time, to find out which ones, if any, you might enjoy.
Several vegetables can be stored quite easily in a cool, dry room or closet in your home (50-60 degrees). I have easily kept garlic, onions, winter squash, and sweet potatoes well past winter – even into April and May. These are my favorite storage crops – just pick, cure, store, check for any rotting ones occasionally, and eat them fresh when you like.
But not all varieties of these easy storage crops will keep as well as others. Some types of onions and garlic will only store a few weeks before rotting; others can last almost a year. Some winter squash will keep only 2-3 months, while you can eat other varieties right up until the next harvest is ready.
There may be differences even with root crops that you plan to keep in your cold frames over the winter. Many beets may become woody and tough after staying in the ground all winter, but some varieties have been bred to remain tender and sweet until spring.
So do your research before you order your seeds. I usually experiment with a few different varieties to find out which ones work best for my situation.
Sometimes it is important to plan your garden so that your crops will ripen at the proper time, depending on how you want to preserve them. For canning and freezing, it's usually best to plan your crops to ripen during their prime season, to enjoy the very best flavor possible – warm-weather crops during the summer heat, and cool-season crops during frosty weather.
Broccoli harvested after several light frosts is much sweeter than broccoli picked in mid-June. Other crops, however – like sweet potatoes – are very sensitive to cold weather. If they become damaged by fall frosts, they may not store well. This is a major crop for me, so I make sure I plant them at the right time, so that the roots will fully mature before fall frosts.
But, if you plan on preserving a LOT of food by canning or freezing, you may want to plan to harvest your garden when you know you will have more time available – or have people available to help you! Some people prefer to process only a dozen or two jars at a time, and design their garden to ripen crops over a period of several weeks.
Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing and ripening tomatoes over a long time – until the plants become diseased or damaged by frost. The bushier, determinate tomatoes will ripen most of their fruit in a short period, making it easy to process large amounts quickly.
For root cellars and related storage methods, our goal is to harvest our crops at just the right time – not too early, and not too late. Crops that are too immature or over-ripe when harvested will not store well.
We want our root cellars to be cooling down before we store our crops in them. But you won't always be able to harvest at exactly the right time, as we still can't control the weather!
The fall of 2011 was extremely warm, and a few of my crops became more mature than I would normally prefer before the weather and soil cooled down enough to store them naturally. However, that was partly made up for by the fact that I could still harvest fresh broccoli in January!
Harvesting Your Crops
Harvest your food gently! If you want your fruits or vegetables to last as long as possible, avoid bruising or damaging them. The first time I harvested sweet potatoes, I was very surprised at how tender the roots were as I dug them up. Fresh sweet potato roots are quite fragile, and will break, bruise, and become scraped quite easily. The roots will toughen up and become easier to handle after they are cured properly.
Some crops can be left sitting in the sun over several days, to continue curing. However, it is very important to keep other crops OUT of the sunlight after harvesting. Set them gently into containers or piles. Don't toss the crops – even a gentle toss can bruise your produce! Do your research, and learn the best time and method for harvesting each different crop that you plan to store.
My very favorite resource book on food preservation is Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables, by Mike and Nancy Bubel. It's an old classic that's as useful today as it was when it was written decades ago. I consider this book a very valuable addition to my library.
This book describes a variety of storage options that are available in and around your home. You don't have to have a proper root cellar to naturally store your food! My own climate is actually a bit too warm most winters now to work well with a real root cellar. There are other storage options available. Most of our homes have a number of nooks and crannies that can effectively store different crops. It's a matter of working with what we have.
If you are looking for free information on safe food preservation recommendations, check out: National Center for Home Food Preservation
This site is hosted by the University of Georgia, College of Family and Consumer Sciences, and offers the most current research-based safe food preservation recommendations for canning, freezing, drying, curing, smoking, pickling, fermenting, etc.
To learn more about additional food storage techniques, read my blog post: Storing Vegetables in Your Closets