How to Store Fresh Vegetables

You can learn the best crops to grow or buy, and how to store fresh vegetables year round.


| December 2004/January 2005



Mother and daughter with cabbage

Cabbages are stored most successfully by being replanted in groups in large pots for placement in a cold, moist root cellar.


Photo courtesy David Cavagnaro

When I first contemplated moving from mild coastal California to northeast Iowa, a land of 35-degree-below-zero winters, a major concern was the prospect of giving up homegrown, year-round, fresh vegetables. Not so! A stubborn refusal to relinquish my California ways, combined with the joy of discovering root cellaring and other storage and season-extending techniques, has kept my family (and lots of neighbors) supplied with a long list of garden-fresh vegetables through eight dormant months of northern Iowa winter.

Storing potatoes, root crops and cabbages has a long history in the North, but serving fresh salads in March made with delicate greens such as Chinese cabbage and radicchio harvested the previous October inspires exclamations of amazement and surprise from old-timers and newcomers alike. Learning how to store fresh vegetables year round is a gift that keeps on giving.

Outdoor Food Storage

In all regions of the country, cold-hardy vegetables can simply be left in the ground at the end of the season; it’s only a matter of how long they will survive. In the North, where winters are severe, cabbage, kale, collards, Brussels sprouts and leeks will remain in reasonably good shape in the garden through temperatures well into the teens, and for a while longer, down to about zero. Depending on the winter, this simple technique of neglect may extend the greens season well into December. Carrots, beets and other root crops can be left in the ground, too, under a thick, protective layer of leaves or straw bales. As long as the ground is prevented from freezing, these vegetables can be dug from beneath the snow all winter. Of all the common root crops, only parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) will survive deep-winter cold without damage, but, of course, the ground still must be kept thawed in order to dig them.

Folks lacking a root cellar or other sufficiently cold place for sustained indoor storage can devise simple techniques to store harvested veggies outdoors. During our first years in Iowa, we dug our Brussels sprout plants in November, stripped off all of the leaves, laid the logs of sprouts side by side on a bed of dry leaves with the roots buried in a shallow trench, then covered them with a thick layer of blankets or old sleeping bags. Thus protected, the insulated veggies stayed fresh and unfrozen all winter under a good snow cover; all we had to do was shovel off a bit of snow, lift back the blankets and cut off a meal of sprouts any time we felt like it.

Quick outdoor storage can be achieved by digging a pit, filling it with cold-hardy crops such as carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, beets, leeks and cabbage, covering the pit with a piece of plywood, then layering the lid and a bit of margin with straw bales. Shoveling snow and moving bales at 20 below zero may not sound like a lot of fun, but it need not be so grim a task. Do this outdoor work on a warmer winter day (We do have them occasionally in the North!) and stock your fridge’s hydrator for the cold spells ahead.

This kind of storage facility creates quite a stir of excitement in the mouse community, I might add, so you will have to mouse-proof your veggies. I suggest setting traps, remembering to devise some way to keep them away from probing fingers. While mixing mouse bait with food may sound tricky, I have successfully placed wax-impregnated brands of bait sticks inside cans or jars, and situated these containers in such a way that the poison and the food cannot mix.





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