But not this year. The loot delivered on that semi-truck last Monday morning drew everyone outside while the ice was still solid on the puddles. Our Assistant Manager, Susie, drove in from Brattleboro, big grin on her face, ready to roll. Albert, our neighbor and the farmer here before us, had frozen cheeks and level in hand already when I saw him at 9am. The farm crew – Antonio, Adelina, Iver and Ben – came down the road with an unusual spring in their steps, for a chilly December morning. The greenhouse construction has begun.
We are putting up two new greenhouses – each 30’ wide by 96’ long – on the site of the old corn silage bunkers, filling the unused space between our barns and the other two hoop houses. One will be heated and rigged up as a new propagating house, for spring transplants. The other, funded by a USDA program, will be unheated. We’ll use it, plus our existing smaller houses, for growing early tomatoes and possibly winter greens – all areas of growing that will be new to us. Exciting!
So all last week, as I worked in the office with an ear out for a waking baby, I heard the tell-tale, rhythmic tap-tap-tap of the sledge hitting pipe. Last Friday, with a dawn low temperature of twelve degrees (!), we just squeaked in the last row of posts – we could almost hear the earth freezing solid with each sledge punch. We’re prepared now for plenty of work on warmer winter days, assembling the bows and purlins. You can bet we’ll be out there during the January thaw, hammering and pounding, imagining houses full of greens next winter, creating something where before there was only an idea.
Here are some tips for harvesting and storing produce for the winter, in a typical home without a root cellar. Things to think about include: variety choice; harvest and post-harvest handling; storage temperature, humidity, and ventilation. To find good places to store food in your house, pick up a max-min thermometer, and place it in different spots, to get an idea of average temperatures in each potential storage spot. It is important is to have realistic expectations about how long and how well you veggies will store, and to expect to lose some to spoilage – especially as you are figuring out what will store best where in your house.
Most root crops (carrots, beets, turnips, rutabagas, celeriac, parsnips, and storage radishes)
Varieties: Bolero carrots, Necoras carrots, Winterkeeper/Lutz beets, Detroit Dark Red beets, Misato Rose radishes.
Harvest: All can be left in the ground up until just before hard frost, usually mid-November. Carrots will start to have splits in the shoulders if there are lots of freezes and thaws before harvest. Harvest on a warm day, when the roots aren’t frozen. Parsnips will overwinter in the ground for early spring harvest. Mulched carrots may survive over winter as well (though they will more likely rot).
Storage: Store roots unwashed, at as cold a temperature as possible without freezing. A plastic bag in the fridge is great for very long storage. Or store in crates or in burlap sacks in a very cold spot in the basement – though if it is too dry, the roots will wilt. One very effective home storage method is to find a cold spot in the house, gather a few 5 gallon buckets, dump the unwashed roots in, and cover with sand. Every once in a while, check the roots – if they begin to get wilty, sprinkle a bit of water onto the sand. The sand seems to allow for a more forgiving range of temperature fluctuations. They’ll last until early spring, even if the temperature fluctuates a bit. Stored roots will likely start to sprout in early spring, when temperatures warm up consistently – so, don’t plan to have these roots until May, but perhaps until March or April. Or plan to stock whatever is left in your fridge for an additional month or two in early spring.
Varieties: Many are good for long storage, check your seed catalogs or ask the farmer you are buying from. Harvest: Dig by around mid-October – don’t let them sit too long in really wet soils. Storage: Potatoes are best stored just a little bit warmer than the root crops, around 37-40 degrees, and dark. Colder is better than warmer, though don’t let them freeze. Try attic stairs or an inside wall of your garage. Store in a crate or box (not in plastic, as condensation will lead to fast rotting). Sort them every once in a while to get rid of rotten ones.
Sweet potatoes:Varieties: Beauregard and Covington are reliable, orange-fleshed sweeties in our climate.
Harvest: Harvest sweet potatoes at the end of September, early October, before too many frosts. Harvest carefully, so as not to damage them.
Storage: Sweet potatoes prefer more humidity than the normal house has, so a damp cellar may be just the place if it’s also well ventilated. They want to be stored at 50-55 degrees, no colder, with at least one air change per day. Use the smaller ones first, as the larger ones will be slower to wilt over time. We’ve found that we can only store sweet potatoes in our house until January or so before they lose their sweetness and spoil.
Varieties: Use up delicatas and buttercup varieties first in the early winter. Butternuts store well into January. Hubbard-type squashes store longest. Nantucket Pie (also called Long Pie) is a nice long-storage, edible pumpkin.
Harvest: Bring in squash when the vines die back, in September. Don’t let the ripe fruits sit in the full sun in the garden, and take care not to nick the skins when you are picking. Keep unblemished fruits for storage. Squash will keep best if it is cured right after harvest, for several weeks at 70-80 degrees – we do this in our greenhouses with shade cloths on top of the plastic, but curing on a sun porch could also do the trick. Keep the squash warmer than 50 degrees at night to avoid a cumulative chilling injury that would affect storage and flavor. Storage: Store at about 50-55 degrees – a very cool cupboard in the kitchen, a not-too damp cellar, attic stairs, or a warm-ish mudroom might suffice. Well-cured squash will store into January – longer, depending on variety. If possible, store squashes not touching each other – rot can easily spread. Check often, and use any that develop soft spots.
Varieties: Prince, Copra and Gunnison yellows; Mars and Redwing reds.
Harvest: Bring in from the garden when the tops fall over, usually in August. Cure in a hot, dry place until the stems are totally dried down (not too sunny – a warm barn or garage loft? We do it in our greenhouse with the shade cloth on).
Storage: Onions can be stored with the squash and sweet potatoes, but prefer it even colder. If it is too warm, or too light, they’ll begin to sprout. Store in a box or crate, not a plastic bag. Sort them every once in a while to get rid of rotten ones. Expect onions to begin sprouting and softening by March or April.
Harvest: Let the cobs dry on the stalk as long as possible, as long as they aren’t getting moldy – we know folks who leave them out into the winter, though we usually harvest in October and finish drying the cobs down in the greenhouse or barn.
Storage: Popcorn can be stored on the cob in a dry place – hang bunches in the house until you are ready to use them (though they can get too dry, especially around the woodstove; or they can mold if the house is too humid. Make sure critters can’t get to the kernels). Try popping a few kernels every once in a while – when they pop well, the popcorn is ready. Push the kernels off the cob and store in an airtight jar. If they are too moist going into the jar, they will mold – keep an eye out.