Food crops that have been planted for a fall harvest have good potential for storing well. With nighttime temperatures dropping into the single digits, pay attention to the weather forecast. Some garden-grown crops can withstand a light frost better than others but once your seasonal food is ready for harvest, it’s important to decide how you will enjoy and store your harvest for use in the winter months. Planning ahead helps to ensure that the fruits of your labour in the garden won’t go to waste.
Getty Stewart is a professional home economist who lives and gardens in Winnipeg. Stewart grows most of her own food and has long been a champion of reducing food waste. In 2010 she created Fruit Share, a volunteer group that harvested and shared fruit. This year Stewart was named a food champion for the Love Food Hate Waste Canada campaign which is an initiative by the National Zero Waste Council. Recently I talked with Stewart about her tips and ideas for harvesting, enjoying, and storing five of her favourite fall crops: apples, beets, carrots, leeks, and squash.
Apples that are picked early in the season (August to early September) are commonly referred to as summer apples. “Generally, early season apples are softer and will not store as long as apples that are picked mid-September to October,” says Stewart. Some apple varieties are best for eating fresh and making pies while others are excellent for storing. Goodland and Honeycrisp apples, for example, have been bred to store well for several months.
Not all apples ripen at the same time. Apples on the inside of a tree ripen less quickly than apples on outer branches. The difference can be as much as two weeks. Ripening colour is one way to tell if apples are ripe. “One of the best ways to tell if an apple is ripe is to cut it open and look at the apple pit or seeds,” says Stewart. “The seeds should be dark brown. If they are still white, the apple is not ripe.”
The ease of separation is important, says Stewart who recommends the eye-to-the-sky technique. “Place your hand on the end of the apple opposite the stem and twist it upwards so that the bottom of the apple faces the sky. If the stem separates easily from the tree, then it is ripe and ready for picking. There shouldn’t be any yanking involved.”
Whether you are harvesting apples from a tree or buying fresh apples at a farmer’s market, Stewart does not recommend keeping apples on your kitchen counter for longer than a week. “Storing apples in a perforated bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator will keep them fresher and crisper longer.”
Cool-season root crops such as beets and carrots will keep well for three to four weeks in the refrigerator. “After digging them up with your garden fork, brush off most of the dirt but don’t add water to them. Keep them in an unsealed, perforated bag and control for moisture by making sure there is no build up of condensation.” One of the ways to control moisture build-up, says Stewart, is to add a cloth or paper towel to the storage bag to absorb moisture. “If you find that the reverse is happening and your root crops are drying out, you can always add a little moisture by dampening the cloth.”
If you are harvesting an abundance of carrots and want to store them until January or February, a cold storage space such as a root cellar would be ideal. Root cellars are no longer the norm but carrots keep well in a cold basement room. “It can be a bit tricky to store harvested carrots for several months but if you have a cool space, remove the greens, don’t wash the carrots, and bury them in a barrel or carton of clean, moist sand or sawdust,” says Stewart. The layer of sand or sawdust helps to prevent moisture loss and regulates temperature. There should be no traces of soil in the sand.
Unless you are cooking or roasting carrots right after they are harvesting, it is important to remove the greens because they will draw moisture from the carrots causing them to dry out more quickly. “You may have to cut into the top of the carrot itself to ensure the greens do not regrow.” This holds true for other root vegetables such as parsnips, beets, rutabaga, and radishes. “The greens on root vegetables will always try to continue to grow and draw moisture from the root,” she says.
Beets can also be stored in a cool basement area but Stewart’s preference is to boil and freeze or pickle beets if she has an abundance. “I keep a tail of the root and leave about a half centimetre of stem on beets so they don’t ‘bleed’ so much when they are being boiled,” she says. “Ideally, the beets are small enough that I don’t have to cut into the beets so that the beets retain their colour inside when they are boiling.”
Leeks are a cool season crop that is not affected by a light frost. “After harvesting, brush off soil and cut off the long root ends but don’t cut into the white stalk itself,” says Stewart. The dark green leaves of this tall vegetable can be quite long. Stewart leaves two to three inches of the greens above the white stalk and cuts off the remainder. She does not wash leeks until she is ready to use them. “Leeks store well in the refrigerator but it is important to control moisture. Too much moisture and the leeks can rot.” Stewart’s favourite method for storing leeks long-terms is to slice the stalks into quarter-inch pieces and dehydrate them on trays for about six hours at 135 degrees. “Leeks rehydrate nicely when you add them to soups and stews and are quite flavourful.” If you have a cold storage room, leeks can also be stored in moist sand in a container for several weeks.
Timing is everything when harvesting winter squash such as butternut, acorn, and delicata squash, or even pumpkins. “Underripe squash is less flavourful and won’t store well,” says Stewart. Let it ripen as much as possible but harvest before a hard frost because exposure to a hard frost will also shorten its storage time. “Wait to harvest until the vines are wilted and dry and the rind is tough enough to not easily pierce with your fingernail. Once the squash is separated from the vine, rub off any soil but don’t wash your squash. Cure the squash by letting it sit off the vine in the garden for a few days to dry in the sun. This will help to harden the rind so that it stores longer.” Alternatively, lay out your squash in a warm, well-ventilated area for about seven to 10 days.
Winter squash stores well in a cool area if it is properly cured.
You will find recipes and more tips for reducing food waste and preserving seasonal food at gettystewart.com.