The best thing about root vegetables has to be the fact that they're available during the cold months when there are few other crops to be had from the garden. Hi, I’m Ben, and in this short video and article I’ll show you how to harvest and store root vegetables so they keep throughout the winter, in perfect condition.
Do You Need to Lift and Store Root Vegetables?
If your soil is free-draining and your winters aren’t too cold, some root crops like carrots can simply be left in the ground and lifted as and when they’re needed. Parsnips are the same, and actually improve in taste with a few frosts. Beets will often happily sit through mild winters without fuss. But there are plenty of reasons why you might want to lift and store your root vegetables.
First, the longer you leave roots in the ground, the greater the risk of them becoming riddled with holes from the likes of slugs, wireworm or rodents. In heavier, wet soils, there’s a chance of them rotting. And, of course, if your soil freezes solid for weeks at a time, pickaxing them out of the soil isn’t much fun either! So you’ll need to lift them.
How to Store Root Vegetables
Check over roots before storing and set aside any that are damaged or in any way imperfect to use up as soon as possible. Only intact roots of a good size should be stored. Begin by twisting off the foliage, then brush off any lumps of soil. The roots don’t need washing – just store them as they are. You can store roots in any container that allows for a bit of ventilation, for instance sturdy cardboard boxes or wooden crates.
Start with a layer of damp – but not wet – sand or old potting mix in the bottom of your container. It needs to keep the roots ever so slightly moist and separated from each other. Lay out your roots in a single layer so they’re not touching, then add another layer of your damp packing material. Continue in layers like this until you get to the top, finishing with a final layer of sand or potting mix. You could also use hay, straw, sawdust, or a mix of any of the above.
Bear in mind that larger roots will store much better than thin or small roots, which can quickly dry out and turn rubbery (smaller roots can always be sliced up then frozen, dehydrated, or canned). Store your roots in the cool and dark. It needs to be cool but frost-free, so a basement, outbuilding, or some other vermin-free space is ideal. It may help to raise boxes or sacks off the ground to keep them out of reach of rodents, or try storing them in metal bins. And if there is a risk of temperatures dropping below freezing, consider adding some extra insulation around your stored roots, for instance straw or scrunched up newspaper.
If you have a standard shed you could try creating a root vegetable store by securing insulation boards together to prevent temperatures from either dropping or soaring too far. I’ve also seen makeshift stores made from old refrigerators or freezers, part-buried into the ground.
How to Store Potatoes
To harvest potatoes, work methodically from the front of the row to the back. Use a fork to dig well away from the centre of each plant then carefully – and I do mean carefully! – work the fork in underneath to lift the whole plant and its tubers up from beneath. This way there’s a less chance of accidentally spearing a potato, though don’t be too hard on yourself if that does happen!
Instead of bagging or boxing the harvested spuds up immediately, leave them on the soil surface for a few hours so they can dry out. This way any lumps of soil will also come away easily with a light brush of the hand. Choosing a dry day with a light breeze to harvest will help them to dry out quickly.
With your tubers dried off, take a little extra time to cure them properly before storing. Lay them out in a single layer somewhere dark and well-ventilated so the skins can harden further. You could do this by laying them out in trays, with some burlap, hessian or other breathable fabric thrown over the top to exclude light. It will take up to 10 days for them to cure, after which they can be bagged up into dark, breathable sacks, such as paper or burlap potato sacks.
Again, store them in a cool environment with good air circulation. Check your stored produce every couple of weeks. Inspect boxes for signs of rot, such as a suspicious ooze or foul smell. Immediately remove any roots that are on the turn.
Get it right and you could be enjoying your homegrown roots well into next spring. I’d love to hear about your storage solutions too, so please do drop me a comment below to tell me!