As the gardening season is winding down, produce is piling up in the kitchen. Potatoes have been dug, peppers are picked and squash is in a basket. Now is the time to store the rewards of your hard won labors.

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Photo from PSU.edu

When I was a child, my grandmother’s home had a root cellar with a dirt floor and field rock walls. It was the ‘room’ between the wooden stairs up to the outside and the cellar, which was filled with scary, old things that made loud noises,  smelled of kerosene and musty clothing, and housed the occasional snake.  I did not like the cellar, but loved going into the root cellar. It smelled of the earth, like soil and the hay bales we placed to hold wooden boxes off of the floor. The boxes were filled with clean sand for the keeping of carrots, beets and turnips buried in the damp sand. None of vegetables where supposed to touch each other to prevent a rotten spot from occurring or spreading to the adjacent root vegetable.  Cabbages were laid on other hay bales, up off the floor, as were wooden boxes of winter squashes and pumpkins. Onions were braided together hand hung from nails on the beams overhead or put into burlap grain bags repurposed. The root cellar was dark and moist, perfect for holding vegetables. Yes, we had a refrigerator but it wasn’t as large as today’s, nor did it provide enough room for all the garden excess intended to get us through the winter. The root cellar was a form of primitive refrigeration using the cool and constant temperature of below ground to store food. Our modern day homes don’t come equipped with root cellars, but we can still store the bounty of our gardens.

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Photo from University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Winter squash and pumpkins need curing for long storage of several months. Squash will last longer is the stems are left on. After picking, let them lay in the sun off the ground, on a picnic table perhaps, for about a week. Turn them over every couple of days to make sure all sides are exposed to the sun. Curing hardens the skin of the squashes, making them less likely to rot in storage. Once cured, brush off any remaining dirt, then wash the squash with a 10 percent bleach and water solution, or a 50/50 vinegar and water mix. Either mixture will disinfect any fungi or bacteria which harm the squash once stored. Wrap each squash in newspaper and place in a basket or box with slats or openings on the sides to promote ventilation. The newspaper will create an air space between each squash. Store in a cool, dry area of the home that will not go below freezing. 50 degrees F is optimum. I put mine on the bottom step of my basement hatchway.

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hatchway storage

Potatoes must be cured also. After the foliage has died back, dig up the potatoes. They need to cure and be stored in the dark, out of the sun or they will develop green spots on the skin that can have toxic properties. A dark tool shed or garage without windows will work well. After digging, lay tubers on newspaper in the dark space for about two weeks at 50 to 60 degrees F. Potatoes should not touch during the curing process. After the two weeks, wipe off any dirt without washing at all. Remove any tubers with spots or damage to eat first as they will not store well. Place storage potatoes in a bushel basket or cardboard box. Cover with newspaper or burlap to exclude any light. Place in a space that will not freeze and not get above 50 degrees F for longest keeping quality.

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Potatoes, photo by Carol Quish

 

Onions can be dug and laid right on top of the ground for about a week as long as there is no danger of frost or rain. If rain is threatened, move them to a shed, porch or garage with good ventilation.  Necks will dry and brown. They can then be braided together or kept in mesh bags or bushel baskets as good airflow is needed. Keep them out of the light and a cool, 35 to 35 degree F location.

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Photo from University of Georgia Cooperative Extension

The root crops of carrots and beets can be dug, wiped clean and stored in airtight freezer bags in the refrigerator. Leave an inch of the green tops on the vegetables and do not cut off any root material from the base. Cutting into the flesh gives fungi and bacteria a place to enter. An alternative method of storage is in damp sand just like in the root cellar with a temperature of 35 to 40 degrees F. Some people leave them right in the ground, only digging up what they need before the ground freezes. Covering the in-ground crop with a thick layer of hay or straw will delay the ground from freezing until it gets really cold.

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Carrots, photo by Carol Quish

Green tomatoes can be gathered before the first frost. Select only fruit with no bad spots. Get out the newspaper once again, to wrap each tomato for protection and airflow. Alternatively, lay tomatoes in single layers separated with layers of newspapers. Keep out the light and keep in a cool spot below 50 degrees F. Check them all once per week to remove any that develop rot. Hopefully they will ripen by the New Year.

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Tomatoes not ripe yet, Photo by Carol Quish

One crop I gather to remind me of years gone by and out of style is Quince. My local orchard has a quince tree as most farm houses had outside its kitchen. Quince fruit has a very high pectin content which was commonly boiled along with any fruit to make a jelly or jam before powdered or liquid pectin was commercially available.

Surejell and Certo has made the backyard quince tree fall out of favor. I admit I don’t use the quince fruit to make my jellies and jams anymore, but at least I am still preserving the harvest in an updated manner.

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-Carol Quish,  photos copyright, Carol Quish

I returned from a week of vacation to the find the gardens full of weeds! Everything grew like gangbusters in my absence. Those little weed seedlings grew to flowering stage in just a week! If we could only get the peppers and cucumbers to produce like that I would be happy. Mulch would have prevented many of the weeds from germinating in the first place. I also should have weeded well before I left instead of dealing with the larger weeds now. Hind site is always better.

I  gathered a large garbage bag full of seaweed from the beach. Once home I spread  it out on the lawn to rinse it thoroughly of salt and sand, let it dry in the sun and worked it into the soil of the beds of the finished peas, spinach and lettuce. I will replant different crops in these newly enriched beds. Leaf crops grow extremely well in seaweed amended soil. I love free fertilizers.

My tomato crop is slowly developing despite have spotted and yellowed leaves of septoria leaf spot fungal disease. Mulch would have helped here, too. Mulch provides a physical barrier between the soil and leaves above. The fungal spores of septoria live in the soil from year to year and can be splashed up onto the leaves of the tomatoes. Fungicides can be used before the infections happens to prevent the spores from growing on the leaves. Now it is too late. These spots start on the bottom leaves, progress to produce new fruiting spots that release more spores that land on higher leaves, moving the fungus from the lower leaves up the plant.

The non-stop rains and cool spring has brought the northeast the perfect conditions for another fungal disease, Late Blight, (Phytophthora infestans). This is the same fungus that caused the Irish potato famine in the 1850’s. We have identified the disease if both tomato and potato plants of commercial fields during the last two weeks. We will have to see how the remainder of the summer progresses relative to moisture to see how bad the outbreak becomes. Spores are spread by rain splash and carried by wind for up to several miles. The disease starts as a water soaked spot on the leaf,  stem or fruit, rapidly turning dark brown to black. The entire plant wilts and collapses.  Cornell has a great fact sheet here.

I would like to mention Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory located in South Deerfield, Massachusetts this week. They are a butterfly conservatory open year round that folks can visit to see and walk among the beautiful creatures with their native plants. Another ‘beautiful creature’ is George who works there. A mother called me at the center last week looking for a source to purchase ladybugs to release at the funeral of her nine year old daughter’s friend. With only two days notice on Thursday afternoon, no commercial ladybug provider was willing to ship them to her in time. On a hunch, I called Magic Wings and relayed the information to George. They do not sell ladybugs but ladybugs do live in the conservatory with the butterflies. He came through magnificently! Mother and daughter drove to South Deerfield on Friday to pick up the box of ladybugs and thank George in person. They also visited the conservatory and several butterflies landed on the daughter. Quite a special experience for a grieving family. We at UConn add our thanks to George and Magic Wings.

-Carol

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