After the hard work and frustrations of this growing year (sowing, planting, tending, watering, weeding etc), one would be forgiven for desiring something of a break. But, chin up folks, because the most vital step of all still remains to be done. You could have produced the most magnificent crops, but if you fail to store them correctly you might as well throw them on the compost heap (which is where they will end up anyway).
In the 24/7 supermarket food culture we live in, storing food has become somewhat of a defunct skill. Our immediate forebears on the other hand were expert at it (and of course, they had to be) – by necessity they developed cutting edge, yet ancient, techniques for storing and preserving food. In Ireland entire crops of spuds and carrots could be stored for months on end in an open field with a covering of straw and soil in a process known as ‘clamping’. In Germany they could preserve cabbage by making sauerkraut while in Austria, whole cabbages were stored in 4 metre pits and the fermented end product, known as grubenkraut, could last for up to three years.
In theory many crops such as potatoes, beetroot and carrots can be left in the soil and used as needed over the winter. In practice, if I leave crops in the ground I find that they simply get damaged by my wet soil or by pests (worms, slugs, mice etc). So, instead I lift the crops and store them. With the exception of some kale, leeks and the hardy parsnip my veg patch is more or less in lock down from November until April. Though there are some additional veg like oriental greens and other leaves available in the polytunnel, it is from ‘stores’ that the variety of food will come.
There are all sorts of methods to ‘store’ vegetables and we use pretty much all of them at home. Some methods suit some vegetables better than others. Berries, celery, tomatoes, courgettes, chilli-peppers, peas and beans are freezer-bound. Onions and garlic will be hung in braids. Cucumbers and pears will be pickled. Apples will be juiced or stewed and frozen. Pumpkins and squash will take pride of place above the dresser where thanks to their thick skins, they will survive for months. There will be chutney. Lots of chutney. Potatoes will be stored in sacks; beetroot and carrots in sand. Parsnips and celeriac are tough enough to survive life outside in the cold soil.
As the winter draws in, nothing brings out my inner hunter-gatherer quite like having a full larder..
The Basics – Storing Root Crops
If it's sunny when you harvest your potatoes, leave them on the surface of the soil for a day - the sun and wind will dry them off and make the skin harden a little. Only store the best of your spuds. A spud that rots in storage can take lots of other spuds with it - so it's worth investing some time to make sure you are not inadvertently storing any damaged ones.
You can store spuds in hessian sacks (which allows air to circulate and deters rotting) or in a timber box. A layer of fleece or a blanket over the container will keep the cold and light out - frost can have an impact even inside a shed, and light can green the potatoes.
For storing beetroot and carrots in sand: get most of the heavy clay off them (never wash them before storage) and cut the foliage off about an inch from the top of the veg. I simply pack them in layers of sand or peat in a box or crate, making sure that they don't touch each other. Check frequently for signs of rotting and remove any suspect looking veg. Horticultural or play sand, which is available in garden centres, will work perfectly.
Food Matters @ GROW HQ – Friday 29th and Saturday 30th September
To celebrate our first birthday at GROW HQ, we are hosting a weekend of talks, panel discussions and demos called Food Matters. On Friday night, we’ve a very special, intimate Demo and Dine evening with Rory O’Connell in our award winning restaurant. On Saturday Alys Fowler, Kitty Scully, Paul Flynn, Fiona Kelly & Juicie Jim will join our own Head Grower Richard Mee and Head Chef JB Dubois for a range of completely free demos and talks. We also have panel discussions on everything from community food markets to Food as Medicine. On Saturday night we are hosting a long table Harvest Dinner to celebrate the best of our garden produce with a 4-course dinner. For more information visit www.growhq.org.