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Now is the time to plan for garden storage

Interest in gardening is at an all time high. Increases in food prices coupled with a sagging economy has sparked many families to begin growing some of their own food. It may amaze many first-time gardeners just how much food can be produced from a small backyard garden.

Most gardens produce quantities far in excess of what may be consumed fresh, but with a little planning and work, your bounty can be enjoyed throughout the year if stored properly. The common methods of storage are canning, frozen and fresh storage. This article will address storage of the fresh products.

Common garden crops such as apples, root crops and squash are relatively easy to store and most would agree that homegrown produce is a welcome treat when the snow is falling.

When selecting vegetables for storage, be careful not to break, nick, or bruise them. The less they are handled, the longer they will last in storage. Plan to store only the highest quality vegetables. Damaged produce does not store well and may ruin the others. Those not suitable for storage should be used first or processed. Less than perfect apples, for example, can be made into applesauce or cider rather than placed in storage.

Different vegetables need different storage conditions. Temperature and humidity are the main storage factors to consider; there are three combinations for long-term storage: 1) Cool and dry (50-60 degrees Fahrenheit and 60 percent relative humidity); 2) cold and dry (32-40 degrees F and 65 percent relative humidity); and 3) cold and moist (32-40 degrees F and 95 percent relative humidity). For cold conditions, 32 degrees F is the optimal temperature, but if difficult to attain in most homes.

A root cellar provides the best combination of temperature and humidity, but few homes still have one. New homes commonly have finished basements that are too warm and dry to store produce very long, and most garages get way too cold during the dead of winter.

An old refrigerator in operational order can be a relatively good substitute for a root cellar. The veggies can be kept cool at a constant temperature, and unless it is self-defrosting, they will not dry excessively. Old refrigerators have their drawbacks, though. The have limited room, "one" temperature, and they may not be very cost efficient. Nonetheless, they may serve the purpose for the short term.

Due to the lack of temperature control and space, you will be unable to accommodate all of your produce, so you will have to pick and choose. As you might imagine, many of your favorites have different temperature and humidity requirements.

Non-working freezers or refrigerators can also be used in the garage if you're willing to be vigilant in monitoring the temperature and supply heat if necessary. In many insulated -- but non-heated -- garages, vegetables can be stored in these old appliances without supplemental heat or cooling during the early winter.

But, what about all those green tomatoes? Don't' let the cool growing season cheat you out of those wonderful tomatoes! Many of those green tomatoes can be ripened inside when a heavy frost threatens to end your gardening year.

Before the first hard frost is predicted, pick the green tomatoes and ripen them off the vine, but pick only the mature ones. Tomatoes that aren't in the mature green stage won't ripen.

A tomato is in the 'mature green' stage if its interior is yellowish and the tissues are gelatinous, or sticky, when the tomato is cut open. Another sign of nearing maturity is a light green, almost translucent appearance of the fruit. Mature green tomatoes also have a pink or reddish tinge on the blossom end.

To check for maturity, cut a green tomato in half. If the pulp filling the compartments is jelly-like, it is mature green. In immature green tomatoes, seeds are easily cut through and the jelly-like pulp has not yet developed.

To store and ripen mature green tomatoes, put them in deep straw, wrap them individually in newspaper, or just lay them in a box so that they are not touching and cover them with newspaper. Check tomatoes every few days and discard any that show signs of rot. Store them at 60 to 70 degrees and they will ripen over a period of three to four weeks. Light is not necessary, tomatoes will ripen satisfactorily in the dark.

For a complete list of storage requirements for specific crops, or plans to build your own root cellar, contact me in McIntosh on Monday and Thursday, Red Lake Falls on Tuesday, or Bagley on Wednesdays. Our toll free number is 800-450-2465. If e-mail is your thing, contact me at

Source: Cindy Tong, University of Minnesota Horticulture.