As I start to plant my garden, I’m planning for storage crops to keep our pantry and root cellar stocked. Most folks can grow a tomato plant or two to provide fresh eats in season, but eating from your homestead year round is the real challenge, especially in areas like ours where we’re likely to have snow from November to March (and sometimes longer).
I use a variety of approaches to extend the harvest. Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower got me thinking about crops that are more cold tolerant, some of which I hadn’t grown before, or hadn’t used for season extension. I grew up in zone 3 and my mom had a very traditional gardening approach. The ground was worked up in spring with a disk and tractor (we lived on a farm and had a BIG garden) as soon as it was dry enough. We planted in long, straight rows, and pretty much everything went in about the same time, somewhere in mid to late May. My garden is more like a patchwork quilt. I work up bits and pieces by hand or with a tiller as needed. Some of the beds that have been around longer don’t need to be worked up at all (I mulch heavily). This allows me to plant the cold tolerant crops in their areas while leaving the later crop areas undisturbed (I’m working towards consecutive crops). We get a lot of wind, so this cuts down on erosion.
Early spring finds me direct seeding cold tolerant greens like spinach, mache, minutina, and claytonia, along with potatoes, peas, and radishes. Inside, a variety of seedlings that require more heat await transplanting. Last year I also added container tomatoes and cucumbers. These plants stay small and bushy so they live out their lives in the greenhouse or a cold frame, giving me a jump start on my favorite summer veggies. We have a small attached greenhouse and two cold frames that I use to transition seedlings out to the garden.
|Cold frame made from scrap wood and recycled patio door|
When the weather gets a bit warmer, it’s time to put in the rest of the storage root crops. I have had good luck with carrots and beets in the root cellar stored in buckets with damp leaves. I tried sand one year, but it was really messy. Sawdust was pretty messy, too. Not all varieties store the same. My best keeping carrot was Scarlet Keeper from Fedco Garden Seeds. The other orange carrots stored reasonably well, too. The yellow and purple carrots (Yellowstone and Dragontongue) became somewhat dry and lost some of their sweetness. I tried sugar beets last year and was impressed with their taste and keeping qualities (Yellow Intermediate Mangel from Seeds of Change). We had a football sized beet that was still tender and delicious (and fed the entire family). I still have potatoes and onions in the root cellar, too, just kept loose in bins.
|Digging Carrots in Fall|
Some roots crops store best right where they grew in the garden. I just dug my parsnips on Easter, and I still have sunchokes waiting to be dug. Freezing improves the flavor of both. In fall I mulch them both heavily with straw. As soon as the ground thaws in spring, the parsnips come out. If you leave them in much longer they will begin sprouting and become tough and woody as they prepare to set seed. The sunchokes seem to be a bit more forgiving. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of sunchokes, but they come back year after year and are about as easy as can be to raise, so I let them have their corner of the garden and mow around them to keep them in from getting out of hand.
|Digging Parsnips in Spring|
Dried shell beans can keep for years in a cool dry location. I’ve got mine in mason jars in the pantry. They’re easy to keep pure for seed, too, as beans are self-pollinating. I spread mine around the garden, generally with at least one patch of flowers between bean varieties to keep the bees busy. I can renew six to eight varieties per season this way (I think I have around ten at this point). Pumpkins and squash keep for months in a cool, dry location. Mine live in on the floor in my canned good storage room. I just cooked up the last ones this month and put the puree in the freezer to hold us over until next fall.
I highly recommend Mike and Nancy Bubel’s book Root Cellaring for ideas on storing vegetables without electricity. Below is a link to a Minnesota Extension chart on fruit and vegetable storage to get you started. It’s pretty conservative, though, I’ve managed to keep most crops significantly longer than they indicate.
Of course I do quite a bit of canning, freezing and drying, too, but the crops that keep without a lot of fuss are some of my personal favorites.
Update: May 13, 2011, and I’ve still got parts of the garden with standing water. We had a snowy winter and a very wet and cold spring so far – one for the record books. It’s sizing up to be a challenging gardening season, but we’re doing the best that we can.