The challenge of storing vegetables

Just how to look after vegetables after they have been picked can be a tough decision. Paul Hambruch has a few ideas to share with you.

Writing for a newspaper is a bit like talking to yourself. You quite enjoy talking to someone but don’t expect an answer from anybody but yourself. So I am always pleased when people I don’t know stop me on the street to tell me that they look forward to reading all my articles.

I was particularly pleased when someone told me that a gardening column I had written had inspired his family to start a vegetable garden but that now they had a problem: what should they do to store everything they had produced? Could I please give some advice on storing vegetables, potatoes, carrots, parsnips and the like? That is turning out to be a bigger challenge than telling people how to grow things, especially when they live in town and on smallish town lots.

The requirements for storage are actually reasonably simple but providing them in the real world is not so easy. All garden produce should be kept cool without freezing it, protected from strong light, dry but at a high level of humidity and with good ventilation. At some of the old homesteads in the valley you can still find an old root house which provided ideal condition for storage. They were often built into a hillside, large enough that a man could stand in them, generally built from logs in this area and covered with at least a foot or more of soil, had a well insulated wooden door with louvers that would admit fresh air but could be closed completely and a ventilation shaft of probably six inches square and covered to keep the rain out. A root house would keep the vegetables fresh and useable for months. But I have my doubts that any town gardener would want to go to such lengths just to store some garden produce, not to mention the problem of getting a building permit for such a structure.

In town, if a house had a basement, it was frequently just a dug-out in the soil with a trap door down from the kitchen. They served a similar purpose as a root house and worked reasonably well for small quantities of produce. By the way, for both of these storage facilities a cat who was a good mouser was essential. Another step up from that would be a cold room in a basement. I know at least one house that has one corner of the basement walled off and insulated. Automatic ventilation to the outside keeps the temperature in that part of the basement  5 to 8 degrees Celsius (40 to 46 F). Potatoes stored in that cold room will not sprout until late March or early April.

Good ventilation is essential because most vegetables and particularly fruit such as apples give off ethylene gas that promotes rapid ripening and deterioration of produce. There are gadgets available that will absorb ethylene gas but of course, that adds to the cost of your produce.

For more information on storage temperatures, humidity and storage life, I have an excellent table that gives the conditions for about 60 different vegetables. Give me a call at 250-344-2346 or an e-mail at and I’ll get you one.  More on this subject next week.