Here in New York, the community gardens and urban farms have long since packed up for the year. In fact, if I hadn’t seen them grow back last spring, I might think that they were gone for good. But even the lot that looks like a demolition site will come back in the spring to amaze us with its abundant greenery. For now we can only dream of the longer, warmer days that will make that happen, and hope that there are some root vegetables hiding in the decay.
Root vegetables sweeten with the colder weather, and the longer they are left in the ground, the tougher the skin and the longer they will store. Many root vegetables can be left in the ground as long as it doesn’t freeze, to be harvested as needed. This late-stage harvesting also provides the most nutrients. But as soon as the freezing weather is heading your way, most must be stored – a wonderful way to eat healthy through the winter.
Even if you only have a little bit of outside space or a basement, with some pre-planning (like digging a hole before the ground freezes over and loading up with CSA or Farmers Market veggies if you don’t have a garden), you can save roots for months. If you weren’t prepared for this season, you can buy root veggies at the winter farmers markets and store them properly in your fridge for at least a few weeks — and sometimes up to a few months — so that you don’t have to venture out in the cold again. Be sure to always pick the healthiest roots as one bad apple can spoil the bunch.
There are many types of root vegetables. Below, some information how to harvest and store the most common.
Best left in the garden until before the first freeze. To keep them in the garden as long as possible, you can cut off the green tops and cover them with a foot or more of shredded leaves or straw. Top the covering with a tarp to keep soil from freezing and harvest as needed. To store carrots in a root cellar, cut the leaves off as soon as they are harvested because with the greens attached, they will keep growing and losing moisture and nutrients. Burying the roots in damp sand or sawdust and storing them in a cold place (32 to 40 degrees F) will keep them fresh through the winter. For the refrigerator, cut off the greens and keep the roots in a plastic bag. They will last for months.
Parsnips will withstand freezing and thawing in the garden and with some protection will last through the winter to be harvested in the spring. Cover them with about four to six inches of dirt and another four to six inches of mulch. This protection will keep them happy though the coldest months. You can also harvest and store parsnips in a cool place (32 to 40 degrees F) for up to six months. For the refrigerator, you can store parsnips as easily as the carrots, in a plastic bag to keep the moisture in.
Beets can withstand some cold, but should be harvested before it freezes. After harvesting, don’t wash them, but do cut the greens off,, leaving about ½ ; inch of the stem. They will store well in a root cellar or cool, dark area (35 to 40 degrees F) in a single layer. Use them within two to three months. For the refrigerator, don’t wash them, as you don’t want extra moisture, and trim back the greens to about ½ ; inch. Place them in a plastic bag and use them for a couple of months.
Harvest before the first frost and take care to not damage the roots. Stored in a cool place (50 to 60 degrees) in a paper bag with holes for ventilation, potatoes can last up to two or more months. Do not expose the potatoes to light or store near onions, as these will trigger sprouting. Also, don’t store in the refrigerator or the flavor will be destroyed.
If you didn’t have a garden this year or a root cellar (I didn’t!), get down to your closest farmers' market, food coop or health food store and ask for some local root vegetables.