If you ask me, there are three good reasons to clean out the refrigerator: Company is coming, there is a sticky spill, or it’s time to store autumn’s bounty of root crops. Safely tucked away in the fridge, the extra beetroot, carrots, celeriac, parsnips, radishes, swedes or turnips I harvest before the first hard freeze will stay in prime condition for at least two months, and often much longer. Some can even be replanted in spring and grown for seed. It’s an excellent use of a clean produce drawer!
The ideal storage temperatures for root crops are just above freezing (32-40°F/0-4.4°C), with high humidity around 90 percent, which are the conditions inside plastic bags in your refrigerator. In addition to preserving the texture and nutrition of root crops by slowing their metabolism, low storage temperatures can prevent the proliferation of soil-borne bacteria in refrigerated garden vegetables.
How to Prepare Vegetables for Cold Storage
Thinking clean is important, because root crops are never scrubbed before they are stored. All root vegetables have waxy skins that help them retain moisture, and the last thing you want to do is scratch their protective coating. It’s much better to rinse harvested roots with a fine spray of water, followed by a drying session in a cool, well-ventilated room. Save cleaning for just before the veggies are cooked.
You must also promptly cut off the tops, which draw moisture from the roots. Trim to ¼ inch (about half a centimeter) of the crown, and snip off the long tails from beetroot, radishes and turnips. Then bring your root vegetables indoors to dry. I like to spread them out on a cloth-lined tray, pat them with a clean kitchen towel, and let them dry for a few hours.
Set aside seriously blemished or insect-damaged roots for immediate use, and loosely pack the better specimens in plastic bags once dry. Perforated plastic bags that provide limited air flow may be beneficial should you have a large quantity of carrots to store, but for most gardeners re-used plastic food bags are fine.
Once they are packed away in your produce drawer, don’t forget about your beetroots, radishes and other stored root vegetables. Check them often and eat them while they are at their best in raw salads or roasted with onions and potatoes. Expect radishes to be the first to lose their crunch. Thick-skinned celeriac lasts almost forever.
Re-Planting Stored Roots for Seed Saving
Many of the root vegetables stored in the refrigerator are biennials that produce flowers and seeds in their second year, after they have been through cold-induced vernalisation. Unfortunately, big, fleshy roots left in the garden through winter may be damaged by cold, slugs, insects, voles, mice, squirrels, deer, and other hungry animals. Should you want to grow and save seed of a superior open-pollinated biennial root vegetable like parsnips or carrot, your best bet is to replant a trio of refrigerated roots to the garden first thing in spring. Re-planted carrots, parsnips, swedes, and turnips put on a nice show of flowers before they get busy making thousands of seeds.
Storing Potatoes and Onions
Potatoes and onions can be stored in the refrigerator, but they do better at slightly higher temperatures, around 45°F (7°C). Should you have a building where a 40-50°F (4.4-10°C) temperature range can be maintained, you can store root vegetables in containers filled with moist sand, hang onions in bags or braids, and keep potatoes in bins. Just don’t wait too long to enjoy your harvest! Onions and potatoes vary in their natural dormancy periods, with some varieties ready to start regrowing only three months into storage. When onions and potatoes start to soften and sprout, make them into dinner.