The methods used by our forebears to preserve and store food from our gardens is almost a lost art. In particular there are certain garden vegetables that can be stored OUTSIDE with just a little bit of effort, and yet safely provide nutritious food for your family all winter long.
Cabbages, turnips, radishes, beets, carrots, rutabagas, brussels sprouts, celery, potatoes and apples may be stored in a cool and moist area.
Onions need a cool and dry atmosphere.
Pumpkins, squash and sweet potatoes need a dry place that has some warmth.
Root crops for storage are best planted somewhat later in the season so they don’t mature too early.
While in the Depression era, most families had root cellars and cold storage in their basements, modern day folks usually have nothing like it. Therefore, without those, an alternative is needed, and in the Great Depression Era, outside pits or mounds were used.
To build a food storage pit, a place in your garden area that drains well is the best place to dig. You’ll need a trench deep enough to have at least a foot of soil over the top of your wood storage boxes, large enough to hold all of your food storage boxes, and if you have quite a large crop of the different vegetables, you may want more than one trench so one can be opened for use without disturbing all of your vegetables at once. If you do, then pack a variety of vegetables in each box.
You will need drain pipes- one for each trench. Sheets of canvas. One more thing- save your fall leaves, or get plenty of straw!
Leave about an inch of tops on such vegetables as turnips, beets and carrots. Pack them in your boxes in layers with loose soil or sand in between. Potatoes should be packed with straw in the boxes so air can circulate around them. Once packed, place the boxes into your trench, with at least a foot between the top of the boxes and ground level. Lay boards across the top of the trench, and stand up a drain pipe on top of the boxes, propped up by your boards. The drain pipe carries off air and gases.
After a few days, when the vegetables have ‘cooled’, throw soil into the space between the box tops and the boards, filling the area and closing the space between the boxes and the boards.
When the weather gets very cold, heap your fall leaves or your straw over your trenches to protect the vegetables from frosty soil. Using dry leaves is very helpful- they’ll be easy to remove and they are resistant to frost. Cover the entire pile with canvas or more boards.
For storing cabbage and brussels sprouts, dig a trench about 8 inches wide and at least long enough for about 3 heads of cabbage. Pull your cabbage heads up by the roots, remove the largest outer leaves, and place the heads top down into the trench. Cover them with straw or hay, and then stand up a bunch of straw like a chimney every few feet for ventilation. Cover the layer of straw over the vegetables with a good layer of soil, and as the weather becomes colder, add more soil. For wintering, cover the whole thing with straw or leaves and a layer of canvas.
Your celery can be stored in the same way. Make the trench narrow enough to pack the celery stalks tightly in an upright position with the roots on the soil. Leave them uncovered until freezing weather sets in, and then cover with leaves or straw and about 8 inches of soil.
Apples can be kept in barrels laid in pits. Pick the best fruits, pack them carefully in the barrel and nail canvas or burlap over the end. Cover the barrel with a foot and a half of straw or leaves, then 6 inches of soil. When the cold strengthens, add another layer of straw and soil and cover all with a canvas. Storing the apples in barrels instead of in the ground like other vegetables keeps the apples from absorbing a dirt flavor.
Onions need cold, dry air. Pull your onions, spread them out to cure in the sun for a few days, then remove the tops leaving 3 or 4 inches above the bulbs. Place them on racks and store them someplace cold and dry like a frost-proof, unheated attic.
As for pumpkins, squash and sweet potatoes, gather them before the frost. Leave them with the stems attached. They should be fully mature for storage, and left in the sun for a few days to harden the rind. Handle them carefully to prevent bruising. Store them like onions, in a cool dry attic at about 50 degrees. If it is warmer, they will lose weight but if it is too moist, they will rot.
You can save your green tomatoes if you pull the plant and leave them on the vines. Hang them from the vine in a cool dry, frost proof place, like the attic. They will continue to ripen for some time.
Peppers can also be hung upside down, but in a cool damp area like your basement. Expect them to last about three weeks this way. Thereafter, if possible, thinly slice them and dry them in a warm oven.
Admittedly these are low-tech methods of preserving your crops. However, this is inexpensive, isn’t endangered by power outages, and can be easily hidden from prying eyes.
Us moderns have almost no idea how to preserve our food without modern utensils and refrigeration. But people have survived very well for thousands of years using techniques like this.