Extend the Harvest by Properly Storing Fruits and Vegetables

Whether harvested from your garden or purchased from the grocery or farm market, fruits and vegetables need to be stored properly for best quality. Each harvested commodity has an optimum storage temperature. Many fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, should be stored only at room temperature because refrigerator temperatures (ideally 32°F to 40°F) damage them or prevent them from developing good texture and flavor.

Harvesting leeks.

Harvesting leeks.

Long storage life also depends on careful handling. Most fruits and vegetables are easily bruised if not handled carefully. When harvesting, treat produce gently. Most produce should be washed after harvest and before storage, but there are some exceptions. Delicate berries should be rinsed in cold water just before consuming. Washing berries before storage will hasten the decay process. While potatoes store better with a fine layer of soil left on the skin, avoid leaving clumps of soil on potatoes as this will only encourage spoilage.

Several vegetables benefit from post-harvest curing. Curing heals or suberizes injures from harvesting operations. It thickens the skin, reducing moisture loss and affording better protection against insect and microbial invasion. Curing is usually accomplished at an elevated storage temperature and high humidity. An enclosed home storage area with a space heater can provide the conditions effective for curing some crops.

Root crops such as beets, carrots, rutabagas, parsnips and turnips can be left in the ground into late fall and early winter. A heavy mulch of straw will prevent the ground from freezing so the roots can be dug when needed. Many people prefer the taste of these crops after they have been frosted because their flavors become sweeter and milder. But make sure to finish harvesting these crops before the ground freezes solid, or you’ll have to wait until spring to dig them out.

Recommendations for Handling Some Specific Fruits and Vegetables:

Potatoes: Late crop potatoes are best for long-term storage. After harvest, cure late potatoes by holding them in moist air for 1 to 2 weeks at 60 to 75°F. Lightly cover during curing to help retain moisture. After curing, lower the storage temperature to about 40 to 45°F, ideally in a cool, dark basement or cellar. Do not wash potatoes before they are put into storage and avoid chilling below 40°F. Store potatoes in the dark to prevent greening.
Onions: Harvest onions when the tops have fallen over and begun to dry. Cure onions after harvesting by spreading them in a single layer on screens in the shade or in a wellventilated garage or shed for 1 to 2 weeks or until the tops are completely dry and shriveled. Trim tops back to 1 inch and store onions in shallow boxes, mesh bags or hang in old nylons in a cold, dry well-ventilated room.
Garlic: Harvest garlic in mid-summer when the plant still retains 5 green leaves. Cure garlic in a warm, dry place with good air circulation for 1 month before cutting the tops and roots back. Hardneck garlic will store between 3-9 months while softneck garlic will store for 6-12 months or more.
Sweet and hot peppers: Mature, green bell peppers can be kept for 2 to 3 weeks if handled properly. Firm, dark green peppers free of blemishes and injury are best for storage. Harvest before frost to avoid damage to the fruit. Hot peppers are easiest to store after they are dry. Peppers can be dried by either pulling the plants together and hanging them upside down or by picking the peppers from the plants and stringing them together.
Tomatoes: With care, mature green tomatoes will keep and ripen for about 4 to 6 weeks in the fall. Harvest tomatoes from vigorous vines, tomatoes from nearly spent vines are more subject to decay. Harvest fruit just before the first killing frost. To store, pick tomatoes and remove the stems. Reduce rot by disinfecting fruit by washing in water with 1-1/2 teaspoon bleach per gallon of water. Dry thoroughly with a soft cloth and pack fruit 1 or 2 layers deep in shallow boxes. Remove fruits as they ripen.
Pumpkins and winter squash: Harvest mature fruit with hard rinds (ones that resist fingernail pressure) just before frost. Leave the stem on when cutting from the plants to prevent decay. Cure for 10 days at 80 to 85°F. The one exception is acorn squash: store at 45°F after harvest. (Curing acorn squash will lead to stringiness.)
Apples: Late maturing apples are best suited for storage. Store in baskets or boxes lined with plastic or foil to help retain moisture. Always sort apples carefully and avoid bruising them. Store apples as close to 32°F as possible, a temperature of 30 to 32°F is ideal. Because apples give off a gas, ethylene, that will hasten the ripening of other fruit, store apples separately from other crops if possible.
Pears: For good flavor and texture, ripen pears after harvest. Pick pears when they are fully mature, firm in texture and light green in color. Ripen pears by placing them in a room at 60 to 65°F for 1 to 3 weeks. Once pears ripe, the fruit is soft and a yellow-green color, transfer to the refrigerator and store at 29 to 32°F and 90% humidity.

Many fall-harvested crops lend themselves to long term storage. The following storage conditions are recommended for extended shelf life and maximum eating quality of fall produce:

Storage Temperature, Humidity & Storage Life of Selected Fruits and Vegetables 1
Commodity

Temperature (°F)

Relative Humidity (%)

Storage Life

Apples, late season

30-38

95

2-6 months

Beet, bunched

32

98-100

10-14 days

Beet, topped

32

98-100

4-6 months

Broccoli

32

95-100

10-14 days

Brussels Sprouts

32

95-100

3-5 weeks

Cabbage

32

98-100

3-6 weeks

Carrot, bunched

32

95-100

2 weeks

Carrot, mature

32

98-100

7-9 months

Cauliflower

32

95-98

3-4 weeks

Celeriac

32

97-99

6-8 months

Celery

32

98-100

2-3 months

Garlic

32

65-70

6-7 months

Horseradish

30-32

98-100

10-12 months

Kale

32

95-100

2-3 weeks

Kohlrabi

32

98-100

2-3 months

Onion, dry

32

65-70

1-8 months

Parsnip

32

98-100

4-6 months

Pears

34-36

95

2-4 months

Pepper, sweet

45-55

90-95

2-3 weeks

Potato, late

50-60

90-95

5-10 months

Radish, winter

32

95-100

2-4 months

Rutabaga

32

98-100

4-6 months

Squash, winter

50

50-70

Variable

Tomato, ripe

46-50

90-95

4-7 days

Turnip

32

95

4-5 months

1 From Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers

In addition, the following conditions are recommended for curing fall vegetables:

Commodity Curing Temp. (°F) Curing Relative Humidity (%)

Length of

Curing Time

Storage Temp after Curing (°F)
Potato, late season

60-70

80-90

10-14 days

40-45

Onion

60-80

40-50

3-7 days

32

Pumpkin

80-85

80-90

10 days

55-60

Sweet Potato

80-95

95

10 days

55

Winter Squash (except acorn)

80-85

80-90

7-14 days

55-60


– Karen Delahaut, Fresh Market Vegetable Specialist, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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