Care and feeding of winter squash and other veggies

By Tom Seymour | Oct 13, 2017
Photo by: Tom Seymour Winter squash, sun-cured and ready to store.

You worked so hard, weeding and fertilizing your “keeper” squash, a.k.a. “winter squash.” These are the hard-fleshed varieties that with proper care will last in storage for many months.

But sometimes, much to our chagrin, our squash barely lasts more than two months, and then only if we’re lucky. What happens to cause this?

The first consideration is whether the squash was subject to frost damage. Even the mildest, most gentle and light frost has a deleterious effect upon winter squash’s keeping ability.

This explains why most large producers of winter squash harvest their produce well ahead of the first expected frost. Homeowners and small-scale gardeners, though, sometimes procrastinate and leave their squash on the vines well into frost season, hoping to get just that little bit of extra growth.

Some of us, rushed and with other duties and obligations, just cannot take time out of our busy lives to harvest our squash and put it under cover, out of harm’s way. In that case, a tarpaulin draped over the squash will keep a light frost from doing its dirty work. But even so protected, a hard freeze can compromise a squash to the point where it quickly rots in storage.

Here’s another consideration. When we harvest our squash we must take extra pains to make sure that at least some of the stem remains intact. If the stem breaks off flush with the squash, that leaves open a doorway to fungal and other types of intruders, all of which will cause the squash to rot.

And once that begins, it doesn’t take long for the problem to spread. Which necessitates that we check our stored squash regularly for signs of rot, not only to save whatever squash may have already been compromised and begun to rot, but also to protect other squash from cross-contamination from touching a bad, or rotting, squash.

Where and how we store our winter squash has a whole lot to do with its keeping properties. Books and garden articles often suggest keeping winter squash in a cool place, such as a cellar or basement. This may or may not be good advice.

A dry cellar with a laid stone foundation, such as is found in an older house, works well in enhancing squash longevity. Such places have a fairly constant temperature and low humidity. And low humidity is key to squash survival. Which is why some modern basements are definitely not a good place to store squash or root vegetables.

Moisture is the enemy of stored squash, carrots, turnips, beets and other vegetables. Temperature, despite what some sources say, needn’t be on the cool side for best the chances of long-term veggie survival. In fact, a friend once had a bumper crop of butternut squash that he stored in his cellar.

His house, of modern, tight construction, had very little air exchange, especially in the basement. And there was where he stored all of his squash. That same basement was also the place where he kept his winter’s supply of firewood. And believe it or not, even dry firewood has a considerable water content. In storage, that moisture enters the air. It also compromises the squash.

So before storing winter squash in the basement, take time to consider whether the basement is a dry enough location for long-term squash storage. If not, there are other options.

I once stored many dozens of winter squash in an upstairs loft. Heat rises, as we all know. In my case, the heat was from a woodstove and the air above was bone-dry. This, despite the heat, kept my squash fresh as ever. In fact, I once ate last year’s winter squash on the fourth of July. That, as they say, is going some.

So after harvesting your squash, take time to consider where best to store it so that you can enjoy fresh, sweet winter squash all winter long.

Other veggies

Root crops do well in storage. While few people today have root cellars, there are other ways to store root crops such as potatoes that work quite well. In fact, the same principle applies to potatoes as to winter squash.

Potatoes are a prime candidate for winter storage. And again, low humidity is absolutely necessary for long-term survival in storage.

Once potatoes are dug, it is important to dry them. Commercial raisers run a machine through the potato field to turn up and expose the tubers to the air. Only later, after drying in the sun, do the harvesters enter the field to pick the potatoes and load them onto wagons or carts.

Well, what goes for commercially grown potatoes also goes for our homegrown spuds. Potatoes need to be perfectly dry when first put into storage, then they need to be kept dry. I sometimes store potatoes, fully dried ones, in paper bags. These I stow in little openings beneath my office desk. The office is heated with wood, so it is necessarily very dry. And my potatoes keep well.

But sometimes, if potatoes are stored in a bag with even a hint of moisture, they will rot. Earlier this fall I stored some heritage-type spuds in what I thought was a dry paper bag. It had held some oysters during the trip home from the store. Some of the oysters must have sprayed some of their salt brine inside and that, in turn, ruined my several pounds of precious, heirloom potatoes.

So my answer, for the remaining potatoes in the yet-undisturbed hills, was to find a cardboard flat, such as is used in greenhouses to hold potted plants for the customer. After thoroughly drying the potatoes in the strong, September sun, I placed them loosely in the flat. They filled the bottom of the flat. I then placed the flat under my bed, in a room also heated with wood. These are checked every few days and they are firm, as in rock-hard, with no trace of fungus or mold.

Fried green tomatoes

I’m a pushover for fried green tomatoes. As such, I revel in the countless green tomatoes on the vines in summer. But come fall, we must harvest our tomatoes ahead of the frost. Now here’s the thing. Most people place their green tomatoes in a flat or other such contrivance and store them in a dark place. Tomatoes so stored slowly ripen, perhaps two or three today and then none for another few days.

However, for people such as me who relish fried green tomatoes and would go to extremes to prolong the season on our green delicacies, storing them in a place where they will slowly ripen defeats the purpose.

But there is a solution that is as simple as it gets. Pick your green tomatoes, drop them in a plastic bag, leave the bag open to discourage condensation and place in the refrigerator. Refrigerated tomatoes don’t ripen. The cold temperatures prohibit ripening.

So by saving our green tomatoes in this manner, we may happily devour plates of delicious fried green tomatoes well into early winter.

Tom’s tips

Oh, why does Tom always harp on weeding? Well, I do because it’s so important. But this week I have happy news. About the only good thing concerning the current severe drought is that weeds tend to fade and lose their grip on the earth.

With loose, bone-dry soil, it’s a cinch to grab handfuls of weeds, pull them and shake any clinging soil from the roots. Simply stated, there is no better time to pull weeds than right now.

A cardboard flat works well for long-term potato storage. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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