Now is not the time to be bringing in large quantities of vegetables from your garden to store for future eating, unless you live in a climate much warmer than mine. However, now is the time to be scouting the best places for winter food storage in your house, even if you haven’t had a harvest yet. In the heat of the summer, it is hard to imagine what the conditions are in your house in the winter.
There are books and magazine articles about storing the harvest that will provide details about the best temperature and humidity for the storage places. Somehow humanity has managed to survive without climate controlled spaces for all these years, so use these resources as a guideline and don’t obsess if your spaces aren’t exactly what you’ve read about. We heat our house primarily with a woodstove, using the furnace as a backup. That means the rooms in the house closest to the stove are warmer than the areas further away, which makes for much variation to play with when finding appropriate storage spots. If you use central heat exclusively, you could lower the temperature in a room by closing the heating vent. Lower it further by opening a window or installing a vent. If you have a closet available for food storage, one with an outside wall is best to bring the temperature down. It is not quite as easy to find cool spots in super-insulated homes, but check around.
I use a thermometer to occasionally check my storage areas. It has a remote feature so that I can tell the temperature of the space the thermometer is in and also the space I have the remote sensor in. This photo shows the kitchen temperature is about 70 and the temperature of the sweet potato/onion/garlic/butternut squash storage area is about 58. Ideally, sweet potatoes and winter squash are comfortable stored at about 50-60˚ and 60-70% humidity. Irish potatoes are happier at a little cooler temperature and 80-90% humidity.
My husband built pull out shelves in our lower kitchen cabinets. We designated the cabinet area in the northeast corner of the kitchen (top photo) for produce storage after I discovered how cold it was in there one winter day (50˚). It doesn’t stay that cool all the time, but usually that cabinet is about 10˚cooler than the kitchen. The pull out shelves in that area have bottoms made of a heavy metal grid that allows ventilation, yet is heavy enough for a load. Irish potatoes are stored here, in addition to the sweet potatoes, onions, butternut squash, and garlic. Extra potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, butternut squash, and garlic are stored in the crawl space under our house. When the outside temperature dipped into the teens (which it doesn’t do too often) the temperature in the crawl space only fell to 48˚. So, if a polar vortex comes knocking again, we’re still okay. Mind you, that’s with the vents closed for the winter. If the vents were left open that would be a different story and the cold air coming in could freeze pipes that were nearby. Crawl spaces can provide storage spaces with higher humidity.
We have converted our utility room, which contained a washer, dryer, and storage shelves, into a pantry. The washing machine is still there but we gave the dryer away, since we never used it. The sun outside and heat from the woodstove dry our clothes. That left space for crocks holding nuts and fermented food and for jars of dried food, including beans and grains from our garden. We didn’t have a honey harvest this year, but when we do, the honey jars are stored here. Before we lived in this house, there was a furnace in this room. A hole in the floor and another one 4’ higher for vents were left behind. I screened those holes and kept them for air circulation. That room is about 10˚ cooler than the kitchen, also. We just have to remember to keep the door closed.
We have a cellar under part of the house. That’s where I keep the jars of food that I’ve canned. I have to go around and down the outside stairs to get there, since there is no access from inside the house. If I could just pop down the stairs from the kitchen, I might store more food there. Canning jars get heavy. You’ll see that we used 2×12 boards for the shelves. It has been interesting finding convenient places to store increasing amounts of food from the garden. Wherever you store food, you need to think of everything that could affect it, such as mice. My friend Susan has a nice house that is built on a slab containing heating coils. That makes her house nice and comfy, but since the coils are throughout the house, even her closets are heated. She stores her harvest in an area screened with hardware cloth in her garage. It was after her peanuts disappeared in the garage that she resorted to screening her storage spot to protect her food from mice.
My upcoming book, Grow a Sustainable Diet, has a chapter on food storage and preservation with more information on handling your harvest. When I have it available you will be able to order signed copies from me at www.HomeplaceEarth.com. Finding a place for what you grow and for the equipment that goes with it is as important as growing the food. If you have no plan for storage, your harvest will spoil or ruin the harmony in your home as it sits around cluttering your living space. Check any possible storage niches in your home with a thermometer and record what you find. It might make for a fun project for your children if they are home on a snow day this winter.