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Archive for the ‘food storage’ Category

Onion braids hanging in my shed.

Onion braids hanging in my shed.

I have been writing quite a bit this year about growing cotton and flax, with the idea of taking the fiber all the way to clothes you can wear. Scroll through my posts and you will have enough information to begin working on growing your own clothes. You will be hearing more about fiber in the future, but now I will turn my attention back to food crops.

Onions are a great crop! Plant them at the right time in the spring, harvest them all at the same time, and, if you have grown enough and stored them carefully, you can be eating your homegrown onions all year. Onions grown for storage can become a staple crop for your homegrown diet. Open-pollinated onion varieties good for storage include New York Early and Red Wethersfield, but there are others. Sweet onion varieties, however, do not last as long as the varieties grown for storage. The descriptions in seed catalogs should indicate if a variety will store well or not.

If you have had a problem with the onions you buy at the grocery store sprouting in a relatively short time after you brought them home, you are probably wondering how you could ever keep them long term. Well, the ones you grow are much different from the ones you get at the store, primarily because you can manage them from the time they come out of the ground. Most likely, the store-bought onions have already been kept for a long period in cool conditions and, once they are brought out to room temperature, they are ready to sprout.

onions in fence circle just after harvest

Onions in fence circle just after harvest.

By this time of the year you have probably already harvested your onions, hopefully before the tops died back. If so, you will have them to braid. Onions need to be cured after harvest under conditions with good air circulation. You could lay them out on a screen or board in the shade or lay them out on your barn floor, which is what I used to do before I began putting them on a circle of fencing. I went to the fence circle once I was growing more than my barn floor could accommodate. For each circle, I use a piece of old welded wire fencing with 2”x4” spacings. It sets on two cement blocks in such a way that allows good air circulation up through the middle. It could also be hung from the rafters, which would get it off the floor and provide even greater air circulation. I put each onion in the middle of the circle and pull the green top through the wire to the outside. Those tops will die back in the next couple weeks. Having them on the outside, allows them to dry quicker than if the onions were on the outside of the circle and the tops were inside.

Onions in the fence circle ready to sort.

Onions in the fence circle ready to sort.

Most likely, no matter what you have done with them, you have reached the stage where the onions tops have dried and it has become apparent that not all your onions are going to keep till the spring. It is time to sort through them. Identify the ones to use early and which ones you can keep for later. Hold each onion in your hand and put your thumb over the spot where the top comes out. Press down. If there is much give, put it in the “use now” pile. If it is very hard, set it aside to braid or otherwise store for the long term. If there is just a little give when you press down with your thumb, put it in the “use next” pile, meaning it will be used after the “use now” pile is depleted.

Onions in solar food dryer.

Onions in solar food dryer.

The “use now” onions are what you want to be using as you are canning salsa, spaghetti sauce, or anything else that needs onions this summer. You could also cut them up and put them in a dehydrator. Here is a photo of some onions in my solar dryer. My extra “use now” onions are sitting in a basket on my back porch and that is what I am using for summer cooking. I’ve braided my “use next” onions and labeled the braids so that I will use them before the long term storage braids. For now, all the onion braids are hanging in my garden shed. About mid-October I will transfer them to the crawlspace under our house. I have put nails in the joists just to hang onion and garlic braids through the winter. Even in the coldest times here in central Virginia it never freezes there. You can find details about how to braid onions in my July 28, 2015 post.

There are many ways to manage onions, but this method is what I have found to be most helpful  It is a wonderful feeling to reach the point where you are growing most, if not all, of the onions you will need for the year. The important thing is to not crowd them in a warm place. They need to have air circulation. A story for another day is about using onion skins to make a natural dye. As I use the onions, I save their yellow skins in a mesh bag to use in dyeing. There is much fun to be had from what you can grow in your garden!

Onions have many health benefits, which I wrote about on January 24, 2012. Knowing how healthy onions are for you should prompt you to include onions in your diet as often as possible. Learning to store the onions that you have grown for the long term brings you one step closer to being able to put homegrown meals on the table all year long.homeplace earth logo

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vegetable cabinet

vegetable cabinet

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.

vegetable cabinet is 58.3 and kitchen is 70.2

vegetable cabinet is 58.3 and kitchen is 70.2

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.

pantry

the dryer used to sit in this spot in the pantry

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.

canning jars in the cellar

canning jars in the cellar

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.Homeplace Earth

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