As the gardening season nears its end, many gardeners are busy harvesting the last of the fresh vegetables from their garden. Frost-sensitive crops such as peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and basil definitely need to be harvested before freezing temperatures arrive, but there are a wide variety of crops that can stay right where they are for weeks to come.
Smart gardeners know that leaving cold-tolerant veggies in the garden is a great way to extend the harvest well into the winter months.
While our ancestors used root cellars and unheated basements to store their homegrown vegetables, most modern homes aren’t equipped with an ideal place to store fruits and vegetables for the long term. Yes, root crops such as carrots, beets and turnips will keep for several weeks when stored in the crisper drawer of the fridge, but there’s a smarter way to enjoy root crops like these through most of the winter, without taking up a lot of room in the icebox.
To enjoy these underground vegetables even when the snow is flying, simply store them in the ground, right where they grew. Almost all root crops can be kept in the ground and harvested on an as-needed basis through the winter, and the only equipment you need to make it happen is a pile of leaves or straw, a piece of floating row cover (available at most local garden centers), and a few rocks.
As soon as a few frosts touch the tops of your carrots, beets, rutabagas, celeriac, turnips or leeks, cover the planting row with a layer of shredded leaves or straw about six to seven inches thick. Then, cover this mulching material with a piece of floating row cover and pin the edges of the fabric down with a few rocks to keep it in place. Your root crops will stay snug and cozy under the mulch.
I’ve also used white pine needles with success, but be sure you rake them out of the garden when spring arrives to avoid affecting the soil’s pH as they decompose.
To make winter harvests, simply brush off the snow, lift up the fabric and mulch, and pull the roots from the soil. Then, re-cover the remaining plants until you’re ready to make another harvest.
Though some of the roots around the outer edges may turn mushy if the ground freezes solid, most will not.
Using this technique, I’m often harvesting homegrown turnips, celeriac and rutabagas in February.
Another crop that can be stored in the ground in this manner is potatoes, though you’ll need to make sure all your spuds are harvested before the ground freezes solid or you’ll risk having a mealy, soft texture.
If you plan to store your potatoes in-ground, plant them several weeks later than you’d typically plant them. Instead of setting your seed potatoes into the garden in early April, hold off until late June or early July. This late crop overwinters far better than an early crop, which often ends up sprouting new shoots before the season ends.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., Third Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.