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Whether harvested from your garden or purchased from the grocery or farm market, the life of delicious fruits and vegetables can be extended with proper storage. Optimal storage should take into account temperature, humidity, and storage container.

Harvested produce is still respiring and quality can be greatly influenced by the storage environment.

  • Moisture, or lack of moisture is often key to a long storage life. Never allow standing water to form, this will quickly lead to rotting.
  • Storage areas should be dark and well aerated.
  • Produce should be protected from insects and rodents.
  • Keep produce from freezing.

“Many fruits and vegetables 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. For example, when stored in the refrigerator, bananas develop black skin and loose sweetness, watermelons lose their flavor and deep red color if stored for longer than 3 days, and tomatoes loose flavor and become soft,” says Karen Delahaut, former University of Wisconsin Extension Fresh Market Vegetable Horticulturist.

Produce that stores best at room temperature include: bananas, citrus, pineapple, tomatoes, squash, uncut melons. Fruits and vegetables best stored in the refrigerator include : grapes, apples, berries, cherries, broccoli, carrots, celery, greens, and cauliflower. For the following fruits, ripen at room temperature first and then refrigerate: avocado, kiwi, peaches, pears, plums, nectarines. Restore limp celery to “life” by placing stems in a glass of water. Wrap carrots or radishes in a damp paper towel to reintroduce moisture.

Teryl Roper, Fruit Crops Specialist, notes that apples, a crop commonly found in Wisconsin home gardens, can be stored for up to six months if properly stored. But proper storage depending on careful handling, says Roper. 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.

Several vegetables benefit from post-harvest curing, notes Delahaut. Curing heals or suberizes injures from harvesting operations. It thickens the skin, reducing moisture loss an 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.

Many fall-harvested crops lend themselves to long term storage. 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. Leave 1” of stem. Store at 32°-40°F in a sealed bag with a few holes to help retain moisture.

Following are some 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. Potatoes store better if they have a fine layer of soil left on the skin to reduce moisture loss and prevent the infestation of water-borne bacteria or fungi. 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 well-ventilated 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.

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.

For more information on making the most of home and market produce, see Storing Fruits and Vegetables from the Home Garden, 2006 (A3823- Teryl Roper, Professor of Horticulture, Karen Delahaut, former fresh market vegetable specialist, and Barb Ingham, Food Science Specialist, UW-Madison, Division of Extension) available online from the UWEX Learning Store https://learningstore.extension.wisc.edu/collections/food-preservation-and-safety/products/storing-fruits-and-vegetables-from-the-home-garden-p1052. Also go to A=Z Index P=Produce www.foodsafety.wisc.edu or How do I ..Store Foods www.uga.edu/nchfp.

Sandy Tarter is the FoodWIse Coordinator for the UW Madison-Division of Extension, Chippewa, Dunn, and Eau Claire Counties. She can be reached at 715-232-1636, sandy.tarter@wisc.edu

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