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Harvesting and storing home garden vegetables

Harvested vegetables: onions, tomatoes, peppers, spinach, cauliflower, carrots and onions

One of the joys of summer is homegrown sweet corn, picked right outside your back door and plopped straight into a pot of boiling water or onto the grill. The advantage of having a home garden is that you can pick and savor your vegetables when they are at their optimal flavor. But how can you tell when to harvest your vegetables? How should you store zucchini if they all reach optimal size at the same time? What are the best conditions to store your homegrown vegetables?

Harvest

When harvesting vegetables, be careful not to break, nick or bruise them. The less you handle your vegetables, the longer they will last in storage. Harvest only vegetables of high quality. Rotting produce does not keep for very long, and can spread disease to other stored vegetables.

Storage

Different vegetables need different storage conditions. Temperature and humidity are the main storage factors to consider. There are three combinations for long-term storage:

  1. cool and dry (50-60°F and 60% relative humidity),
  2. cold and dry (32-40°F and 65% relative humidity), and
  3. cold and moist (32-40°F and 95% relative humidity).

For cold conditions, 32°F is the ideal temperature. This temperature is not easy to attain in most homes. Expect shortened shelf-lives for your vegetables as storage conditions deviate from the ideal temperature. This shortening of their life span can be up to 25 percent for every 10°F increase in temperature.

Basements are generally cool and dry. If storing vegetables in basements, provide your vegetables with some ventilation. Harvested vegetables are not dead, but they still "breathe" and require oxygen to maintain their high quality. Protect them from rodents.

Home refrigerators are generally cold and dry (40°F and 50-60% relative humidity). This is fine for long-term storage of garlic and onions, but not much else. Putting vegetables in perforated plastic bags in the refrigerator will provide cold and moist conditions, but only for a moderate amount of time. Unperforated plastic bags often create too much humidity, which leads to condensation and growth of mold or bacteria.

Root cellars provide cold and moist conditions. As with basements, provide ventilation and protection from rodents when storing vegetables in cellars. You can use materials such as straw, hay or wood shavings for insulation. If using such insulation, make sure that it is clean and not contaminated with pesticides.

Some vegetables, such as cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes, require cool (55°F) and moist storage. These conditions are difficult to maintain in a typical home. Expect to keep vegetables requiring cool and moist storage conditions for only a short period.

Harvest and storage information for commonly-grown vegetables

Expected shelf-life times are only estimates.

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Cindy Tong, Extension post-harvest horticulturist

Reviewed in 2018

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