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9 Crops We're Growing That Don't Need Cold Storage

If a cold storage room is on your wish list but you haven't quite got around to making it happen yet, you may be heading into the gardening season uncertain about how you're going to manage to stow away a substantial amount of food for the winter. Well fear not, my squirrelly friend. There are a few special crops you can grow in large quantities and store for many months, even if you don't have any cold storage setup yet. So if you've got some extra space in your garden and you'd like to eat more food from your garden on a year-round basis, consider filling it with a few crops from the lineup that I'm going to share with you today.


Before we start, you may be thinking that you could dehydrate or can pretty much anything and then still store those processed items without refrigeration.  You're right, but to keep things super simple for you today, I’m just going to share the top crops you can store for extended periods in their raw state, without any processing at all. Just harvest them, put them on a shelf, and eat them when you’re ready. 





Winter Squash


The first crop on the list is winter squash.  I love when my food comes wrapped in its own natural packaging and winter squash is a perfect example of this.  The long term storage life of winter squash does very somewhat based on the specific variety, but in general, you can safely count on your squash lasting 3-4 months even when stored at room temperature. We keep our winter squash on basement shelves where temperature is typically between 15-20ºC (60-70ºF).  We don’t start to notice any depreciation in quality until month 5 and some varieties like butternut can really go the distance.



winter squash collection
Red Kuri, Jester, and Sweet Mama squash have been favourites of ours for a while.

sweet mama winter squash
I'm always impressed that so much food can be stored naturally inside the shell of a winter squash.

Onions


Shrek reminded us that onions have layers and that’s one of the keys to their long storage life.  Most crops with a high moisture content tend to dry out quickly, but onions are able to retain their moisture thanks to their many layers.  We’ve found that any onion variety will keep for at least a few months at room temperature as long as we’ve cured it properly first, while the more pungent storage varieties can really go the distance even without cold storage, thanks to their naturally higher concentrations of pyruvic acid.  I always keep a few of our onions at room temperature to see how long they can last. This year, our Frontier and Red Carpet onions are still quite firm at the 7 month mark and I’ve only seen one or two sprout.  Now for super long lasting onions, we need to keep the temperature as close to 0ºC (32ºF) as possible so we do store almost all of our onions in our walk-in cooler. However, that doesn’t discount the remarkable storage life of an onion even at room temperature, so don't count yourself out of the onion game if you don't have a cold room yet.


onion strings
These onion strings are hung at room temperature awaiting our fall vegetable sale.

Hardneck Garlic


There is little more needed to spice up our winter dishes than a few cloves of garlic, so I'm thankful that this is another crop that can go the distance without cold storage.  In fact, we want to avoid using any refrigeration with garlic, because exposure to low temperatures can initiate sprouting.  When kept on our basement shelves with open air flow our garlic remains in top shape.  As I write this, our garlic stash is now 9 months old and it’s just been sitting on an open shelf.  Since we harvested this garlic at the perfect time, the heads have several papery wrappers enclosing the cloves and each clove has its own thicker skin to help preserve the inner moisture.  The cloves will lose their moisture very gradually throughout the winter, but the flavour doesn’t go anywhere, and that’s all we’re really after with our garlic anyway. We used to grow a few different varieties for comparison, but for the last few years, we've just planted Russian Purple hardneck garlic, because it was always performing consistently for us.




Beans


When growing green beans, we need to pay close attention to make sure we harvest them at the right time, and once they are harvested, they don’t have a very long storage life. You can blanch and freeze all of the extra green beans that you don't want to eat right away, but that adds more labour, and freezing is still a form of refrigeration. Therefore, green beans are far from making this list. Dried beans are entirely different though.  We can plant and tend the beans in the same way, but we don’t need to pay attention to the beans as they are ripening.  We just need to come back when they pods have all dried on the plants and pick everything all at once, and there's absolutely no stress about getting our dried beans into a cool space. In fact, a warm dry space would be even better to help the beans dry completely. After we harvest a batch of dried bean pods, we’ll usually just set them aside and ignore them entirely so that we can focus on other tasks that are more urgent. Then a few weeks or even months later, when we have a little more free time, we’ll shell the dried beans and store them on our canning shelves in unsealed jars. I wish more crops would wait around for me like that!



two beds of beans
These two beds of Borlotti beans look like any other green bean in July, except we get to ignore them.

dried bean plants
Eventually, the bean plants get to this stage and we can harvest all of the pods at the same time.

shelling beans
The task of shelling the beans usually waits until the rush of fall harvest is over.


Flint Corn


When you think about enjoying some corn from your garden, you probably imagine fresh corn on the cob.  Me too.  It’s one of the treats of every summer, but there is a different type of corn called flint corn.  This type of corn has much lower sugar content than sweetcorn so it’s not great eaten fresh, but we can leave this corn on the plant to dry fully and then store it in this dried state without refrigeration.  We strip the kernels to mill into our own cornmeal, cornflour, or just throw the whole kernels in our air popper and enjoy some homegrown popcorn.  Since popcorn is our favourite use of flint corn, we like to grow a variety called caramel crisp which puffs up wonderfully. 


glass gem corn
Glass Gem is a beautiful variety of flint corn that will pop for you, but that's not it's strength.

homegorwn popcorn
When we want the best popcorn, we reach for our Caramel Crisp variety of flint corn, which also makes fine cornmeal.

Sunflower Seeds


Sunflower seeds are another snack food that you can grow at home.  There are a lot of sunflower plants out there to choose from, so when selecting your seeds be sure to look for a confectionary variety, which indicates that they will produce seeds suitable for eating and not just a pretty flower. 


When the sunflower heads have matured they'll twist upside down and all the birds in your neighbourhood will suddenly begin to frequent your sunflower patch! Be quick to cover the heads with a paper bag or snip them off to let them dry fully indoors. Once the heads are dry, rub out the seeds, and store them at room temperature in a container that will keep our moisture.  You’ll find concerns about sunflower seeds going rancid in storage, but this study showed that raw sunflower seeds are shelf stable for more than 12 months even at a temperature of 100ºF. Therefore, we confidently store our sunflower seeds in their raw state at room temperature and grab them for snacking as needed. 


The annoying part of the sunflower seed is that they are each encased in their own shell, so one of the projects on my wish list is to build a little de-shelling machine that we can run our sunflower seeds through.  This would make it more feasible to use our sunflower supply for things like granola, salad toppings, and cookies.




The last three crops I’ll share with you, we have reclaimed from the world of large scale agriculture.  Some will say that these crops are not worth my time, and I would agree with those people if we are only considering the economic value of my time, but we humans do plenty of things that are not worthy of our time economically speaking because there’s more to life than money.  Since we’ve got our annual supply of vegetables covered already, I thought it would be fun to branch out a little and see if we could grow an even higher percentage of the foods we want to eat.


I didn't want to venture into this new territory ill-prepared though, so in anticipation of a much more tedious harvesting process I thought it would be a good idea to build a mini threshing machine.  It has been working great, but I’m not going to explain it again in this post. If you're interested, you can see the threshing machine in action in this post.


Now, on with our list…


Wheat


Wheat was the first crop we reclaimed from big agriculture.  Why?  We eat bread, and we want to continue eating bread.  I thought it would be great if we could grow some of our own supply without any chemicals or diesel fuel.  The seeding of wheat is really quick with our mechanical seeder, there is virtually no maintenance required throughout the growing period, and harvest has turned out to be a lot quicker than I expected.  The threshing would have been the really tedious part, but this process has been made easy with our little thresher.  Once the grain is all separated, we store it in 3 gallon buckets to use throughout the winter, almost exclusively for bread.  Freshly milled whole grain flour is not as shelf stable as the whole grains themselves, so we just mill what we need whenever we want to bake another batch of bread.



wheat growing in garden
Yep, that's Red Fife wheat growing in one of our urban garden plots.

homebaked bread
Almost all of our homegrown wheat is used for bread making where the qualities of wholegrain Red Fife stand out.

Hulless Oats


After some initial success with wheat, I looked at what other grains we were eating and oats stood out as an obvious next choice.  Most oats are difficult to hull which is why they were more commonly grown for animal feed, and that's also why most oats today are only hulled and rolled in large industrial processing plants.  Thankfully, there is a type of oats called hulless oats which are more suitable for home growers.  These oats still technically have hulls, but the groats knock from the hulls more freely.  We grow our oats the same way as wheat aside from changes to the spacing and harvest timing, and the threshing machine is used for this crop as well. After that work is done, the oats are stored in 3 gallon buckets just like our wheat.  We don’t mill our oats into flower, but we did pick up a small hand powered oat flaker to make our own rolled oats for baked oatmeal, porridge, and granola.



One doesn't often see a stand of oats right beside a bed of carrots and parsnips but it works.

Lentils


The last crop on our list is the lowly lentil.  These plants produce numerous pods that contain just one or two lentils at most so harvesting a large patch of lentils all by hand could potentially be quite ridiculous.  I only took on this crop because I already had the threshing machine to employ, and I was delighted to find that I could run the lentil pods through this machine as well.  Some refining is still needed in our harvesting process for this crop, but our yield was much higher than the industry average and we don’t use lentils as often as wheat or oats, so I think we’ll continue to fit lentils into our crop lineup in small quantities in the future. We just store the lentils in unsealed canning jars that sit alongside our other preserves. The 100 square foot patch of lentils in the photo below yielded 8 lbs of lentils.



lentils planted in garden
Lentils are planted densely in the beds on the right here.

lentil in hand
That's what you get from one lentil pod, and that's why I wouldn't tackle this crop without a threshing machine.

That brings us to the end of our top 9 crops to grow and store through the winter without refrigeration.  If you’re growing in a different climate than us, you may be able to think of a few additional crops you can grow with these same long storage abilities, but regardless of your location, I think you’ll find that this list is going to remain pretty short and that most of the crops on this list are going to be the ones with the lowest value per square foot. That's one of the reasons we knew that we wanted cold storage to be part of our game plan for food security.  


When you get serious about growing and storing your own food to eat on a year-round basis, one of the best first investments you can make is a large cold storage space. This applies especially if you live in a cold climate like us and your garden is under snow half of the year. The obvious benefit of a large cold storage space is that it allows us to keep enjoying our homegrown vegetables throughout the winter, but after living with our walk-in cooler for just over a decade, I can say that the perks extend well beyond long term winter storage. The large refrigerated space also allows us to harvest crops in bulk in the middle of the summer. These bulk harvests free up bed space in our garden which I can immediately plant with additional crops, thereby growing more food in the same amount of space. Sometimes the cold storage space can help turn a small harvest into a bulk harvest that we can deal with more efficienly. Think of green beans for example. A typical crop will need to be picked every 3 days during the harvest period. I'd rather not have to blanch and freeze a small batch of green beans every three days, but I don't have to anymore. The extra space the cooler provides allows us to stockpile all the beans we can pick for up to two weeks and then we can preserve everything at once. Anyways, I could easily carry on about the many benefits of our cold room, but that would lead me into other subjects and I'm trying to wrap up here, so just imagine how nice it would be to have your own private grocery store in your basement! 🙂  


Sadly, most houses today do not come equipped with a cold storage room like this, but you can change that and I’d love to show you how.  This June, I’m heading down to the Homestead Festival near Nashville, Tennessee to teach a session on Mastering Cold Storage.  I’ll show you everything you need to know to build a cold storage room and how to use it to store your food.  Here's a link to the festival website. If you’d like to grab yourself some festival passes, use the discount code REGIER20 for General Admission passes or REGIER20PLUS for General Admission Plus passes.


If a trip to Tennessee is not a possibility for you, I do have a couple of introductory cold storage posts on my Field Journal that you may want to check out (Heating Water With Our Walk-in Cooler / How to Upgrade to. aWalk-in Cooler for Free) and of course I cover the subject of vegetable storage in great detail in my Seed to Table course so you could always join me there and we could get you set up with your own cold storage space by next season. Imagine having your own crispy carrot supply all year round!  That's the world we live in today, and I'd love to help you get there too.



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