One of the most satisfying aspects of homesteading is harvesting and putting up food stores for the winter. After all, this is the very essence of sustainable, independent living: making sure that your family is fed year-round from what you produce on your land.
Once the harvest is gathered and winter sets in, though, you finally have time to take a breath and get to all those projects that you didn’t have a chance to take care of during the growing season. While late fall is a great time to get outdoor repairs done on your house and outbuildings, when the snow falls, you need some indoor projects to keep you occupied.
Storing Winter Potatoes
While some vegetables and fruits are best kept refrigerated or even frozen, many more crops will keep in a cool, dark place without expending any extra energy. Potatoes are one vegetable with a long shelf life as long as you prepare and store them properly. After digging up fresh potatoes, you should cure them in a warm, dark place with good circulation to allow the skins to dry out.
Once they have dried for two to three weeks, you can store the potatoes for months in a cool, dark place. Many people keep potatoes in a cardboard boxes, but the ideal storage container is sturdy, well-ventilated and protected from nibbling mice. You can easily build custom potato storage crates to keep your potatoes over many winters to come.
Building Potato Crates
To make your own potato crates, you need some spare lumber and nails, plus a roll of quarter-inch hardware cloth. While many frugal homesteaders will be happy to repurpose scrap wood for this project, you can also pick up some new 1x3s if needed.
For each crate, cut 20 12-inch lengths of wood and 15 13-1/2-inch lengths. You can make quick work of this cut list with a nice table saw, but a handsaw will also work.
Use the 12-inch lengths to make five square frames. Nail them together at the corners and place them flat on your work surface. Cut a square of hardware cloth to fit over each frame, but leave a quarter inch of wood around the outer edge uncovered. This will help you avoid future cuts on any sharp edges of metal.
Once the hardware cloth is centered on the frame, place a 13-1/2-inch length of wood across the center of the frame, sandwiching the hardware cloth between the slat and the frame on each end. Nail in place.
Next, flatten the hardware cloth along the edge of the frame to the left of the center slat you just nailed. Hold it in place along the edge of the frame with another long slat and nail in place. Repeat on the opposite end of the frame. You should now have three parallel slats holding the hardware cloth in place. Repeat for each of the four remaining frames.
All that’s left to do is to nail your frames together to form a cube with an open top. The slats and edges of the hardware cloth should be on the inside of the crate as you assemble it. If you like, you can add a pair of drawer pulls to opposite ends of the crate for handles to help you move the crate easily — a cubic foot of potatoes can be heavy!
Using Your Crates
Line your crates with clean newspaper before placing your cured potatoes in the box. Stack potatoes just one layer high, and then add a layer of newspaper before adding another layer of potatoes, continuing the pattern until you reach the top of the box. Cover the final layer with newspaper and place the crate in a cool, dark corner of the basement or root cellar.
The hardware cloth is the secret weapon in this homemade crate that will allow for proper ventilation to keep potatoes fresh. It also keeps mice from chewing through your harvest over the long winter. The newspaper will help keep your potatoes from getting too much light exposure, and using it in layers will add an additional barrier to prevent any rot or mildew from transferring from one potato to another. Even with this insurance, it’s a good idea to inspect your potatoes once every week or two to catch any spoilage before it has a chance to spread.
Storing your harvest is an important winter project, and building these durable crates will make keeping potatoes fresh a simple task for future winters. Feel free to experiment with different shapes and sizes to customize the crate to fit in your own space. For very little investment, you can build enough to hold your entire root vegetable harvest in short order. Best of all, this rainy-day project keeps idle hands busy during the long winter on the homestead.