By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Sweet potatoes are versatile tubers that have fewer calories than traditional potatoes and are a perfect stand in for that starchy vegetable. You can have homegrown tubers for months past the growing season if you know how to store sweet potatoes after harvest. Sweet potato storage requires careful curing to prevent mildew and to trigger the formation of sugar producing enzymes. Curing is the key to harvesting and storing sweet potatoes for months of enjoyment.
Sweet potatoes are delicious eaten right after harvest, but their true flavors deepen as they cure. During the curing process, the starches in the tuber turn into sugar, intensifying the buttery sweet flavor and texture of the potato. Once the curing process has been finished, the sweet potatoes are ready to be packed for long term storage. Traditional methods recommend storing sweet potatoes in sand, but you can also use a box or perforated plastic bag in the right temperatures and conditions.
Curing is crucial to storing sweet potatoes for winter successfully. Harvest the potatoes in a dry period if possible. Try to minimize any damage to the tuber, as it invites mold, insects and disease. Lay out the tubers carefully and let them dry for 10 days to 2 weeks in a warm location with high humidity.
Ideal temperatures are 80 to 85 F. (26 to 29 C.) with a humidity level of 80 percent. To cure the potatoes indoors, store them near the furnace, packed in boxes covered with a cloth to enhance humidity. Temperatures indoors generally range from 65 to 75 F. (15 to 23 C.), so the longer period of 2 weeks curing is recommended.
Provided proper steps are taken during harvesting and storing sweet potatoes, the tubers should last well into winter. After the curing period is up, brush off any dirt that may still remain on the potatoes.
Pack them in paper boxes or wrap them in newspaper and store in a cool pantry or closet. The best temperature to keep the roots fresh is 55 to 60 F. (12 to 15 C.) but don’t refrigerate them for more than a few days, as they are susceptible to cold injury.
Check the sweet potatoes often and remove any that may start to mildew to prevent the fungus from spreading to the other tubers.
Our grandparents would place the tubers in a situation called banking. This required circular beds with foot high earthen walls to be prepared. The base of the circle was covered with straw and the potatoes piled up in a cone structure. Then a tepee structure of boards was erected over the pile and more straw packed on top.
Earth was gradually mounded over the 6 to 10 inches (15-25 cm.) of top straw with more boards placed over the apex of the tepee to prevent moisture from running into the pile. The key with this type of sweet potato storage was to provide ventilation, prevent water from entering and keep the tubers cool but not allow them to freeze.
It is not recommended to bank the tubers in sand because it doesn’t allow for adequate ventilation. However, you can store them in sand packed in layers in barrels or crates. The sand cushions them and prevents injury and keeps the sweet potatoes cool enough while preventing a freeze.
This method works best if the barrel is stored in a warmish basement or modestly warm garage. Root cellars may also work well, if they are not in a zone where deep freezes are common.
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Read more about Sweet Potatoes
Dig sweet potatoes carefully to avoid bruising the tubers bruising can lead to rot.
Botanical Names: Ipomoea batatas
The best way to store sweet potatoes is to select an area that is dry and cool. Those areas that come to mind for storing sweet potatoes in the home include a garage, basement or cellar. It is important to meet these environmental conditions or it could result in your harvest becoming rotted or sprouted.
Some recommend washing and rinsing potatoes prior to storage. This could easily lead to rot, with too much moisture left on the sweet potatoes. If the dirt on the sweet potatoes is an issue with storing, use a dry cloth to remove any excess dirt after harvesting. If you have mistakenly pierced any of your potatoes while harvesting, do not fret. The potatoes will naturally heal themselves while in the curing process.
Cool conditions do not mean refrigerated. Typical home basement temperatures can range between 70 to 65 degrees during the fall and winter months with heat going. The curing time will range from 15 to 35 days. During the curing processes, the sweet potatoes will develop a more pronounced taste that is very sweet. It is important to cure only for a certain period so that potatoes do not start to sprout and actively grow. You want all the energy to go into resting and curing.
Once curing is completed, placing your sweet potatoes in a cooler environment (preferably 55 to 65 degrees) with high humidity will help them preserve and stay fresh for use through the winter months. Many prefer to place the sweet potatoes in brown paper bags to optimize storage. Typically, four to six months of storage is the longest they will last.
Importantly, do not store your sweet potatoes near certain other vegetables as the sweet potatoes can cause the others to ripen more quickly than preferred. Take onions, for example, they are wonderful companions when combined in dishes, but if stored together the gases from the onion can actually cause the potato to spoil and sprout more quickly. Other vegetables and fruits that can cause early sprouting consist of bananas and apples.
For cooking, simply rinse and scrub the potato before using. To bake, preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, pierce the skin with a fork, coat with olive oil, place on a cookie sheet and bake for 40 to 60 minutes. Do not wrap in aluminum foil, being unwrapped causes the potato’s sugar to caramelize.
If your sweet potatoes do begin to sprout, simply cook them until soft and then freeze them. Make sure to cool prior to packing cooked sweet potatoes in plastic freezer bags. Measuring several cups per freezer bag and labeling them with the measurement will help with cooking dishes when using in the future. When needed, simply pull out of the freezer the amount needed for your desired recipe. Preferred defrosting would be to leave at room temperature until soft, but microwave or stove defrosting is possible as well.
Here are some of your best plants to grow for storage, including both fruits and vegetables, with no refrigeration or freezer required.
There are several kinds of garlic you can grow, including hardneck and softneck. The best type of garlic to grow for storage will depend on where you live. Although softneck garlic stores much better than hardneck, hardneck is really the kind you should be growing if you live in an area with harsh winters.
The beauty of garlic is that you’ll plant it in the fall. So rather than needing to store garlic through the winter, you’ll store it through the summer. This can help you save even more room in your pantry or root cellar. Bulbs usually last around 7 months in storage.
Not all carrots last a long time in storage, but certain varieties, like Chantenay, Danvers, and Imperator, are good ones to choose from. Sow seeds later in the season, so that the carrots mature around the time of the first frost. You can leave your carrots in the ground through a light frost but make sure you pull them out before they freeze.
Beets are root vegetables with a distinct taste, but as long as you harvest them properly, waiting until the roots are 2-3-inches in diameter with 2-inches of greens attached, they should last for around 4 months with no refrigeration necessary.
Just about any good gardener knows that potatoes last a really, really long time. The beauty here is that you don’t have to do anything to get them to last, either!
If you are going to store potatoes through the winter, first select a variety that is meant specifically for this purpose. “Kennebec” is an example of a good option, though just about any kind of homegrown potato can last through the winter and into the spring as long as they are stored correctly.
To keep your homegrown potatoes fresh, you will need to stash them in a cool, dry, dark, and well-ventilated location. Don’t bother keeping potatoes that are cut, blemished, or damaged in any way. In most cases, potatoes that are stored correctly can last for 4-6 months.
When it comes to growing plants for long-term storage, you don’t have to rely solely on vegetables to keep you satiated. Fruits are also great choices. Apples are some of the best. Heirloom apples, along with those that are more tart, are your best options.
You might consider growing varieties like Pink Ladies, Honeycrisps, Fujis, or Rome Beauties for the longest shelf-life. As with storing potatoes, make sure you only hang on to the freshest, most mature, and least blemished options. Wrap each apple in a newspaper and keep it in an apple crate until you’re ready to use it.
If you want to add more variety to your diet and are looking for another fruit that lasts well in storage, consider pears. These should be stored in relatively cold temperatures around 31°F, but they can last up to 3 months.
Another root crop that you can grow for storage is the turnip. They’ll last for several months, provided that you cut off the tips to stop them from pulling moisture from the roots and keep them in cool, dark conditions.
Winter squash is definitely underrated – but there’s a reason why pumpkin pie is served at Thanksgiving. Pumpkins are winter squashes, after all, and they last long into the winter and often even the spring months.
How well your winter squash stores will depend on the type you decide to grow. Although both spaghetti and acorn squash last for several months, there’s not much that beats butternut or Hubbard squash. Generally speaking, the thicker the skin, the longer your squash will store. Curing is a great way to harden up the skin and make sure your squash stores as long as you need it to.
Onions are also well-known for their storage abilities. You likely know this yourself if you have had the same bag of onions hanging out on your countertop for the last few months.
If you decide you want to store onions, let them cure for several weeks (the tops should be totally dry). Once cured, cut all but 1-inch off the tops of your onion greens and store the bulbs in mesh bags. Most can last up to 8 months when stored this way.
The often forgotten cousin of the carrot, the parsnip is another vegetable that can easily be stored. Sow your seeds directly into the garden in early spring and harvest once the first frost has passed. You should be able to store these tasty tubers for up to 5 months.
As long as they haven’t been exposed to chilling temperatures, both broccoli and cauliflower can last a couple of weeks if you store them in a root cellar. Look for large, unblemished heads.
Sweet potatoes are also good options when it comes to long-term storage. Harvest your sweet potatoes as gingerly as possible, though, because any nicks can easily turn to rot in a hurry. Curing your sweet potatoes before you store them can increase their shelf-life, as can stashing them in a cool, dark location. Like regular potatoes, they’ll keep for up to 4-6 months.
Tomatillos should ideally be refrigerated, but these tasty little fruits can also be stored at room temperature for several days to a week (often longer, if they aren’t totally ripe when you bring them in).
Although tomatoes certainly aren’t going to last as long as other storage veggies, like carrots and potatoes, you can keep them much longer than you probably realize – if stored correctly. Bring them in when they are green or just barely ripe. Put them in the dark and once they’re ripe, you’ll have a supply for 2 or more weeks.
Jerusalem artichokes aren’t common vegetables that people grow, but these tasty little tubers are good veggies to consider if you don’t want to have to rely on your refrigerator. You can store them in cool, humid conditions (ideally packed in sand) for around 2-5 months.
Because leeks are so closely related to onions and garlic, they also store quite well, too. Leeks can last up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator, but can also be stored in a root cellar for up to 4 months.
Brussels sprouts can be stored in a root cellar, too. For the best flavor, wait until several frosts have hit your plants. You can then hang them upside down in a root cellar where they will last for several months.
Lots of people don’t know this, but even cabbages can be stored long-term. You’ll have to choose cabbages that are listed specifically as storage types – make sure you do some research to find a good option. Some storage-specific varieties include Brunswick, Storage No. 4 (what an apt name!), Late Flat Dutch, and Red Acre, in general, red cabbage will store better than green.
Choose heads that are firm and solid before you store. After the first frost, pull the entire plant out of the grounds and cut off any excess leaves around the head. Look for any bugs that might be hanging out there, too, but don’t rinse or wash your plants in any way.
Keep in mind that it’s sometimes best to store cabbages in a separate location from your other storage plants. It has a strong scent that can change the flavor of things like pears and apples.
The humble rutabaga is not nearly as popular as it once was, likely because we can eat other vegetables more often now that we have widespread refrigeration.
Rutabaga takes a long time to mature but they’ll store for 3-4 months in a root cellar. They’re also nutrient-dense. The best way to store rutabaga is in a bucket filled with damp sand. These veggies need to be kept cool and in conditions of around 90% humidity, so keep that in mind when you’re deciding where you want to store these.
You can even grow your own beans for your storage garden. Dried beans technically aren’t one type of plant, per se, but by growing any kind of bean that is meant for drying and planting it in the early spring, after the risk of frost, you can improve your storage abilities.
Some bean varieties take up to 100 or more days to mature, and you’ll have to let your beans dry on the vine to do this. Once you do, you can store dried beans in jars for up to a year.
Last but not least, the winter radish. Although most radishes can be stored for several weeks, the winter radish can be stored even longer. In a root cellar, winter radishes can last up to 3 months!
If you’re like me, the start of fall is not only exciting for the refreshing cooler weather it brings: It also means I can put up my canning equipment. The wonderful, hearty fall vegetables — winter squashes, potatoes and, of course, sweet potatoes — can store themselves for several months if harvested and stored properly. Sweet potatoes, with the high vitamin content found in their orange flesh, are an especially great and versatile fall and winter food.
After watching the beautiful, winding vines cover your garden beds through the summer months, it can be hard to know when it’s the right time to go grab the spading fork and dig out the fleshy tubers. While sweet potatoes can be dug as soon as the tubers have reached a suitable size — between three and four months after planting the slips — the flavor and quality improves with colder weather. Some even wait until after the first frost has blackened the leaves, but only if you can get all your sweet potatoes out of the ground quickly and right away. Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening makes the following recommendation: “You can harvest as soon as leaves start to yellow, but the longer a crop is left in the ground, the higher the yield and vitamin content. Once frost blackens the vines, however, tubers can quickly rot.”
The most common tool for digging sweet potatoes out of the ground is a spade fork, although a shovel will work, and the ambitious harvester can even adapt a broad fork to dig more plants at one time. If you have a large plot, you can adjust a mold-board plow to mechanically turn the sweet potatoes out of the ground. Tubers can grow a foot or more away from the plant, so give ample space to prevent nicking and damaging the skin, as this encourages spoilage. Digging is much easier when the soil is dry, and mud-coated sweet potatoes are less likely to sun-dry properly and rapidly.
Dry freshly dug sweet potatoes in the sun for several hours, then move them to a curing room. Although you can cook sweet potatoes fresh out of the ground, the natural sweetness improves after curing. Proper curing also heals injuries incurred to the tubers during harvest, which helps guarantee successful storage. The simplest curing method is to place the sweet potatoes in newspaper-lined boxes in a warm, well-ventilated room — ideally between 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit at around 85 percent humidity — for a week to 10 days. A hoop house or green house works well for this, but any space where you can control the temperature will work. After curing, move the sweet potatoes to a storage space, such as a root cellar, kept between 55 and 60 degrees with humidity of 75 to 80 percent. (If you don’t have a root cellar, you can build your own basement root cellar.)
Now that you have your sweet potatoes dug, cured and stored, look for some great sweet potato recipe ideas on our Relish! blog.
There are 2 main culprits to avoid once your sweet potatoes are cured. First, you need to avoid cold temperatures. This will cause your sweet potatoes to turn a darker color and ruin them.
So you don’t want to store your cured sweet potatoes in cold locations such as your fridge.
Second, you need to avoid bruising your sweet potatoes. Even cured sweet potatoes will bruise easily. Remember, when produce gets bruised, it just creates a place for rot to form. When rot forms, your harvest is in danger.
So be gentle on your sweet potatoes so they can last.
Of course, the list above doesn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to growing a self-sustaining garden that will feed your family for months on end. If you have access to both a water bath and pressure canner – and know how to use them – you’ll open up even more possibilities. You can preserve practically anything with no freezing or refrigeration.
Whether you’re planning for a zombie apocalypse sans refrigeration (ha!) or you just like the idea of being prepared with enough food should the power go out, growing these storage plants is a smart idea. You’ll have everything you need to make delicious, nutritious meals, and you won’t have to worry about your produce going bad before you get the chance to use it.
Consider adding a few of these crops to your garden rotation – you won’t regret it!