Our winter squash got off to a slow start this year because of the cool, damp spring, but the warmth of the summer that extended into fall has resulted in our best crop ever. It has made dragging the hose out to irrigate several times worthwhile.

The goal now is to make sure the winter squash stays firm and flavorful well into the period when the name of the vegetable implies that it should be eaten.

The squash bounty got me thinking about how to keep the food from our garden good to eat – maybe even until we get some more crops next year.

My wife Nancy and I don’t do a lot of typical food preservation. We prefer to eat our crops shortly after we harvest them.

It makes little sense to can or freeze vegetables for just the two of us. If we have more than we can eat fresh of strawberries, raspberries and (we someday hope to have this happen again) blueberries, Nancy will make jam or, with raspberries or blueberries, freeze them whole. We do cut up peppers and freeze those, but since we don’t have an extra stand-alone freezer, we don’t have a lot of space for much frozen food.

Fortunately, a lot of what we harvest can be stored without refrigeration.

With winter squash – we have butternut and buttercup, but this is also true for blue hubbard and spaghetti squash – preservation begins with proper harvesting. A light frost with the temperature no colder than about 30 degrees won’t damage the squash. But with the first frost coming so late this year, at least in Cape Elizabeth where we haven’t had one as I write this, I fear that we’ll get a hard freeze along with the first frost.

By now, your squash is as ripe as it is going to get. If the squash sounds hollow when you tap it, the skin is dull and you can’t dent the skin with your fingers, it’s ready to harvest.

Cut the squash from the plant with a sharp knife or scissors, leaving a stem of two inches or more. If stems break off, eat those squash first because they won’t store as well.

After cleaning the fruits (which they are botanically, although they are eaten as vegetables) with a damp cloth, cure them in a warm area with good air circulation for about two weeks. This allows some of the excess water in the fruit to evaporate, toughens the skin so it will store longer and sweetens the flavor. I usually do this on the floor of our garden shed, but a garage floor would work as well.

Don’t refrigerate winter squash. The refrigerator is too moist and too cool, and the squash will rot within a month. Instead find a cool – around 55 degrees – and relatively dry area. A basement area away from the furnace is ideal.

Check the squash weekly and eat any that are showing damage first.

With onions, only the pungent varieties, such as Copra and Redwing, will keep over the winter. Sweet varieties, such as Spanish and Walla Walla, last no more than a month.

As with squash, you have to cure the crop – about two weeks in a warm, dry space. You then put the onions in a breathable container – burlap sacks or the mesh bags they are packed in at grocery stores if you have any of those around – and hang them in the coolest place you can find; 40 degrees is ideal, but few houses have spots that cool. Don’t store onions near potatoes because both will release gases and moisture that make the other one rot faster. But you can put them fairly near your squash if that is your coolest place.

Now we get into root-cellar crops – the ones that want to be close to freezing but without freezing. These include potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips and turnips. If you had enough refrigerator space, that would be ideal – but you probably don’t.

I created our root cellar in the bulkhead of our basement, and it has worked well for about 10 years. We have had doors separating the bulkhead space from the rest of the basement since the house was built, but later we added Styrofoam insulation to the bulkhead walls and the area above the walls.

Each container for the vegetables should allow some air circulation – bushel baskets would be fine, but I use the plastic pots that plants come in, because we have a lot of them, with a couple of extra holes drilled into them.

Because these root crops like high humidity, I place a five-gallon bucket filled with water in with the crops. This also protects the crops from freezing. Because the water in your crops contains salts, the water in the bucket will freeze first and keep the vegetables from freezing – this has something to do with physics but you’ve got the wrong Atwell for physics information. Over the years I’ve discovered that the bucket begins freezing when the outside temperature hits about 5 degrees, so I crack the interior doors to the bulkhead a bit as a backup to my bucket system – although the top of the pail often freezes.

Nancy and I also store dried black beans. Our method will work for any dried beans: I wait until the pods have dried before harvesting them, separate the beans from the pods and put them in a sealed jar. We eat what we want through the winter, always making sure that we save enough to plant the next year’s crop.

I can’t believe I’m thinking about spring already and we haven’t even had a frost yet.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]