Root Cellaring and In-Garden Storage

Sharon July 31st, 2008

This is actually a subject I’ve written on several times before, but I do want to both remind people of its possibilities, and talk about a related method of storage. 

The basics of root cellaring involve taking a hard shelled or very dense fruit or vegetable with a good storage life naturally, and keeping it very cool – the closer you can get to just above freezing the better.  More realistically, most root cellars will vary by 10 or 15 degrees over the course of the year.  For example, our “root cellar” is actually an unheated porch that doesn’t freeze. By November it is usually cool enough to keep most root cellared vegetables – we store them in bins, bags and boxes.

It matters a lot what varieties you choose for storage – I’ve written more about this here:

http://sharonastyk.com/2008/03/12/growing-or-buying-fresh-food-for-root-cellaring/

I’ve also written about the way root crops may be more central to our diets here:

http://sharonastyk.com/2004/11/24/thanksgiving-and-seed-saving/

and here:

http://sharonastyk.com/2007/09/15/vegeculture-further-rethinking-how-we-eat/.

But besides formal root cellars (which can be any part of your house that can be kept cool and not too dry – 50-60 degrees F for squash and pumpkins, and onions will often tolerate this for a while although it isn’t ideal – and 40ish F for everything else), there is also in-garden storage.  This is one of those strange hybrid things that could be called “season extension” or “Root Cellaring” but I’m electing to put it with root cellaring.

Basically, in cold climates (those in very warm places may not be able to do this at all, but they should be able to keep plants growing over the winter, or dry, can or otherwise preserve these crops), many crops can be pulled up and left in trenches or holes in the ground, and then covered with a thick (several feet in my climate) layer of hay, straw or leaves.  Straw bales laid over the trenches are perfect.  You may get mice or other critters occasionally, but often things survive fairly well.  

Or as several readers suggested, you can dig a hole and bury some object – a wood or metal barrel, an old cooler, an old fridge or freezer in the ground, and then cover the top with straw or leaves or hay to insulate it.  Voila – instant root cellar!

The only problem, of course is in places like mine where you often get deep, heavy, extended snow cover, you may not really want to dig three feet of snow off the root cellar.  But that is the price of simplicity ;-) .  My own observation is that kids like to help  with this and that there’s a buried treasure quality – but make sure you can take a good bit at a time, since having to dig out every single time you need a carrot would suck.

 Cheers,

 Sharon

8 Responses to “Root Cellaring and In-Garden Storage”

  1. This is an excellent post – it is one thing to produce an abundance of crops and another to keep them viable.

  2. I have a Canadian Winter Question.

    It’s clearly way too cold here to do in-ground storage of anything over the winter, as you’d need power tools to chip the dirt away when you wanted carrots, no matter how well you mulched. :)

    However, I have an old refrigerator that is destined to move to an outdoor shed, and I’m wondering if the interior of that fridge would be workable for keeping things ‘cold but not frozen rock solid’ during the winter.

    Things just stored in the shed *will* freeze solid. However, I am thinking that the fridge will provide insulation from the worst of the cold, and so I’m wondering if perhaps the stuff inside will stay nice. There’s no air circulation though, would that be a problem … or a good thing?

    How would I go about storing things in a fridge? I’m thinking that things like potatoes would be packed in straw in boxes that fit on the shelves, and slid into the fridge that way … or maybe the crisper drawers could be filled with sawdust and layers of carrots … am I thinking in the right direction?

    Thanks for any help! :)

  3. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Root Cellaring and In-Garden Storage The basics of root cellaring involve taking a hard shelled or very dense fruit or vegetable with a good storage life naturally, and keeping it very cool – the closer you can get to just above freezing the better. More realistically, most root cellars will vary by 10 or 15 degrees over the course of the year. For example, our “root cellar” is actually an unheated porch that doesn’t freeze. By November it is usually cool enough to keep most root cellared vegetables – we store them in bins, bags and boxes. [...]

  4. Kati says:

    I’m trying to figure out (with the help of my hubby and my FIL) if we can use the entry to our crawlspace as our root-cellar, at least for one winter. And if it WILL stay cool/cold enough (without being TOO cold), how best to store and access the veggies we’d place down there. I’m thinking milk-crates, but we’d need a lot of them, and a good way for me (the shortest adult in the family) to access them. Rope & pulleys??? Anyway. Yep, trying to figure this out at our place, without building something new as we make our way into autumn here in the Fairbanks, Alaska area.

  5. homebrewlibrarian says:

    Kati – I have the same problem here in Anchorage. I took the temperature of our crawl space and it stayed resolutely 50 degrees even when it was mucking cold outside. Good for winter squash and onions but not good for anything else. It was also too dry in a humidity sort of way. And on top of that, it’s very difficult to get into and so I’ve decided not to go that route. Besides my friend, the landlord, has more than enough, uh, stuff “stored” in the crawl space that it would take a LOT of clearing out for there to be any space to use.

    Root cellaring in the house is right out. I keep toying with the idea of planting a dead refrigerator in the yard but there’s a lot of resistance coming from the friend/landlord and it’s his property so that won’t work either. Since the whole place has baseboard radiators with only one thermostat, I can’t do the “no heat” room either. Leaving a window open in the utility room kept it cooler but not cool enough for winter storage. There is a very small amount of space in the coat closet inside the arctic entry way where potatoes were stored and that worked okay until the sun started hitting the outside wall of the building (it’s a south facing wall) and then it was sprout city. It’s quite a sight opening the closet door and seeing 2 ft potato sprouts!

    Short of actually digging a hole in the yard and building a subterrannean root cellar (I’ve been mulling over that for a while now…), I’m going to have to go another route for produce storage. My plan is to lacto-ferment, dry and/or can foods that don’t require any special storage requirements other than to stay cool and out of direct sunlight. It’s not the same as fresh (or at least raw) but my housing limitations don’t offer many other choices.

    I am going to see if I leave the kale, broccoli, collards and brussels sprouts plants in the garden and mulch the heck out of them that they’ll sprout again in the spring. If not, I’ll just compost the dead parts and call it an experiment.

    Kerri in AK

  6. Nita says:

    We store all our potatoes in our barn in a straw bale root cellar. The humidity is high and the straw bales provide enough insulating value to prevent freezing. Last year, I ran out of boxes, and had to use some clean, although blindly white plastic burlap feed bags to store some of the spuds in. Even buried in the straw bale root “cellar” some of the potatoes turned green. We were still eating potatoes that looked fairly decent in June. We also raise our potatoes with the dry land method, which I think contributes to the long storage factor.

    Our winter squash is stored in our house upstairs, which is unheated, but low humidity. The squash keeps until May. Of, course you do have to manage these things and make sure no spoilage is happening, but low or no cost solutions to food storage.

    Parsnips and carrots for our dairy cow and us, plus rutabagas and winter beets stay in the garden, mulched with soil to prevent freezing. We harvest as needed and check frequently for vole problems. Since I have started using soil, and not straw as mulch, the voles have been kept in check.

    These methods are much easier than canning, freezing and drying everything in sight.

  7. While I have to disagree on some parts, however this was a great post. I look forward to reading more of your pages.

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