Filling the Root Cellar

Sharon November 14th, 2011

As those of you who have been reading for a while know, I don’t actually have a true root cellar.  Instead, what I have is a south-facing sunporch that doesn’t freeze until we get to about -20 (which happens about 1-2x per winter here).  So for 99% of the time between November and March, I have a highly functional, if imperfect cold space for storing produce.  I hang blankets over the windows to prevent excess light from sprouting tomatoes and keep spare blankets for tucking over the produce if things get crazy-cold.

We put up, for a family of 7, about 250lbs of potatoes, 2oo lbs of onions, around 50-60 good sized squash of various types, 100lbs each of carrots and parsnips (we would eat more carrots than this, but they don’t store as well as some others), 12 bushels of apples (lots of apple fiends in my house, including our new little guy, M.), 200 lbs of sweet potatoes, 60+ heads of cabbage, 100+ heads of garlic (we really like garlic ;-) ) and lesser quantities of beets, turnips, celery root, pears, quinces and other vegetables.  While some things will run out over the course of the winter, we will still be eating onions, potatoes, squash and apples into May most years.  Add to this our in-garden crops (usually more than this year, since we lost the garden to Hurricanes Irene and Lee), which usually include spinach, scallions, kale and winter lettuces, and our preserved and stored food – bulk grains and legumes, condiments and home-preserved items and this forms the bulk of our diet for a good portion of the year.

Normally we fill the cellar gradually, over the course of a sustained harvest season.  With the destruction of our fall garden and many of our summer crops, this year is a little different – our root cellar produce is coming from further away, from farms up in the hills and downstate that weren’t hit as hard as the surrounding ones.  We’ve always relied at least a little on other farms to supplement a bad crop in a difficult year or to expand on what we grow (for example, we grow sweet potatoes here, but it is just too cool and wet for them to be totally happy – mine run small, whereas the sandy-soiled farms in the valley produce real lunkers great for roasting, so we always buy some), but this year we’re doubly grateful for the interconnections that bring food from further away (still not terribly far) to us.

There’s an art to timing root cellaring – for those with true underground storage with fairly consistent temps, this isn’t such a big deal, but for us, we have to wait until things are fairly consistently cold.  An occasional January thaw or November or March day in the 60s is no big deal if the nights are cool – the blankets and insulation help keep things stable, but an extended warm stretch can cause problems.  Still, in general some temperature fluctuations are mostly handled pretty well – at least by everything but the carrots.

We are unable to keep perfect humidity or apples entirely away from potatoes, and find that this just doesn’t matter that much.  Most of the foods in our cellar last fairly well – we could optimize, of course, but that would require more energy and resources than we want to put into it, and we find it more useful to put our energy into say, making kimchi out of the carrots and cabbage nearing their end, or making applesauce out of the apples that shrivel.

This sort of lazy-woman’s root cellaring is the kind of thing that probably many families can do – finding an underused closet and cutting some ventilation, or walling off a corner of a basement, porch or mudroom with insulation enough to keep things from freezing.  The money and time it saves is enormous, and the quality of food we get is also wonderful – things taste fresh, sweet and delicious for months, and it allows us to put our food dollars where we most want them – back in our pockets in years when we grow our own, in the pockets of nearby farmers the rest of the time.

The meals that come out of our cellar are wonderful too – we always have the ingredients of delicious, flavorful meals – a little broth and we’ve got vegetable soup with rich, complex flavors.  A little meat and we have stew.  Some curry paste and we’ve got curried vegetables.  Some tofu and we’ve got a stir-fry.  Add chicken and we’ve got a classic sabbath dinner of roasted chicken, roasted vegetables and greens.  Shepherd’s pie, lentil soup, massaman curry, bubble and squeak, kimchi-vegetable soup, sweet potato pie… it all comes almost effortlessly from our vegetable cold storage.

Sharon

22 Responses to “Filling the Root Cellar”

  1. P.J. Grath says:

    We are planning this winter to use the steps to our unheated upstairs as cold storage. There is a door at the bottom of the stairs to keep cold from seeping into our living quarters, but as long as the house is heated food on the steps shouldn’t freeze. Anyway, that’s our hope. I’ll let you know come spring if it worked.

  2. Marie says:

    The winter CSA that we belong to distributed a wonderful fact sheet on how to find good storage places for your veggies in a typical suburban house…no root cellar, warm basement, etc. We’ve found these tips incredibly helpful for setting up several storage areas for the different types of mini-climates we need to store over winter.

    http://sharedharvestcsa.com/veggie-storage-tips/

    We make great use of our bulkhead. We’ve installed an indoor/outdoor thermometer there with a readout in our kitchen, so that we can monitor the temperature. We save old styrofoam coolers (cast off by others) to hold the bulk of our root crops, cabbages and apples. The potatoes go in flat open trays in an under the stair closet away from the furnace, but dryer than the bulk head. Onions and garlic go in paper bags in a make-shift cooler arrangement of two large cardboard boxes nested with newspaper between for insulation, butted open-end against an outside-North-facing cellar window for dry and cold. I wish we had a true cold-room or root cellar…but with a little thinking I can make our produce last all winter in our home.

  3. Nicole says:

    I have the opposite problem — I have nowhere that gets cold enough for anything like a root cellar. Instead I use a room in the basement. It has very consistent humidity and temperature, but the temperature is too high — 65F. If I close the heat vents down there, it doesn’t get much cooler and it does get too humid. A porch or an area outside would fluctuate far too much in temperature even if on average it were cooler.

    Still, my winter squash and sweet potatoes can make it to at least February if properly cured and packed. I’m experimenting with apples this year with a solid keeping variety, Arkansas Black. I haven’t had anything else in sufficient quantities to store for long.

    So mine is imperfect, too, but better than nothing. At least I have ample space. It makes storing grain and preserved food very easy and convenient.

  4. karyn says:

    Why do you say you’re a family of seven? Did I miss a post in the foster parent venture?

  5. Karen says:

    My veterinarians’ offices have been a good source of styrofoam coolers for me. There are a number of medicines and vaccines that are shipped in them and the offices I’ve asked have always been happy to collect them and let me know when they’ve got a stash for me. The office staff usually hates to just throw them away, so it’s a win-win.
    With a few holes punched in the bottom, they also make good containers for patio gardening.

  6. dixiebelle says:

    Sounds like you have a new mouth to feed, and what a wonderful way to be fed! I am sure it is hardwork, but it all sounds so good and ideal! Thank goodness you could find suitable ways to outsource your food this season, and here is hoping for a Hurricane free season next year! Best of wishes with introducing M into your lives…

  7. Jenn says:

    Living in an apartment there isn’t an immediately apparent root cellar option around here. That said, I’m considering if there’s a way to put a heavily insulated box (or something similar) on the outside patio to serve as cold storage instead. I’m concerned it might still get too cold, or that it will be accessible to animals (and maybe people), but I’m trying to think a bit more outside the box on this one.

  8. Brad K. says:

    Sharon,

    Matron of Husbandry, I think, wrote about using a stack of bales in her barn to form a “cave” for the squash and root veggies. She checked them periodically to catch potatoes, especially, if they start going bad, before they spread to the rest of the batch.

    Can’t you make a rudimentary root cellar by digging a 2 foot deep hole, and covering with a cover and straw? I mean, a root cellar for a modest amount of roots and squash needn’t be fully walk-in size, does it?

    I wonder, though — How do you organize your provender? I have seen classic style bushel, half-bushel, and peck baskets for sale at TSC and online. I also have a couple of tin 5-gallon pails, but I wonder about using them.

  9. Karen says:

    Do you have trouble with mice/rats on your porch, or do your cats take care of them sufficiently? We are considering the same sort of setup – unheated, but lightly insulated porch – but it’s connected to the garage, where we already have pest presence due to animal feed storage there. Our cat doesn’t care much for “mousing” and I’m hesitant to put out poison or traps where the cat and my son could potentially get into them.

  10. Sharon says:

    Hi Karen – we have six cats, so we don’t worry much about pests ;-) . And yes, we have a foster placement now – I did post about this, but things get missed. M. has been with us for a month (supposed to just be a weekend) and may be going to a relative this week. He’s a delightful, sweet 2 1/2 year old boy who we’ll miss enormously, but since it was never supposed to be permanent, we’re not shocked.

    Brad, we definitely could dig a root cellar, but it would be in every way less convenient for me than walking out on the porch in the winter – snow to clear away, frozen ground to work around, etc… so I haven’t bothered.

    I use a mix of bushel baskets and food grade plastic, as well as some open shelving. For the potatoes we use an old freezer (not plugged in) and we use some reused styrofoam coolers as well.

    Sharon

  11. FarmerAmber says:

    Our family has been using shelves in the garage, shelves in a cool pantry, buckets, coolers and in-ground storage for a few years now. We grow a lot of our own food even though we live in town. One of the first things people say when they hear how much we grow each year is “you must have a basement to store all that!” We don’t. Not even a crawl space. It has proven to us that we can do an aweful lot with exactly the methods described here! To anyone just getting started – try it! You can find a way to make it work.

  12. Claire says:

    We have a slanted door like the one in the Wizard of Oz, only ours leads to a small anteroom that has a door into the basement on one wall and a hole into the crawl space on the opposite wall. (The crawl space is under an addition to the house.) This anteroom works quite nicely as a root cellar from roughly mid-November to mid-March in the St. Louis, MO area. We put the produce into 5 gallon buckets or coolers, with the lids on. So far I haven’t noticed any problems with rot from leaving the lids on. The lids may serve as a mouse deterrent. We’ve had very little trouble with mice, nothing that a snap trap hasn’t been able to fix, so far.

  13. Nicole says:

    For those considering food storage, the Bubels’ “Root Cellaring” is an excellent review of possible practices. Small, cheap book, packed cover to cover with ideas.

    For more ideas including bigger solutions for market growers, the FAO has a lot online:
    http://www.fao.org/WAIRdocs/x5403e/x5403e00.htm

    Apartment dwellers may want to consider investing in a really good 5 day cooler or two. I would think they’d make a good mobile root cellar.

  14. Linda in Florida says:

    Just getting started here in Florida. Was hoping I could get a winter garden going but life got in the way. Not sure what kind of food
    storage is appropriate for central Florida. Any suggestions so I can start planning now.

  15. Marija says:

    This is my first year of using my bulkhead as a makeshift root cellar. I have a heavy wooden door that separates the bulkhead stairs from the rest of the dirt-floor basement, which hopefully will keep out the critters (we have families of mice and chipmunks living in the basement – it’s an old farmhouse). I insulated the bulkhead doors. I’m curious to see how it all goes.

    I did this because it was a banner year for squash, and I got more hubbards and butternuts than I expected. I also stored potatoes and carrots in wooden boxes covered in dried leaves.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    Can you share your choice of storage squashes? Or point to where you might have posted about storage squash in past articles? We have problems with winter storage because many of the best storage varieties seem to take too long to mature in the field for our short summers.

    Thanks,
    Elizabeth

  17. Nicole says:

    Elizabeth,

    Waltham Butternut stores very well for me, even at warmer than optimal temperatures. It starts coming in long before frost. Although it keeps producing for me until frost, that first batch might come in soon enough for you? (80-100 days) Huge vines and huge squash (5-6+ pounds… last year I have one 9 pound monster.)

    It also has great taste, so if it works for your season length and climate, it’s a pretty good no-compromise variety.

  18. Dene says:

    I’m so happy that my husband is building me a real root cellar! In Texas, the weather is just too warm, even in the winter, to have good results with a porch or a pantry. Looking forward to using the cool underground temps to help us store our crops.

  19. tim-10-ber says:

    Oh…to have a true root celler. If I knew it would stay generally cold enough during the winter, I think our storage shed would work but with the typical january or february thaw…I will have to try the shed…thanks for the idea!!

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  21. I think the basement is one of the best and most natural way to secure crops and winter food. I should pay attention when building to do their best.

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