Root Cellars: Putting up the Harvest, My Way
It’s pretty simple, really. I like the easy road. Grab a carrot, a few potatoes, and some onions and cook up dinner. And sometimes that easy road requires a little extra upfront planning and execution. For me, the easy road in terms of gardening is storing my vegetables straight from the garden. No fuss. No processing. I want a head of cabbage in December, not a jar of sauerkraut. I want a crisp carrot for my January garden salad or stir fry, not the shredded and fermented version. While I do dabble in lacto-fermented foods, I find it so simple and idyllic to have a passive refrigeration system in our home that will help us extend our rather short growing season well into the fall and winter. It’s like a farmers market in our own home.
How Root Cellars Work
Roots and other storage vegetables require different types of storage conditions, depending on the vegetable. Roots require similar conditions to their outdoor growing conditions: a dark, moist environment where humidity approaches 100%. Imagine creating a space that emulates still being in the ground after a fall frost. It’s chilly, but not freezing, you’re surrounded by damp but not soaking soil, and it’s pitch black. All those things you’ve plucked from the ground like potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, rutabaga, winter radish, and so on need a root cellar with more or less those conditions to remain at peak harvest conditions while storing. Included in this damp, moist environment are other veggies — mostly brassicas — that are known to store well including brussels sprouts, cabbage (several kinds), leeks, kohlrabi, broccoli, and cauliflower.
Flip to the other side of storage and you have vegetables that require low humidity (think: the inside of your winter home with low humidity and a chilly, dark closet), vegetables who would grow moldy if kept in a moist environment. And thankfully these vegetables do well in warmer conditions than the humid-loving roots. Vegetables in this category include your onions, garlic, shallots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, and dried hot peppers.
If I had one bit of advice to share with gardeners, it would be to start with those roots easiest to store. It costs nearly nothing to put up a basket of onions for the winter, save some strategic space for curing them in August/September in your garage or barn. The biggest thing is to make sure your house is dry - so for southern growers that’s in an air conditioned space. We converted an oversized, underused double door closet into our dry cellar; it is notoriously chilly in this closet in winter, which will only increase the storage effectiveness for the food we store there. As the years go by, this will also be a great place to store our canned tomato sauce and other canned goodies, should I ever motivate to take that route (I think we will for tomato sauce as it’s a weekly ingredient in our family meals).
Confession: last year we stored our onions in an old milk carton on the floor of our mudroom. It was low humidity and warmer temps (60s). and they did remarkably well, lasting well into February. This year I don’t think I cured them long enough and I can see some are already showing signs of improper storage, spots where mold is forming from high moisture. I’m sure like me, you have cut open a store-bought onion only to find it molding - yes, it happens to homegrown onions, too, if not cured properly. I don’t think I cured ours long enough before cutting off the stems this year. Lesson learned, the hard way. Ours aren’t ruined, but I am cutting off more than I’d like on many of the red onions, though we also have a huge crop, so a little loss for this learning is hardly crushing.
We will be prioritizing our menu around vegetables that aren’t lasting as long as expected, and it’s looking like caramelized onions are going to be making a big splash sooner than later. This is all part of how we learn, and this concept of storing food is still a very new skill for us, and we have a lot to learn and hone, though we’ve learned so much already.
Last year I also attempted to store our butternut and kabocha squash in the garage inside a large plastic bin, but we got bitterly cold before the Holidays and they froze. Solid. I had not read Root Cellaring a year ago, and also hadn’t done any research on how to store my winter squash and ended up ruining about half a dozen kabocha and butternut squash. Let’s just say I am sort of stubborn, and really love experiential knowledge, enjoying the path of self-learning even when it includes failures like my frozen winter squash rather than reading in a book. I’m a doer, what can I say. Now I know what happens to winter squash when it goes below freezing for a few nights.
This summer, in an effort to feed ourselves deeper into Winter than ever before and ideally becoming more self-sufficient with each passing year, we built a walk-in closet in an unused corner of our oversized garage. This was just one step of many toward a more self-sufficient lifestyle. I don’t anticipate us every being fully self-sufficient, but the process of exploring food storage and the challenge of feeding ourselves for as many months as possible throughout the year drives our yearning to expand what is possible here in Minnesota.
What We Did
Our new root cellar is not in an ideal location as the exterior wall is south-southeast facing and gets a good pounding of sunlight from very early in the day, thus driving the temperature up on sunny days. However, we (I mean, my husband!) insulated both the walls and ceiling really well, loosely following the guidelines laid out in the wonderful resource from Storey Publishing called Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel.
In the heat of the summer …
Here’s the root cellar in progress: wired, insulated, fresh air intakes installed. We built this in such a way as to be ready to add a second one adjacent to it when the time comes for when our fruit orchard is in full production (apple storage!).
We foresee needing to add a cooling system to it in order to store food in the shoulder months, and currently we are using a thermostat timer attached to a growing mat to keep it between 34-37 degrees. The heating pad turns on when the temperature hits 34 and shuts off when it reaches 38. So far, it seems to be doing the job well. I had hoped after our immense investment of time and resources to build it, that this would be more passive than it is, but apparently it isn’t uncommon to need to supplement heating/cooling to storage systems.
We chose to utilize materials that would not absorb moisture, thus minimizing any risk of mold forming in the cellar. For the walls, we installed foil-lined insulation panels and used metal tape (hvac tape) in lieu of sheetrock and mud. For the shelves, we invested in metal shelving systems and metal baskets instead of wood. We built this to hopefully last the many and numerous decades ahead where we will hone our skills and, year by year, learn how to both eat well during the summer months while also planning for crops that can be stored away for later consumption as fresh vegetables.
As you recall, it needs to be as close to 100% humidity as possible for those precious roots to retain moisture and peak storage conditions. We have a digital thermometer with hygrometer; it is essential you have a way to measure your humidity. One way to measure would be the firmness of your roots, though once they begin to lose moisture, they won’t regain it.
Currently our root cellar is maintaining around 85% humidity, which is a bit lower than it should be, but the roots are packed in baskets with dampened sawdust and are holding their moisture well. The sawdust is slowly drying out, but our consumption of some of the roots such as carrots is far exceeding the drying process.
It is the middle of December and we have turnips, black radish, watermelon radish, daikon, leeks, brussels sprouts, potatoes, ground cherries, and carrots in the high humidity root cellar. Inside the dry cellar, we have a ton of onions and shallots, over a dozen delicata squash, our dried beans, some peanuts, and our popping corn. My goal was to also have cabbage and beets in the root cellar, but our cabbages didn’t produce very well this fall and the voles ate my beets, which was a devastating turn of events this fall, one I’m still contemplating how to mitigate for next year.
That’s the beauty of gardening: there’s never an end. Instead, it’s the joy of witnessing what’s around the next bend.