At Home in the Adirondacks 2012
How to store your fall harvest
by Yvona Fast
Just a century ago, most country homes had root cellars to store vegetables through the long winter. The advent of refrigeration, cross-continental transport and commercial food preservation in the 1900s hastened the demise of the root cellar. But in the 21st century, the locavore and sustainability movements are bringing traditional produce storage methods back. People want to use the local harvest year round—whether they grew it themselves or bought it from nearby farmers. Consumers can take advantage of bulk buys and seasonal prices, storing heirloom produce while being kind to the environment. Low-tech root cellars don’t use electricity or affect the ozone layer, as refrigeration does.
Not all vegetables can withstand long-term storage. Root cellars are primarily used for crops such as potatoes and carrots and hardy greens like cabbage. Other vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, summer squash and tender greens, will not last and must be frozen or canned.
An ideal root cellar is a cool chamber or passive refrigerator: frost-free, humid and dark, with ventilation. These conditions slow natural ripening and decomposition by microorganisms and the ethylene gas that some fruits and vegetables emit. The storage spot can be a cold room in your home, like an unﬁnished part of the basement. Or it can be a separate underground structure—a hole dug below frost line, lined with rocks or bricks. It can also be an above-ground space that is covered thickly with sod on the outside and lined inside with bricks.
Temperatures must remain between 33 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit year round, to prevent food from freezing during winter or decaying in summer. On an 80-degree day, a well-insulated cellar can be a cool 40 degrees.
Humidity keeps vegetables crisp so they don’t shrivel up as they often do in the refrigerator. The level should be between 65 and 90 percent. One way to inhibit drying is to store produce in buckets with damp sand or sawdust. If the sand is too wet the vegetables may sprout. A thermometer and humidity sensor help monitor conditions.
Finding an ideal place for a root cellar in the Adirondacks can be difﬁcult—especially since not all crops can be preserved in the same environments.
Fuat Latif built a passive-solar home in Vermontville. His place has a root cellar below the house, accessible through a trapdoor in the bathroom ﬂoor. A six-inch vent pipe near the ceiling allows warm air to escape, while an opening near the ground brings in cold air. “I control the temperature by closing the pipes when the correct temperature is reached,” he explains. Latif stores root vegetables in buckets covered with sand, but, he says, “when I harvest cabbages I pull them right out of the ground and leave the roots on. I hang these upside-down from the ﬂoor joists.”
In North Creek, Wes and Noel Dingman have a root cellar “of sorts,” built for their giant garden. Noel was a commercial gardener with a CSA in Maryland before moving to North Creek. “There, it was a three-season garden,” she says. “Here, it’s just two seasons.”
The Dingmans’ storage spot is a six-foot-by-12-foot room with cinder-block walls underneath their solarium. Since it’s below ground it stays consistently cool—about 40 degrees—and because it’s insulated, with a heated ﬂoor above it, the space doesn’t freeze. Bark chips on the plastic-covered ﬂoor help keep a constant humidity.
The couple stores ﬂower bulbs and produce on free-standing metal utility shelves or in open laundry baskets. Onions hang in net bags so air can circulate around them. It’s a simple system, but not the simplest Noel has seen: “I have an acquaintance who buries a trash can in the ground, and that seems to work for him.” She adds, “People [in the Adirondacks] like to leave carrots, turnips and parsnips in the ground and harvest them in the spring after the ground thaws.”
Mind the Store
Choose cultivars that keep well. The higher the sugar, mineral and vitamin levels of the roots, the longer they will last. Most seed catalogs tell you which varieties are best.
Planting and harvest times affect the success of storage. Gather as late as possible, according to vegetable type. Parsnips can be harvested anytime. A hard frost can force beets and turnips out of the dirt, so pick these before temperatures really drop. Turnips should be harvested when they’re no more than three inches in diameter. Late apple varieties keep best.
Choose mature fruit and leave the stems on. In warm weather, cool overnight before storing. For produce to last, it must be healthy and high quality. Use up bruised or nicked vegetables.
Different crops have different needs; you may not have an ideal place for everything. Here are some basic guidelines:
Root vegetables such as beets, carrots, turnips, winter radishes, celeriac, kohlrabi and rutabagas store best at temperatures just above freezing, about 32–40°F, with high humidity (90–95%). Store in buckets or boxes and layer with slightly damp sawdust or clean soil. Parsnips are the hardiest of all root vegetables. You can dig them in the fall and store them in the root cellar, or leave them in the garden till spring and dig the sweetest parsnips after the ground thaws.
Potatoes must be stored in the dark, or they will turn green; do not store them with fruit. They’ll keep for three to nine months at 38–40° and 80–80% humidity. Keep sweet potatoes warm (above 50°) and moist (80–90% humidity).
Cabbage, leeks and other hardy greens do best in cold (32–40°), humid (90–95%) conditions. Wrap loosely in a plastic bag and hang upside down. Will keep three months or more.
Onions and garlic should be kept cold (32–35°) and dry (60–70% humidity). To harvest, pull when mature and dry bulbs in the sun. Best hung in a mesh bag where they have air circulation. Will keep for three to seven months.
Since they emit ethylene gas, which can cause other produce to spoil more quickly, store apples and pears apart from vegetables in cold (32–40°) and humid (80–90%) conditions. The warmer the temperatures, the faster they soften.
Winter squash and pumpkins need warmer temperatures (50–55°) and a drier environment (60–75% humidity). A cool spot such as an entryway, attic or cold pantry where the temperature stays constant can be ideal for keeping squash. Harvest pumpkins and squash when the skin is hard—a fingernail should not puncture it. Leave the stem on and cure in the sun at 70° or warmer for 10–14 days. Pumpkin and squash will develop rot on the side that touches the shelf, so it’s best to hang them—pantyhose works well for this—or turn frequently.
Root Cellar Reading
Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables (Storey Publishing, 1991), by Mike and Nancy Bubel, is an excellent basic reference that covers what produce stores well, how to harvest, and what conditions are needed for various fruits and vegetables to keep well. It even has recipes for turning your root cellar veggies into tasty meals.
The Complete Guide to Your New Root Cellar: How to Build an Underground Root Cellar and Use It for Natural Storage of Fruits and Vegetables (Atlantic Publishing Group, 2011), by Julie Fryer, covers design options with construction and maintenance details. In eleven chapters, it explains how a root cellar works and what to do in every season of the year in cold climates as well as warm ones.
Also try: The Everything Root Cellaring Book: Learn to Store, Cook, and Preserve Fresh Produce All Year Round! (Adams Media, 2011) by Catherine Abbott; Recipes from the Root Cellar: 270 Fresh Ways to Enjoy Winter Vegetables (Storey Publishing, 2010) by Andrea Chesman; The Complete Root Cellar Book: Building Plans, Uses and 100 Recipes (Robert Rose, 2010) by Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie; and The Joy of Keeping a Root Cellar: Canning, Freezing, Drying, Smoking and Preserving the Harvest (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010) by Geoff Hansen and Jennifer Lynn Megyesi.