Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Root Cellaring" by Jonathan and Susan von Ranson

Library of Congress
Root Cellaring

In New England, having large quantities of food on hand for the winter has generally involved root
crops and root cellars. Many of us still put potatoes, beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, even cabbage down into the dark, moist & cold. (Onions and garlic have a place in some cellars too). We do it for taste and cost, energy saving and food security. Root vegetables grow well here, and out of our root cellar we’ve eaten our own beets in May, potatoes and carrots into March or April, onions and garlic into summer.

People who don’t garden enough to produce sufficient quantities themselves often buy a winter’s worth in the fall – ideally from a local grower – and root cellar them. This helps build local food-growing capacity and food security.


4-H Club member 1942 (LOC)
The space It should be dark and cold. Ideally 60º or lower at storage time in mid to late fall, and in winter close to freezing, but never below. Ideally also somewhat moist, with a bit of air circulation and ventilation against mold.

A cellar with a dirt floor is ideal. Some unheated basements with a concrete floor can also work. Where there’s an operating furnace, you can probably create a root cellar in a corner by means of tight, well-insulated walls and a tight door. Any root storage area should have an operable vent – e.g., a small window blinded against daylight.

Root Cellar 1937 Minnesota - Library of Congress (LOC)
  A root cellar can also be a hole in the ground lined with well tiles, covered with planks and hay and entered through a hatchway. One can be dug into a hillside, walled up and bermed over with earth. It needs to be deep enough, and sealed just well enough, to capture the infl uence of the constant 50º temperature of the New England ground at a depth of about 4 ft. or greater and keep the space from freezing.

Shelving completes the picture. It utilizes the space well and allows juggling of crops that prefer less cold or damp on higher shelves and bulky, more moist-loving crops on the bottom ones, just off the dirt or concrete floor.

Storage systems -

• Slatted baskets/boxes/bins or milk crates work well for potatoes, which like a little more air. They can go on a higher shelf, too, since they don’t like the super-cold.

• Black plastic 20-gal. garbage bags with holes the size of a golf ball cut every  6-8 in. or so work well for the slightly higher moisture needs of beets & carrots. (Probably parsnip and turnip too, though we don’t grow those). We leave the tops of the bags a bit open.

Cabbages - Greenfield, MA
• Cabbages we hang on strings from the ceiling by their roots, with the outer, looser leaves removed. Some folks drape a plastic shopping bag loosely over them…if we did that we’d put a vent hole or two in the bag.

• Apples we’ve successfully stored in half-bushel baskets in a separate part of the cellar where the gas they emit (as do all fresh fruit) won’t encourage the potatoes to sprout.

• In another relatively dry area we hang mesh bags of onions and garlic.

• Darkness reigns - we hang additional black fabric to protect against stray daylight.

Wooden boxes outfitted with lids and bottoms of hardware cloth are good for letting air in and keeping rodents out. Regarding pests…mousetraps baited with peanut butter or raisins seem irresistible to the few mice and voles that fi nd their way into our cellar, and have worked for us.

Treatment of the crops - For storage, it’s best to select crop varieties identified as good keepers in the seed catalog. It’s important to time your plantings for late harvest (consult a planting guide). And store only unblemished pieces. Generally larger items store better than smaller.

Mohawk Trail Farm 1941
In preparing them for storage, spread the root crop out in the sun for a day. Ideally, turn the roots/tubers once in that time. A tarp on the lawn, or a picnic tabletop, works well for this process. The idea is to dry the skin.

Select for storage only the items without cuts or bruises. After brushing off the remaining dirt, your
dry-feeling carrots, turnips, beets, parsnip, etc., are ready to go into their holey bags and into the cellar. Potatoes likewise, into their slatted containers or milk crates. Onions, garlic into mesh onion bags.

Cabbage, apples or other fruits should be dry, but they don’t need the time in the sun.

Operation of the cellar - A blinded window or vent opened on cold nights in the fall can help the space reach nice, low-temp storage conditions. 

Photo: Jonathan von Ranson
Check your stock. Go through the boxes & bags every couple of weeks the food is in storage and pull out any pieces that are rotting to protect the sound ones.

General thoughts - Storing crops naturally is a mixture of science and art. Probably best to do your first try on a limited basis.

Some more ideas around extended fresh root crop storage:

A thick layer of mulch (or deep snow) can protect most root vegetables right in their garden bed, well into the winter or right through it. A shaded outbuilding, entry or mudroom…a cistern…under the counter…a closet on a north wall…all of these, if they’re dark and cool, will serve for storing certain crops for a time.

Many root cellaring systems involve packing the crops in leaves, sawdust or sand. Those materials help hold moisture, even temperature, cushion the produce and isolate it so that a rotting potato won’t infect its neighbors as easily. They do make it harder to watch for “bad apples.” We’ve found milk crates and plastic garbage bags with holes work very well.

Canned goods and preserves also store nicely in the root cellar.

Jonathan von Ranson
Jonathan and Susan von Ranson

978 544-3758

Root cellaring books:

Stocking Up: How to Preserve the Foods You Grow, Naturally, by the staff of Organic Gardening & Farming, Rodale Press.

Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables, by Mike & Nancy Bubel, Garden Way

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