No Root Cellar? No Problem – Fall and Winter Food Storage Made Easy

With winter coming, this means in many parts of the country people have harvested the last of their summer garden produce. Brussels sprouts, zucchini and root vegetables abound. Now what?

Here’s how to preserve the fruits and vegetables you grew or bought at farmers’ markets, including how to build a root cellar in 30 minutes.

Food Storing Basics

Here’s some examples of common fruits and veggies that store longer than summer fruits and how to properly store them:

  • Apples. Store in root cellar or dark, cool basement or garage. Isolate them, because the ethylene gas they give off makes many vegetables sprout and rot. Most varieties store three to six months.
  • Asian pears. Place in sealed bags in the refrigerator to keep pears from dehydrating. Use within 60 days.
  • Beets. Cut tops off and store in a root cellar or cool, dark area in a single layer on dry sand or cat litter. Use within two months.
  • Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussels sprouts.Harvest mature heads, roots and all. Hang upside down in a humid basement, garage, or out-building where it doesn’t go below freezing. Will keep up to a month.
  • Carrots. Leave in garden. Cut off green foliage and cover carrots with a foot or more of shredded leaves or straw. Top with a tarp to keep soil from freezing. Harvest as needed.
  • Onions. Store in mesh bags or open baskets in an isolated cool, dry place.
  • Potatoes. Store in a cool (50 to 60 degrees F.), dark place in paper bags with holes poked in them for ventilation. Don’t store near onions, which give off ethylene gas, causing potatoes to sprout. Will keep up to two months. Do not expose to light, which also triggers sprouting, and don’t store in the refrigerator. Cold destroys flavor.
  • Winter squash and pumpkins. Clean the squash with bleach and water to kill any fungi or bacteria on its rind. Store in any cool spot up to six months.

What Is A Root Cellar?

Technically, a root cellar is any storage location that uses the natural cooling, insulating, and humidifying properties of the earth. This can be a dark area of your basement; if you home has one, or other areas in your home that may seem cooler in the fall and winter months (sheds and garages too). They are typically used by farmers and gardeners to store raw and pickled vegetables.

  • To work properly, a root cellar must be able to hold a temperature of 32º to 40ºF and a humidity level of 85 to 95 percent.
  • The cool temperatures slow the release of ethylene gas and stop the growth of microorganisms that cause decomposition.
  • The high humidity level prevents loss of moisture through evaporation—and the withering look that goes along with it.
  • Root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, beets, parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips are typically stored in a root cellar. The environment is ideal for storing jars of pickled vegetables and the bulbs or rhizomes of perennial flowers as well.

How to build the root cellar

Before the ground freezes, dig a large, deep hole in a sheltered spot, preferably close to the house. We put ours just outside the back door to the garage.

Sink a 32-gallon heavy-duty plastic trash can into the hole, positioning it so the rim is about three inches above the soil line. That way melting snow and rain will not leak inside.

Line the bottom of the can with a two-inch layer of damp sand, add a layer of vegetables, top with an inch of damp sand and another layer of carrots, potatoes or whatever you are storing. Repeat the layers, ending up with sand on top.

Place lid on the can and top with a two-foot-high mound of straw or shredded autumn leaves. A sheet of plastic film over the mound top will keep everything in place and dry. Anchor the plastic with rocks or bricks.

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