Last summer, my husband Dan hand-dug a root cellar seven feet straight down in the back corner of our city lot. Though Hallmark instructs that the proper ten-year wedding anniversary present is jewelry, for us it was killer biceps and a place to store fresh apples through April.
While Dan read and researched, planned and calculated, delivering elaborate late-night monologs about rock walls and backfill, all I heard was: we’re going to have a place to store winter squash, potatoes, carrots and onions! Each fall, for the past decade, we’d amass tremendous amounts of root vegetables and local fruit like a senile couple who forgot they don’t actually have anywhere to stash all these valuable goods.
We’ve crammed as many carrots into the fridge as possible; winter squash went to an unheated mudroom; and apples to a cooler covered with blankets in our shed. During many January thaws, I’ve shuttled sprouting potatoes, like refugees in hiding, from one friend’s basement to another friend’s colder garage.
This is why.
Root crops are the enduring rock anthems of the vegetable world. They’re a salty-haired Mick Jagger crooning about satisfaction and caloric density. Cucumbers are a side dish; potatoes are what’s for dinner. Tomatoes and basil are the one-hit wonders that you fawn over, dizzily, before they vanish under the hammer’s first tap of October, while the root vegetables meditate peacefully underground, wondering what’s all this hoopla over frost.
It is this very vegetal nonchalance toward frosts that makes the root vegetable the perfect candidate for long-term storage. These roots are literally and botanically “storage organs,” specifically evolved to store energy in the form of carbohydrates. During adverse periods (excessive cold, lack of light, drought: effectively winter), the above-ground parts of the plant die, while the root goes dormant waiting for the high sign from spring. When conditions become favorable again, re-growth occurs from buds in the storage organs (this is why potatoes begin to sprout in warm weather).
After spending months sweating in a steamy kitchen, boiling the bejeezus out of canned jams and salsas, then stuffing green chiles into freezer bags whose very plasticity (think BPA and endocrine disrupters) gives me pause, root vegetables offer redemption. All they need is to be left alone in a dark, cool, ventilated space. If you stock up on storable roots at your local farmers market and give them a proper home, you can shop all winter on your own property, bypassing the fossil fuel economy for one blessed moment.
At its core, a root cellar is an underground space in which to store food. Two feet below the surface (here in southern Colorado), the earth becomes impervious to frost. In winter, it’s a cool, stable and well-insulated place boasting naturally-high humidity and winter temperatures typically between 35F and 45F. Which is to say, it very much resembles your refrigerator. And for the thousands of years between the advent of agriculture and the invention of refrigerators, root cellars were a family’s most important prehistoric appliance. In addition to roots, anything that lasts for many weeks in the refrigerator is a good candidate for long-term subterranean storage. This includes cabbages, apples, pears, Brussels sprouts, and celery.
According to Elizabeth Cromley, a professor of architectural history at Northeastern University and author of The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses, more than 400 books instructed 19th-century Americans on how to plan a functional house with outbuildings, larder and basement root cellar. “You’re not going to die if you don’t get a new dress,” Cromley says, “but if you don’t know this, it will kill you.”
Indeed. For thousands of years the dividends on the investment in a root cellar were turnip, carrot, and rutabaga soup tasting something like survival while the snow blew deep and sideways. And, although it’s true today that your local grocer stocks shelves of global roots at a reasonable price, it is also true that there are several thousand scientists, economists, agriculturalists and poets who are currently researching projected changes to our planet due to climate change, population growth and the depletion of natural resources. Knowing how to store onions, potatoes, cheese, sauerkraut and a salted ham hock for the long winter may become more than preciously hip DIY homesteader’s knowledge.
And then, there’s taste. After eating the last of our sweet, crisp, stored Stone Free Farm carrots in December, we were relegated to California-shipped orange roots, possessing the crunch of waterlogged popcorn and tasting mildly of soapy cardboard. Also, knowing how to store those apples weighing down your neighbor’s tree tastes like hundreds of dollars saved.
Through the hot months of summer, Dan dug. Each shovelful of native clay lowered him farther into the earth. “The hole,” as it was fondly named in its early days, was, sans roof, 30 degrees cooler than the outside air, with humidity at 85%. Going down in the hole was like a spa treatment for dwellers of the arid Southwest.
As Dan dug, our son, Col, seven at the time, discovered a new purpose in life. He hung around the dig site like a groupie waiting for someone to sign his trowel. He discovered earthworms five feet down, and an asteroid belt of tiny rocks even deeper. After working his own side projects – avalanches, gullies, dams – Col would climb out to play in the huge pile of dirt belched out of the hole as if the earth were turning itself inside out.
If you are basement-deprived, or not nutty enough to devote your summer to a dig on par with archaeological excavations, there are nooks and crannies where a five-gallon bucket of potatoes, or a cooler full of crisp apples can be stashed. The key here is to arrest growth – of the roots themselves, and of any microorganisms hitching a ride. For most “storage organs,” the closer the temperature is to 35F, the longer they will last.
You can create mini root cellars by sinking containers such as coolers, chest freezers, or trash cans (with lids) underground so that their tops are two feet below the soil surface, backfilling with bales of straw for easy access. Apples store very well inside a cooler in a shed, insulated with blankets.
If you have an unheated basement or an insulated garage, you are golden. Go to the farmers market and get the best price on 50 pounds of potatoes and carrots and laugh all the way to the bank of your basement. But do check both the temperature of your basement and the condition of your food regularly. Rotting potatoes smell like punishment and spread like a virus.
Apples release ethylene gas, which ripens other foods. Because of this, apples should be stored as far as possible from other storage crops. Our root cellar is too small to contain a space “as far away as possible,” but the ethylene problem is solved handily with ventilation.
If you can keep a room in your house unheated (mudroom, guest room, man cave), winter squash, onions and garlic, all of which like drier and warmer conditions, can last for many months. These crops can be hung in breathable fabric (pantyhose, mesh, loose-weave hemp) to increase circulation.
Stored crops should be free of excessive soil, which harbors microorganisms which want to eat and proliferate. If you wash your storage crops, be sure to store them dry, except for apples and pears, which will appreciate a sprinkle of water.
As you’re dialing in the efficacy of storage methods and location, here are some tips. Do your homework (our favorite books are Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel, and The Complete Root Cellar Book by Maxwell and Mackenzie). Start with just a few beloved crops to store, check on them frequently, make notes detailing what did and didn’t work and, lastly, enjoy. A locally-grown sweet-fleshed buttercup squash in February tastes like something money can’t buy.
Turns out, when you have a root cellar, every seed looks like a future candidate for a January meal. It’s no coincidence that this year’s garden contains ample rows of onions, turnips, potatoes, beets and carrots. Like migratory birds, we’ll return to our favorite apple and pear trees in October. We’ll cut a good deal with a local farmer for 50 pounds of potatoes. We’ll fawn over our stacked boxes of stored produce like we just made a deposit in our 401K. I may never get any anniversary diamonds, but getting invited into the hole for an “aged pear” still counts as a hot date around here.
ROOT STORAGE CHART
Crop Temperature/Humidity Notes
Apples 35F-45F/80%-90% Store in perforated plastic bags sprinkle with water. Last 4-6 months.
Beets 35F-40F/80%-90% Pack in moist sand/sawdust.
Cabbage 35F-40F/80%-90% Store in plastic bag, hang from ceiling by roots, place roots in soil.
Carrots 35F-40F/80%-95% Pack in moist sand/sawdust. Last 4-6 months.
Garlic 40F-50F/50%-70% Hang or store in ventilated place.
Onions 40F-50F/50%-70% Cure in sun before storing. Hang.
Pears 35F-50F/80%-90% Store in tight boxes. Sprinkle with water
Potatoes 35F-45F/80%-90% Cure first. Store in burlap, boxes. Last 6 months.
Winter Squash 50F-60F/50%-70% Hang in mesh bags or on shelves with ventilation.
Turnips 35F-45F/80%-95% Pack in sand/sawdust. Last 4-5 months.
Choose varieties of vegetables best suited for storage.
Harvest in dry, cold weather (roots will be sweeter, plumper and will store longer).
Remove soil from crops and store dry.
Check crops often for spoilage.
Some crops benefit from “curing,” or drying outside where skins can harden before storing
(onions, garlic, potatoes, winter squash).
Make sure crops are accessible even after the snow falls.