Root Cellaring is a way of storing your fruit and vegetables for a season without fancy equipment or expensive supplies. A root cellar can be as simple as a pit dug in the ground and covered with straw bales, a buried non-working freezer, an insulated corner of your garage/basement or a cemented bunker. What it does require is a cool, moist temperature that stays between 33 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Too low a temperature and your produce freezes, too high and your food spoils quicker.
My root cellar is a 12’ by 14’ cemented basement that I built under my cabin addition. It is only half way underground due to being built on a slope so I have to watch that it doesn’t get below freezing in the winter. The walls are 8” thick cement. Due to clay soil and the fact that water does not drain, I painted the inside with DriLok Paint to keep the water from wicking through the cement. I have a floor trap door in the house for access and a 3’ by 4’ shuttered “window” opening that I can use to enter from the outside.
I live in North Idaho. Winters are fairly mild with the average daytime temperature of around 20 degrees. Summers can see highs in the 90’s during the day to lows in the 60’s at night. My root cellar averages 33-34 degrees in the winter up to 55 degrees in the summer. The humidity stays around 80 to 85%. For four to five months of the year, it is cool enough to use as a walk in fridge. If we get a week or two of single digit temperatures, I run a Mr. Buddy propane heater for an hour a day to keep the temperature above freezing.
The time to start thinking about root cellaring your fall harvest is in the spring. Different varieties of fruits and vegetables store better than others. A good rule of thumb -- if your great-grandma grew it, that variety is probably easy to store.
Here are some of the items that I store:
Potatoes – What can I say, I live in Idaho. I dig my potatoes in the fall after a light frost has killed off the plant but before a hard freeze. After being dug up, the potatoes are kept in wheelbarrows for a couple of days to harden the skin. I then place the perfect ones in brown paper grocery bags. Approximately 15-20 pounds fit in a bag. The bags are stored on a shelf in the root cellar. They will usually start sprouting around May. But by breaking off the sprouts, I can continue eating them through June.
Carrots – Some varieties store better than others. I have had great luck with Bolero (hybrid) and Tendersweet. Harvest after several frost but before a hard freeze. Cold helps turn the starches into sugar so your carrots will be sweeter. Some folks keep their carrots in the ground all through winter, but I can get several feet of snow so a root cellar is easier for me. Harvest the carrots, place single layer in stout cardboard boxes and use damp straw, sand, leaves, or sawdust between each layer. These will keep in my root cellar through July.
Beets and parsnips – store the same way as carrots.
Cabbage – Plant varieties that are labeled for long storage. Harvest and pull off the loose outer leaves. Place on a shelf or hang by the root from a rafter. I personally haven’t had much luck with cabbage beyond two months. Our cabbage is eaten up by January. After that and my root cellar starts smelling like a ship’s hold.
Celery – Dig up the plant, roots and all. Place in a 5 gallon bucket and store. Water the plant as needed.
Apples – Some varieties store better than others. I store apples in small totes. You must sort through them on a regular basis and use the ones going soft. Make sure you pick out any that have bruises or are starting to go bad. One bad apple will spoil the others around it. I can successfully keep apples up until March/April. Apples can give off a gas that makes potatoes sprouts. So do not store together unless you have a large cellar or good air circulation.
Oranges – I buy a box on sale around Christmas. Stored in totes, they will be stay good for 3 months.
Tillamook Medium Cheddar Cheese – or any other “good” cheddar that is shrink wrapped in heavy plastic. I store the cheese, unopened in totes (in case of mice). I have used cheese that is 12 months old. It does get a little sharper, but it taste great.
Other items I store but not in a root cellar:
Squash and Pumpkins – They like it cool and DRY. Harvest before a hard frost and set in a warm area to allow the skin to harden. Store in a cool, unheated backroom. Make sure they are not bunched up or they may mold. I have had the best luck with Spaghetti Squash.
Onions and Garlic – These prefer to be warm and dry. I store them in the legs of nylon stockings. Place one in the stocking and tie a knot, put in the next one, tie another knot, repeat. I’ll end up with a long string that can be hung from a hook in my pantry.
Tomatoes – I will harvest cherry tomatoes before a frost and place them in a brown paper grocery bag. These are stored in my pantry. I sort through them once a week and pull out the ones that have ripened. Some years, I can make fresh salsa all the way to Christmas. Regular tomatoes are harvested before a frost and are canned as they ripened.
Gardening and storing your harvest can enable you to eat cheap, healthy food year round even in cool climates. For more information, I strongly recommend the book “Root Cellaring” by Mike and Nancy Bubel.