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Root cellar 101: The dos and don’ts

Oct 4th, 2014 | Category: Skills

by Susy Hymas

Summer has passed whether we like it or not. I personally love fall. It is the time of such plenty, especially if you are harvesting your vegetable garden or plan to purchase a quantity of produce from one of our local farms.

At our house the freezer and the canning shelves are full, so dry storage of some crops is the next thing on the list. Storing vegetables can be easier, quicker and more economical than freezing, canning or dehydrating. Once established, a cold storage area requires little or no energy usage. You may want to build a root cellar, which will require some investment or establish a cold area in your basement or northeast part of your garage or house. Root cellars can be as easy as a garbage can buried and mounded in your yard or as complicated as a structure built, like the example below.

Proper storage of vegetables and fruits depends on three things; quality of produce; correct harvesting; and maintenance of proper storage conditions. Commonly stored vegetables include; beets, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, garlic, leeks, onions, potatoes and squash. You can also store apples and pears in a cold storage area. As fruit ripens, it naturally emits ethylene gas, which softens it. So, keep fruit in a separate area.

Good quality of produce is essential for any food preservation.  Store only produce that is free of bruising or blemishes. It is best to harvest root crops when the weather is dry. If that is not possible, allow produce to dry and brush off dirt before storage. It is not necessary to wash produce before storage. Gently brush off dirt. You can pack root crops in bins, boxes or baskets. They can be placed in paper bags or packed with straw or newspaper. Do not use plastic, as this will increase humidity. Make sure your area is easily accessible checking quality and doing regular inventory.

Root crops can be harvested when it is cold, but before a severe frost. Some root crops can be heavily mulched or tented and kept in the ground. When we get an early northeaster heavy mounding is needed to assure saving anything in your garden. Hard shell squashes can be left in the field during a light frost, but will not withstand a heavy frost.

At our garden we have wintered over kale, collards and endive as long as the plants are well established, which means planting in late July or early August. It is wonderful to have fresh greens in January from your own backyard.

Maintaining your storage area requires knowing the temperature and relative humidity. You can purchase a thermometer that indicates both. For a little more you can go digital and get one that records temperature and humidity. Above is a chart that lists both temperature and humidity for a variety of crops. Note that squash requires drier conditions and higher temps.  This means you can easily store it in a closet or cupboard in your home or heated garage.

You will also want to assure the area is well ventilated and free of sunlight. Ventilation can be provided by PVC piping through a window or hole in storage wall.  Once harvested, sunlight breaks down produce and destroys nutrients.

Most crops keep two to three months, so enjoy them during those long winter months. Happy Harvest.


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