Cold. It’s a constant here in the north. Oh, there may be those few wistful balmy evenings in July or August (okay, so it does sometimes get hot), but most of the time here, at night, it’s cold. Plus, for almost all of the fall, winter and spring, days and nights are chilly if not downright frigid. Our ancestors knew this and they utilized this fact of Mother Nature for self-preservation—they had root cellars.
So what, exactly, is a root cellar? It can be created in several different ways, but it mostly is a space dug into the ambient temperature of the Earth (55 degrees) and utilized to store beets, carrots, turnips, potatoes and other root crops through the winter.
We all know that even before the snow flies the ground outside freezes up like compact concrete in the fall and pretty much remains so until spring. There isn’t likely to be much sustenance out there. We need to harvest these crops while we still can and tuck them into accessible spaces which don’t freeze for winter consumption. This allows us to partake of fresh vegetables through all those cold winter months and on into the spring.
When I bring a carrot, beet or potato into the kitchen from my root cellar, you’d think that I had just dug it up from the garden. And they really keep. Last year, I ate my last beet from the former year’s garden the second week of July and it was still perfect. So, how do we create such a space? There are various ways to do just that.
My root cellar was created when we decided to put an addition onto our house. Before a board was nailed or a sona tube poured, my husband dug down to the ledge (about 5 feet) and cleared out a space approximately 3 feet by 4 feet. He then poured a concrete slab on the bottom, leveled it and let it set up for a few days. Once the floor hardened, he built up the walls with standard concrete blocks to the height where the future room’s floor was going to be. He then shoveled as much dirt as possible around the outside of the blocks to insulate the chamber from future frosts. As the addition was completed, a trap door was placed in its floor. To complete the root cellar, dense foam was sprayed into any cracks and crevices in the seams and corners to critter-proof the space.
Looking down through the trap door in the floor of an addition, we see a couple of crates of potatoes, a bucket of beets, a bucket of carrots & my Amaryllis (beginning to rest).
Some farmers prefer to leave their root crops right in the ground for the winter. A truly thick blanket of hay can keep the frost at bay but also be sure to put a tall mark where to dig as the snow will hide anything short. I leave my parsnips in the ground until spring because the frost actually improves their flavor and it’s wonderful to have a big crop to harvest in April.
Once the root cellar is ready to go, how do we prepare the vegetables? I put my beets, carrots and turnips in 5 gallon buckets. These can be inexpensively purchased from the hardware store or sometimes places like Dunkin Donuts will sell their used filling buckets quite cheaply. Be sure to the get the lids as well. I re-use the buckets from year to year, but I clean, bleach and dry them thoroughly between uses.
Next, you need to get some clean sand; this has to be replaced every year and it should be very dry. I generally put it on my August “to do” list and show up with several buckets and a shovel at a local sand pit after three or four days without rain. I shave the sand off of the top of the pile as an extra assurance of dryness.
After my materials have been assembled and the frost is near, I’m ready to go. You want to leave the crops in the ground as long as possible, but it’s important that they don’t get nipped with frost. Again, I pick a nice, dry day to do the harvesting. I gently pull the beets, carrots and turnips and spread them out to dry a bit in the Sun.
After 20 to 30 minutes, I turn them over to let their other sides dry. There are a couple of important things to remember here. First, while the veggies need to be dry, they cannot be left in the Sun too long. Carrots left out all day will turn green—they become inedible because this veggie will give you indigestion. Sometimes, a portion of a carrot will be green from rising up out of the Earth on the plant. This crop can be saved, just cut off the green part before cooking. Also—the vegetables need to be absolutely perfect to be keepers. Nicks, scratches and bruises (as well as multiple stems) will cause them to rot endangering all of the other roots in the bucket.
Once the veggies are dry to the touch, I bring them to my home made processing center. This consists of a chair, a table, a brush, scissors and a compost bucket. The bigger the vegetables are, the better they keep, so the big guys go into the buckets first. I begin by pouring a layer of sand in a clean bucket. Then, I gently brush the excess dirt off of the veggie and cut off most of the top (leaving about an inch on) placing the top in the compost bucket. This is also where I carefully inspect them for perfection. Any that fail that test get put aside to eat sooner rather than later. Next, I arrange the beets or carrots flat on their sides in the bucket so that they don’t touch each other. I then cover them with sand. I repeat the process until the bucket is full whereupon I close it up with the lid and place it in the root cellar.
It might be a good idea to test the bucket a couple of times before it is completely full because it can get heavy. It’s better to put a half or three-quarters full bucket in the root cellar than hurt your back.
Potatoes are even easier to keep (the same rule about green areas applies). They also need to be dry, dusted and perfect. Once they are ready, they are placed in milk crates and put in the root cellar. Just be sure not to try to stack them too high; the weight can cause the ones on the bottom to start to mush thereby ruining the entire crate.
A potato with a greened up end
I never wash vegetables that are headed for the root cellar. Some people, I have heard, use peat moss or wood shavings to keep their roots, but I have never tried either one. I have dug up my gladiola and dahlia bulbs and kept them in sealed jars or cans with wood shavings. I also find that the root cellar is not the right place for onions or squashes. They both prefer a dry environment so, after curing, they are kept in the warm house.
A truly simple root cellar can be made on top of the ground using bales of hay. Place the bales around an inner “courtyard” where the vegetables are and cover with bales of hay on top. I, myself, love the convenience of getting to my beets, carrots, turnips and potatoes without having to go outside. Nothing tastes as good as home grown and it’s nice to be able to eat this stuff year round. Good luck!
Celeste Longacre has been growing virtually all of her family’s vegetables for the entire year for over 30 years. She cans, she freezes, she dries, she ferments & she root cellars. She also has chickens.
Celeste has also enjoyed a longtime relationship with The Old Farmer’s Almanac as their astrologer!
Celeste's new book on living lightly on the Earth is due out September 25, 2014.