Storing Your Harvest Without a Root Cellar

How to Properly Store Fruit and Vegetables

August 20, 2019
Storing Vegetables

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Now that you have grown and harvested some beautiful winter-keeping vegetables, how are you going to store them? Not everyone has access to a root cellar. Here are other ways to store your harvest!

In great-grandma’s day, most houses had a root cellar or a cold storage room somewhere in the house. Today’s modern houses pride don’t include that feature and pride them selves on having warm, dry, finished basements instead of cold, damp cellars with dirt floors.

So how do you store crops such as winter squash, beets, carrot, beets, onions, sweet potatoes, and cabbages which would have traditionally been kept in a root cellar. Unless you’re ready to invest in building one, here’s advice on how to keep your garden harvest through the winter.

Root Cellar Alternatives

First, find a cool, dry place in your house:

  • Does any room in your house stay below 60 degrees but above freezing?
  • Do you have a closet on an outside wall?
  • Can you section off the coolest corner of the cellar or attic?
  • Do you have an unheated mudroom or entry?
  • How about using picnic coolers or wrapping a clean metal garbage can with insulation for protection against cold if storing items in an unheated garage or shed that may drop below freezing?
  • My parents used their bulkhead for cold storage. It had easy access from inside and outside and the wide steps made handy shelves. They could open the bulkhead door occasionally  to add fresh air but the warmer cellar air kept things from freezing on extra-cold nights.

How to Store Different Vegetables

Different fruits and vegetables need different temperatures and humidity levels to store successfully. There are four basic groups:

Group 1

These root crops like it cold and damp, 32° to 40°F (0° to 4.5°C), and need very moist conditions (90% humidity). They can be stored in a basement or perhaps a garage but they will need packing materials like sand or peat moss. This material should then be kept damp (not wet!). You can use a spray bottle to add moisture as needed. 

  • Pick root vegetables before the temperature drops below 25°F (-4°C), brush off loose soil (don’t wash them), clip tops to 1 inch, and leave roots intact.
  • Pack beets, carrots, turnips, radishes, and rutabagas in damp sand, peat moss, or sawdust so they don’t touch each other. 
  • Celery keeps best if pulled up by the roots and stored upright with the roots in damp sand.

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Group 2

Cold but drier, 32° to 40°F (0° to 4.5°C), and 60 to 70% humidity.

  • Apples, pears, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes can be stored with root vegetables if given extra air circulation to keep them drier.
  • For the apples and pears: Many gardeners advise wrapping each individual fruit in newspaper to help them keep longer and discourage any rot from spreading.
  • Cabbage and Brussels sprouts can be uprooted and replanted in a bucket or bag of moist soil.
  • Potatoes need darkness and a spot nearer to 40°F (4.5°C).
  • Isolate the apples in their own container, as they give off ethylene gas and also absorb strong flavors like cabbage. Bosc and Anjou pears are good keepers. Condition them at 50° to 70°F (10° to 21°C) in a dry, airy place for a week before storing them at 32°F (0°C).

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Group 3 

Cool and dry, 32° to 50°F (0° to 10°C), and under 60% humidity.

  • Onions, garlic, and shallots keep best in a dry, unheated spare room or closet.
  • Before storing, dry them for about two weeks in an airy location before braiding or hanging them in mesh bags.
  • They can also be stored in shallow boxes or baskets no more than two layers deep.

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Group 4 

Warm, 50° to 60°​​​​​​​F (10° to 15°​​​​​​​C), and dry.

  • Sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and winter squash actually need warm conditions to keep their texture. So, they can probably be kept in the dry basement or closet in the home which is cooler than the house. 
  • Squash and sweet potatoes do need to be cured before stored. For squash, leave stems intact and cure for two weeks to dry and harden the skin before storing. Sweet potatoes need to be cured at a high temperature (80°–90°​​​​​​​F; 26°–32°​​​​​​​C) for 5-10 days before storing and don’t let them drop below 50°​​​​​​​F (10°​​​​​​​C) in storage.
  • They will last longer if they aren’t piled up too much and have good air circulation.

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Other Storage Options

  • Refrigerators: If you have the room, root crops can also be refrigerated. For those with leafy tops trim the leaves to 1/2 inch. Potatoes also store well in the refrigerator.
  • Leave in the ground: Until the ground freezes, you can store crops like beets, carrots, turnips, potatoes, and radishes right in their garden bed. Cover them with a good amount of hay or straw. They can then be dug as needed or until the ground freezes.

  • Extend the season: Use cold frames, row cover, or backyard hoop or green houses to keep your vegetables producing for at least a few more weeks. See how to make a cold frame.

  • Make a root clamp: Instead of building a root cellar, just dig out holes in the hard ground to store cabbages, potatoes, and other root vegetables. Use hay in between each vegetable. Cover with a thick layer of straw, and then the dirt to keep out any frost. Then cover with more straw (a bale or two). 

Check On Your Storage

You can’t just leave your storage and forget about it. Be sure to check your stored produce regularly and remove anything that has started to spoil! If you don’t, the rot will spread to the rest. Remember the saying, “one bad apple can spoil the bunch.”

Want to build a root cellar? Check out our page on root cellar types and storage tips!

How do you store your harvest? Let us know in the comments!

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.

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