A Cellar to Root For

October 1, 2018

Before electricity and refrigeration were commonplace, and when fresh produce was only seasonably available at the grocery store, most every home had a root cellar in which to store fruits and vegetables for winter use. This was usually a separate room that was built into the north (coldest) corner of the basement and vented to the outside to provide circulation and to help regulate the temperature to just above freezing. Often there were two vent pipes: One brought in cold air close to the floor, while the top vent let out lighter, warmer air. Rock walls and a dirt floor provided enough moisture to create the high humidity needed to keep many stored crops from drying or shriveling. Apples, cabbages, and root crops such as carrots, beets, and potatoes could be kept for months when properly packed away.

Even though fresh produce is now available year-round from supermarkets, many gardeners still find that a root cellar provides a convenient way to store a bountiful harvest and lower their grocery bill. Modern basements are warmer and drier than those in older houses with fieldstone foundations, but they can still be fitted with a root cellar. To provide humidity, lay two to three inches of crushed stone on the concrete floor and keep it moist with frequent sprinklings.

Vegetables store best when harvested at their peak of ripeness and as late in the season as possible. A second midsummer planting of many crops will give you a lot of produce ready to store at just the right time. Root crops such as carrots and beets are good keepers; just brush off most of the dirt, clip the foliage back to about an inch above the root, and store roots in boxes of moist sand or peat moss. Potatoes simply need to be piled in a bin and covered with straw or burlap. Not all crops like cold, damp storage. Pumpkins and squash, for example, prefer a high shelf in the cellar where conditions are a bit warmer and drier. With practice, you will be able to keep celery, radishes, and even perishables such as tomatoes for months.

Chances are that your great-grandparents depended on a root cellar for produce during winter. Continuing the tradition may just help you to get back to your roots.

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