Storing Your Harvest Without a Root Cellar

How to Properly Store Home-Grown Fruit and Vegetables

November 9, 2020
Storing Vegetables

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 don’t include that feature and pride themselves on having warm, dry, finished basements instead of cold, damp cellars with dirt floors (for good reason).

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 (F) 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 a clean metal garbage can with insulation in an unheated garage or shed?

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: Cold and Moist

These root crops like it cold, 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 to be covered in packing materials like sand or peat moss. This material should then be kept moist (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 and Dry

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 in the same place as root vegetables as long as they are 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

Cool, 40° to 50°F (0° to 10°C), and dry (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: Slightly Warmer and Dry

Slightly warmer, 50° to 60°F (10° to 15°C), and dry (60% humidity).

  • Sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and winter squash actually need slightly warmer conditions to keep their texture. So, they can be kept in a dry basement or closet in the home, which is below room temperature. 
  • Squash and sweet potatoes do need to be cured before storage. 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.
  • Both will last longer if they aren’t piled up too much and have good air circulation.

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Other Storage Options

  • Refrigerators: For produce that needs cold and moist or cold and dry conditions, storing in the refrigerator is a great option. See our article on keeping produce fresh to learn which fruit and vegetables to put in the fridge and which to store elsewhere.

  • 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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