I probably spent too much of my time as a little girl reading books like Little House on the Prairie. I have been fascinated with the idea of root cellars and food preservation for most of my life. Growing up, we would always make an effort to bring in the last of our tomatoes and would carefully lay them in shallow boxes with sheets of newspaper near our downstairs woodstove in an attempt to ripen some of the remaining half-ready fruits. My mother and grandmother were canners and we had a small room in our basement with a chest freezer and shelves stocked with preserving jars. But we never did much of what I would consider ‘root cellaring’. This was something I began experimenting with much later in life.
Probably the greatest deterrent to root cellaring is a lack of experience or understanding the ‘correct’ space to do it in. You don’t have to have an actual cellar to hold over many traditional root crops into the winter months but you do need to have a space available that is above freezing and below about 57 degrees Fahrenheit (between 32F and 50F is ideal). For most people in this area, that space could be a garage, unheated porch or basement. Having a method of reducing the amount of sunlight that enters that space is also helpful. If you have access to both of these things, you can begin to practice the art of long-term produce storage.
Some of the most traditional root crops to hold into the winter are potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips and beets. It is also possible to hold over kohlrabi, celeriac, Napa cabbage, leeks and Belgian endive. These are all vegetables that tend to be biennial in nature. When left to their own devices, these plants tend to hunker down for the winter in an attempt to re-grow the following spring and produce flowers (and eventually, seeds). The first rule in root cellaring is to pack away this produce unwashed and topped (meaning, cut off the foliage). The washing process removes the thin layer of dirt that essentially encases the root crops and protects them from unwanted pathogens that eventually lead to decay. Washing also stimulates growth by providing the root with excess water that it feels inclined to try and soak up (Potatoes, carrots beets etc.… are roots….water absorption is their primary function). The process of stimulated growth reduces the long-term storage ability of root crops and will eventually lead to a minor amount of top growth and a very soft, spongy, hairy root. Often, our root crops are dug and then left to dry off for an hour or two (especially if dug after fall rains begin). Then, gently, I use my hand to brush off any large clods of dirt before arranging the produce in layers in a shallow Rubbermaid tote. For our family, we typically eat one tote’s worth of carrots a winter and at least 2 totes of potatoes. Lids are placed on the totes and then labelled with tape and a sharpie indicating the date and contents. Finally, the totes are stacked inside our walk-in refrigerator for the winter (about 38-40F). That’s it. Pretty simple. To date, we have held potatoes this way for over a year without sprouting; their flavor remains as sweet as when they were first dug.
Surely, as you experiment with root cellaring, you will experience failure from time to time. However, success is eventually guaranteed if you continue to experiment with your technique. And for me, in the winter, I would rather eat my own carrots and potatoes. Good Luck and Happy Gardening!