How to Store Your Produce in a Root Cellar

basement root cellar

Years ago, before fresh produce was available in supermarkets, root cellars were a useful way to store fruits and vegetables.

If your garden was prolific this year, you might find that a root cellar is a great way to have fresh produce for weeks or months throughout the winter.

This method is not particularly useful if you live in an area where winters are warm.

But if you live in an area where the fall and winter are cold, a root cellar might work for you.

What fruits and vegetables should you store?

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture offers the following chart with storage information for specific produce:

Vegetables Temp F. % Humidity Storage Time Comments
Beets 32° 90–95 3 months Leave 1-inch stem.
Brussels sprouts 32° 90–95 4 weeks Wrap to avoid drying
Cabbage 38° 90–95 4 months Late maturing varieties **
Carrots 32° 90–95 5 months Top leaving ¼-inch stem *
Cauliflower 32° 85–90  3 weeks Wrap in leaves *
Celery 32° 90–95 4 months Dig with roots ***
Chinese cabbage 32° 90–95 2 months Dig with roots ***
Cucumbers 50° 85–90 3 weeks Waxed or moist packing *
Kohlrabi 38° 90–95 3 months Trim leaves *
Onions 32° 55–60 8 months Dry for two weeks.
Parsnip 32° 90–95 6 months  Top leaving ¼-inch stem *
Potatoes 38° 85–90 8 months Pack in boxes unwashed.
Squash 60° 55–60 3 months Winter types, leave 2-inch stem
Tomatoes 60° 55–60 8 weeks Single layer in covered boxes
Turnips 38° 90–95 3 months Waxed or moist packing *
Small fruits 32° 85–90 7 days

* Pack in moistened sawdust or sand.
** Wrap in clean newspaper.
*** Replant in moist sand.
(source)

Fruits like apples and pears can also be stored this way; plus it's a good place to keep all your canned foods if you don't have a basement.

Organizing the Produce For the Longest Storage

Fruits and vegetables should never be stored together and different fruits should not be stored together because they produce a gas called ethylene, which is a ripening gas. The idea here is that you want your produce to ripen naturally and slowly.

Strong smelling produce like cabbage or parsnips should be wrapped in paper so other produce doesn't pick up their odors.

It is important to keep the humidity high (between 80 and 90 percent) so the food doesn't dry out and wrinkle and the temperature should be maintained between 30°F and 40°F.

Be sure to check your produce every week or two and remove any that are spoiling.

Types of Root Cellars

Outdoor Root Cellar

root cellar

A root cellar can be built out of cement or cinder block and covered on three sides with soil to keep it at an even cool temperature.

Or excavate a large hole, line with wood or concrete, and install a hatch or trap door for the entry. Install an air vent for circulation and humidity control.

Barrels or Steel Drums For Simple Root Cellars

barrel root cellar

1. For apple storage, start by burying wooden barrel or steel drum halfway in ground.

steel drum root cellar

2. If a metal drum is used, line it with sawdust at the bottom and between produce and sides.

barrel root cellar

3. Fill barrel or drum with apples. Cover with a leaf-filled burlap sack. Then pile soil around the sides.

barrel root cellar

4. Dig a 6 inch ditch around the barrel for drainage. Put rocks on the sack of leaves to keep it in place.

Turn the barrel on its side and store other types of produce.

barrel root cellar

1. Dig a space for the barrel in a well-drained area. Put a bedding of straw or leaves under the barrel and fill it with produce.

barrel root cellar

2. Slant the open end down so any moisture will run out, then place a board over the opening.

barrel root cellar

3. Cover the sides and upper end of the barrel with 18 inches of soil. Cover the lower end with 3 inches of soil.

barrel root cellar

4.Cover everything with straw. Place boards on top to keep the straw from blowing away.

(Photo Source)

Some types of produce can be stored in warmer areas inside the house, such as, onions, pumpkins, and squash, which need temperatures between 50oF and 55oF with humidity of 60-70 percent. Onions and herbs can be hung upside down in the kitchen.

At the end of the growing season when threat of frost is imminent, I usually pick all green tomatoes left on the vine and store in a box in the basement. They must not be stacked up, however. A single layer, not touching each other, will prevent spoilage when one goes bad and provides air circulation.

Sources:

Back To Basics, How to Learn and Enjoy Traditional American Skills

Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables

The Complete Root Cellar Book: Building Plans, Uses and 100 Recipes 

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