Root cellar: full and experimental

Root cellar
Sorry for the crummy picture quality...there's only so much you can do under fluoresent lights with a phone camera...

So, I’ve loaded up the root cellar with goodies for the upcoming year.  I’m trying several different storage methods to see which works the best and is least annoying.

Clockwise from top left:

  • Wooden crate with jars of pickles and sauerkraut (unsealed jars – though I did boil the brine and dump it over the pickles once they had soured enough), and a bag of daffodil bulbs I should have planted by now
  • Willow basket of potatoes – almost empty. Layers of potatoes are separated with 2-3 sheets of newspaper.
  • Plastic crate with sweet potatoes, covered in newspaper; there’s also a paper potato sack with potatoes in that crate.  You can get these crates cheap or free from nurseries in the fall – bulbs are shipped in them.
  • Two large flower pots with carrots and parsnips layered with straw.  This will be compost soon; my parsnips had all split and are starting to get moldy already. Also, the pots have drainage holes in the bottom that could let mice into the attractive, food-filled nesting area, if they figure out the root cellar exists.
  • (Bottom right) Another willow basket of potatoes.  The two wicker baskets held about 50 lb of potatoes total, though I’ve moved some of the potatoes into the big plastic tubs to compare storage methods.
  • Large purple tub – potatoes, beets, and rutabagas, separated by slightly damp cedar shavings (yes, like you put in a hamster cage).  These were easier to find, and less dusty, than clean sawdust.  I’m hoping this works; I hate getting dirty up to the elbow digging in peat moss.
  • Medium blue tub – potatoes, beets, and rutabagas, separated by slightly damp peat moss.  I know the peat works well, but it’s not so renewable and covers everything with damp dust.
  • Wooden crate of cabbages, between two sheets of newspaper.
  • And on the floor to the right: plastic crates lined with garbage bags, filled with damp sand.  One of these then has a couple cabbages set right on the damp sand.
  • The onions, garlic, and hard squash are elsewhere where conditions are a little warmer and less damp.  The sweet potatoes should probably be outside the cellar, too.

Originally, I was trying to keep the humidity of the whole room at around 80%.  This is really hard to keep up, though, and I worry about mold. The first month, I couldn’t keep the room consistently humid enough to keep beets (in a paper bag) from shriveling, and the cabbage-in-a-crate was already looking pretty peaked.  I tried putting out trays of damp sand, and that didn’t really help much, so I finally moved to burying most things in damp peat or wood chips.  The potatoes didn’t need this treatment as desperately as the beets.

I have three different varieties of cabbage, and it’s clear one is a better keeper than the other. The problem is, it’s hard to tell varieties at the market and the sellers often don’t know the variety.  So by buying from a couple different places, and looking for the hardest, most dense heads, I even the odds that something will be a long keeper.  I also have high hopes for putting the cabbage directly on the damp sand.  My main concern with that is that they will try to keep growing, which won’t work well in the dark cellar.

Temp has been fluctuating between 45 and 55 in November.  I’ve not been happy with the pipe ventilation system I put in (it didn’t let enough cold air in early in the season, when I wanted to drop the temp during cold nights) so I’ve just been opening the window at night and closing it during the day if it’s going to get over 50.  If I close the window, the temp tends to go back up to 55 – makes sense, as the earth surrounding 3.5 of the planes of the room are 55 degrees.

I’d say it’s a qualified “win” at this point.  It was too warm late September and early October to store roots from the garden. I couldn’t even get the temp to drop significantly when we’d have 40 degree nights – it would still be 60 in the cellar come morning. So I need to plant fall storage crops mid-summer…just when those kinds of things won’t want to sprout. Now that it’s colder, I can get temps down to 45 pretty easily overnight, though they tend to come back up during the day.  And I am happier with the humidity issues; that will make a huge difference in keeping things from shriveling. (The beets that were starting to go flaccid firmed back up when I buried them in damp peat, too.)

We’ll also see about quantities. We’re using potatoes so fast, I’m pretty sure we’re going to run out – but the other 125 pounds have already been shipped off to Food Gatherers, so there’s no getting them back now.  I also only have seven to ten pounds each of beets, sweet potatoes, and rutabagas.  I’d really like to eat more rutabagas, especially; mixed half-and-half with potatoes, they are a real treat…and a little less starchy, and not susceptible to blight.  They are surprisingly hard to find at the market, though, so grow-your-own is almost the only way to go.

For the record, from my garden were potatoes (Kennebec and Pontiac Red), long pie pumpkins, Waldham (?) butternut squash, Delicata squash, cucumbers for pickles, mostly failed parsnips (Andover; Turga) and carrots (Danvers); from the market were cabbage, beets, rutabagas, sweet potatoes.

Published by Emily

I'm an instructional designer and gardener based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Free moments find me in my garden or the forest, hugging trees and all that jazz.

8 thoughts on “Root cellar: full and experimental

  1. I’m experimenting with the root cellar this year too, though I don’t think mine is going to be as full as yours is. I had the same trouble getting the room to chill down. It’s been a surprisingly mild fall so far, but the cellar has been steady at about 51 F for a few weeks now. I tried the method of just pulling up cabbage heads, roots and all. They’re holding okay, but the temperature ought to be cooler for them, ideally. Also keeping the beets in a tray full of fallen leaves. BTW, there’s no real need to put parsnips in a root cellar. They keep just fine out in the dirt all through the winter. In fact, the colder the temperatures they endure, the sweeter they become. I get a kick out of digging them out of the ground during a February thaw. Most of my cabbages are still out in the garden too. I think they can hack it until the ground really begins to freeze. They did last year anyway.

    1. Parsnips might not need to be in the root cellar, but *I* need them to be in the root cellar! I’ve tried keeping all kinds of things in the ground over the winter, and I’ve never yet once decided to actually try to dig them up, in part because once the ground freezes here, it doesn’t really thaw out until April. I tried to insulate with a bale of straw one year and ended up with a bed of beets with a 250lb ice cube frozen to the ground on top of it! I’d already planted new beets before the dang thing thawed enough to pry the frozen straw off. Lesson learned: thermal mass works both ways, and straw holds a LOT of water. *chagrin*

      1. That’s surprising. I would have expected you to have milder winters than we do. The ground freezes solid here too, but we always seem to have at least a few days of thawing in both January and February. I kinda like it that we have those brief windows of opportunity to dig things up. It’s a weird time to be out in the garden, though it’s nice in its way. But yeah, a 250# block of ice sounds pretty daunting. I’d be daunted. Maybe a tarp tucked around it would help if you want to try that again?

        1. I think our house is in a really cold, exposed, windy microclimate. We usually hit -15 for at least one week each winter, and those nights it’ll only be +5 in town ten miles away.

  2. Also just found out the root cellar will probably make a good cheese cave for part of the year – 45-55 and humid is pretty ideal. I’m trying one cheese in a dome I rescued from a work-sponsored buffet (originally had sandwiches or something).

    1. We’ve been singing “Cheese cave!” to the tune of “Freeze Frame” for a week now…

      Now I just need a neighbor with a milk goat! I’d happily make cheese during that spring milk glut for a share of the goods…but I’m so not ready for livestock at this point…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: