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Garbage can root cellar success

 
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I did the garbage can in a hole in the ground thing this winter for potatoes and it worked really well!

I dug a hole a bit bigger than the can cause I didn't want to mash dirt into every crevice of it in case it didn't work and I wanted to take the can out and fill the hole back in. I also didn't drill any drainage or air circulation holes for the same reason. I put the can in the hole, a layer of fist to double fist-sized rocks in the bottom of the can, then layered straw and potatoes to the top. The rocks were to keep the potatoes from sitting in condensation that drained to the bottom. The size of the rocks was to keep them from wicking water up into the straw.

I stuffed a lot of straw around the top foot or so of the can, between it and the edges of the hole. The lid of the can is six inches or so below the ground, and I spread loose straw all over the top of it as well. Then I stuffed straw into two of those paper leaf bags, tied them up so the straw wouldn't leak out, and laid them over the hole.

I made a three-walled enclosure around it with pallets and roofed the enclosure with a pallet as well - a plywood one so the roof was solid. Then I draped a bunch of lumber wrap over it and down the open side to keep snow out. Chunks of wood held the wrap down on the ground and on the pallet.

When I wanted potatoes, I'd clear whatever snow I needed to from the front and flip the lumber wrap up over the roof to access the interior. The bags of straw were nice and light, so I could just pile one on the other and shove them to the back of the enclosure. I had a one by six on the front edge of the hole so I could kneel there without crumbling the edge of the hole. So, kneel on the board, clear loose straw from lid, open lid, collect potatoes. Replace lid and loose straw. Replace bags of straw and close opening.

Really easy. Took me a day of unorganized, off and on labour to make.

I'm still pulling perfect, unsprouted potatoes out. I actually just planted some of them! I haven't got to the very bottom, and the straw is getting a bit damp so I may find moldy potatoes at the bottom. I'll report back.
 
Jan White
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Oops, I never updated this!

So, the straw was a bit damp, but potatoes do live in the ground, so it was fine. No moldy potatoes.

Last year, I dug my Yukon golds at the end of September and ate the last ones in July. They were sprouting a bit, but still good condition.

The first couple years I was really careful about having all the potatoes separated by straw. Not a lot, sometimes even just a few millimeters, but I always had at least a strand or two of straw between potatoes. This winter I had more potatoes to fit in, so the layers are two or three potatoes deep, all touching.

I also grew many new varieties this year, some of them aren't long storage types, and most of them were immature when I dug in the fall. With the heat dome last summer, nothing grew for a month so everything in the garden was really late. Because the potaotes were immature, I cured them, which I don't normally bother doing. I set up racks inside my pallet enclosure to keep them in the dark and let them cure for two weeks, turning them once midway. I haven't collected any potatoes from the bin yet this winter. I'll let you know how they are when I do.
 
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Thanks for the update, Jan!

One thing I really like about your system, is the cover you've made for the bin - most places/people who described using something like this, describe having to dig down just to get to the bin, and I know I'd find that annoying just to get a half-dozen potatoes, and my gang aren't big potato eaters!

A couple of questions:
1. Are you willing to give us some ideas of how many below freezing nights you get and what sort of extreme weather you coped with?
2. Was there any sign of critters moving into your cover area for housing?
3. Have you considered expanding your operation? Several bins for different foods?

The big item I'd like to store better, are apples. I really need to consider if this would work for them. I'm in a very high humidity, high winter rain location, so the ground will be much wetter.
 
Jan White
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Jay Angler wrote: A couple of questions:



Yeah, I knew if I had to dig snow off the top of the hole everytime I wanted something I'd never do it. The bin is buried near a path I have to keep shoveled all winter anyway, so it's hardly any extra shoveling.

1. I'm not sure about nights below freezing specifically, but Environment Canada shows our area as having 120 days with temperatures below 0°C at some point during the 24 hour period.

Typical winter temperatures are +2 to -10, and we have a lot of freeze/thaw cycles. We can get a cold snap anywhere from November through March with temperatures from -15 to -20. I see we did have a record low of -31 in the 1960s, but that's not normal. I don't think I've seen anything lower than -22 in the last 20 years or so that I've been paying attention, and even hitting -20 isn't a yearly event. That wide temperature range means the average temperature for January is only -2.  

So, an example from this winter. We had a cold snap recently. Overnight lows of -18 to -20 and daytime highs of -15 to -18. We had a couple weeks of that, then a week of -12 to -5 kinda temperatures. Now it's mostly above freezing. We had four days in a row where it didn't get below freezing, even overnight. Two days ago it was +4°. Our snow depth went from nearly two feet to less than half that in just a few days.

Our frost depth is only 30 inches. We usually have pretty good snow cover to keep the ground insulated. Again, because of the temperature range it can vary a lot in a short period of time. We get about 200cm of snow over the winter, but the average snow depth in January is only 24cm, with a record of 130cm.
Anywhere from 40-60cm is a typical maximum depth, though.

We don't get much drifting because we don't often get wind like that and when we do, the snow is often wet and heavy or crusted over so you can walk on it. As long as there's a good layer of snow, the ground underneath usually won't even be frozen if you dig down.

2. I expected critters, but haven't noticed any yet. We have lots of mice around, so I'm not sure what's going on there.

3. Potatoes seem to be the only root crop I can grow, so I haven't tried anything else like that yet. I bought 30+ varieties of carrots this year with the aim of establishing a perpetual carrot bed, some always ready to harvest, some reseeding the bed every year. This is how I grow parsley, so I'm hoping carrots will play along, too. Every year I try storage radishes, beets, celeriac, root parsley, turnips, etc. Haven't had much luck yet for various reasons. I don't even try head cabbage since I don't have enough water or nitrogen.

I hadn't considered storing apples like this, but it would probably work since apples like high humidity.
 
Jan White
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This year, I didn't open my potato bin once all winter. I finally got to it in May. When I opened it, there was quite a bit of mycelium through the straw and covering the potatoes. Other than a few potatoes that probably would have rotted anyway, they were all sound. They just needed a wash.

The straw I used to store the potatoes in wasn't great. I couldn't find any good straw last fall to buy, so I used some old stuff I had. It was pretty smashed up and wasn't 100% dry. Then I put way more potatoes in the bin than I have the last couple years. Then I didn't open it all winter. I have no ventilation built in, so opening it a few times over the winter might actually make quite a difference.

So, I learned a bit more about the limitations of the system without losing any potatoes. Another excellent year with my mini root cellar!

I also learned I don't like Amarosa potatoes. They have a very wet flesh and the flavour is meh.
 
Jay Angler
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Jan White wrote:This year, I didn't open my potato bin once all winter. I finally got to it in May. When I opened it, there was quite a bit of mycelium through the straw and covering the potatoes. Other than a few potatoes that probably would have rotted anyway, they were all sound. They just needed a wash.

So, I learned a bit more about the limitations of the system without losing any potatoes. Another excellent year with my mini root cellar!

Sounds like excellent results. I'm sure the mycelium inoculated straw will make good mulch or compost, so I see this as a double win! Better mycelium than some molds.

And wrote:

I also learned I don't like Amarosa potatoes. They have a very wet flesh and the flavour is meh.

Yeah - no point growing and storing stuff one doesn't want to eat, or one's family doesn't want to eat. (Although I've discovered a couple of dishes that I *really* like my blackberry ketchup on, so I get to eat it ALL!!)
 
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I'd like to try a root cellar like this, but I have a unique situation: I live on a shale shelf and can't dig more than a few inches. However, there's a somewhat steep slope near the house and I wondered if I could dig out a shelf for the can to sit on and then berm it with sand bags or earth bags against the side of the slope?
We get many winter days below zero F (up to -28 C) so I don't know if that would work.
 
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I did the big-can-in-the-ground cellar: drilled holes in the bottom, built rodent-proof, insulated 4 inch deep lid, .... Turns out that the water table rises so much in the winter that half of my can was filled with water when I went to get some taters in January. Last fall I amended the storage by putting my taters in a 5 gallon bucket inside the can, then when the water table rose, so did my bucket of taters. My next version will omit the holes, tho a friend pointed out my can may likely be floated out of the ground, so ....? But I will need more cold storage this year (I hope) as I've planted more taters and hope to have more apples to store from the young trees.
 
Jay Angler
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M Wilcox wrote:I'd like to try a root cellar like this, but I have a unique situation: I live on a shale shelf and can't dig more than a few inches. However, there's a somewhat steep slope near the house and I wondered if I could dig out a shelf for the can to sit on and then berm it with sand bags or earth bags against the side of the slope? We get many winter days below zero F (up to -28 C) so I don't know if that would work.

With those temps, you might need to consider a double row of earth bags with insulation in between. With "dirt" the number of feet of it is what does the insulating when above ground. The ground of the slope you're against should have a more stable warm temperature, but you need a way to "capture" that stability. I don't have the extreme cold to worry about, but I do have the high winter water table that Barbary Kocham mentions *and* I've got my age against me - I just don't bend as well as I used to. I've got my eye on the north side of a small bank which is conveniently beside a path, but like you, I would need to build something around it that will give me easier access, but still preserve the temperature. Earth bags are probably too heavy for me to manage, but maybe not if I can use the tractor to do enough of the lifting and fill and tamp in place.
 
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One thing about storing apples is the ethylene gas they emit, it’s just part of their process, but ethylene promotes ripening.  Might be that the level of ethylene promotes the softening and then spoilage of the apples.  

Ethylene will also promote the ripening of other fruits the apples are stored with.  Sometimes we can make that work for us, as in putting an apple into a loosely closed container with under ripe peaches, other times we don’t want to hurry through the edible phase of the fruit’s life.

Dunno about apple’s effect on potatoes and other root vegetables.
 
Jay Angler
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Thekla McDaniels wrote:One thing about storing apples is the ethylene gas they emit, ...
Dunno about apple’s effect on potatoes and other root vegetables.

This is one of the reasons I'm thinking terms of several garbage cans/plastic barrels in the side of the slope. I figure I can put apples in one and potatoes in another and have them each have a separate air input and output. I believe I read somewhere that certain fruit/veg shouldn't be stored together as they'd pick up the other's flavor!  Can't remember where and not sure the source was reliable. Anyone have experience with that?
 
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Thanks for the updates Jan!  I tried the trashcan method many years ago and getting into it was a pain.  I like the idea of building a makeshift roof over it as that would be much more convenient.  Just wondering if anyone has tried this using hay instead of straw?  With so many stories of contaminated straw I don't really feel safe using it and I don't know of anyone growing it locally.
 
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Michelle Heath wrote:  Just wondering if anyone has tried this using hay instead of straw?  With so many stories of contaminated straw I don't really feel safe using it and I don't know of anyone growing it locally.

I watched a period "how to" about an English farm and they used dried Bracken as the first layer of a thatched shed roof. I wonder if that would work as an insulating layer? We get used coffee sacks locally, and maybe I could stuff them with the Bracken and lay it over the lid?

And wrote:

I tried the trashcan method many years ago and getting into it was a pain.

This is *exactly* why I've not yet done it! I keep mulling over the possibilities and I do think I'm getting closer to something that will work well enough and be easy enough to use that I won't avoid the task of accessing the food until it's gone off!  It needs to be close enough to the house to be functional, it needs to be easy enough to "uncover" the bin I want, AND I need to be able to easily reach the food, preferably without kneeling in mud (which is what our winters are all about)!
 
Jan White
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I've always read not to store potatoes and apples together because of the ethylene, but I don't have experience with it. Just having them in different areas of the root cellar is apparently enough to avoid issues, but I imagine you'd definitely want separate bins for them, if doing the garbage can thing.

My first thought when reading about the high water table was that a clamp kinda thing with the garbage can in the middle might be a good solution. To avoid having to move so much dirt, I'd use straw bales for the bulk of the material surrounding the can. Then I'd cover the whole thing with poly to keep it dry and then cover that with dirt, mounding it up around the bales and overtop to make a hill around the can. Then I'd mulch the whole thing really well so rain didn't wash the dirt away. Could probably last a few years if careful about directing water.

The same method might make it more accessible for unenthusiastic kneelers. One of the common garbage can methods is to have it embedded at an angle into a hillside, kinda like this
https://www.chelseagreen.com/2021/eliot-coleman-creating-root-cellar/
If you raised the whole thing up out of the ground, you could just reach in without having to get down on the ground.

I doubt these above ground structures would store food as long into the spring and summer as below ground ones do, but they could work for winter. Maybe not the really cold ones. I guess you'd have to read about where clamps are used to get an idea of the climate limitations.
four-season_buried-cellar_from-book.jpg
From website above
From website above
 
Jan White
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You could have a thick, insulated cupboard door kinda deal to access the angled barrel.

Hmmm. I'm liking this idea more and more.
 
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This may be a solution to some of the issues.  I have a number of cattle panel - hoop houses that I use for various things.  I have one attached to the entrance of my chicken coop so they have a dry snow free area in the winter so they can come out of the coop and walk around.  What if you built a small hoop house over the garbage can root cellar?  It could be as small as a single panel, or a couple panels for multiple units.  That would alleviate the issue of moving snow to open it, kneeling on the muddy ground, any of those sorts of things.  You may need to use more insulation since it would remove your snow cover, but a couple extra bags of leaves to move seems nothing compared to no longer having the other issues.  You would be able to walk into a nice snow-free area out of the wind to "harvest" your crops.  It would stay dry all the time.  Depending on the cover material you use, it may even be nice and warm inside.  My hoop house easily hit 60 degree F or more on sunny days, even when the temp is 0 F.  Again, extra insulation may be needed.  You may even need to leave one end open, as I do for my chicken coop hoop house to keep it from getting too warm.
 
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I did this with carrots and kept them all winter packed in wood pellets that I had wet until they became damp sawdust. I got an Igloo dog house free from Craigslist and used it as a ... cover.. easy to tip back and not dig snow. We dug a hole big enough to insert a 50 galloon barrel with ends cut off... it is actually the access to our 4' deep buried water shut offs. Put a couple of bricks holding a round piece of 3/4 plywood to protect the valves and pipes..... put a 30 gallon metal trash can... no extra hole in it... filled the can, layering 25#s of carrots in the sawdust, not touching each other.... put a few inches of folded newspaper on top after covering the last veggies. put the lid on..... I pulled carrots out from mid-October to March... At the end a few had small roots, but zero rot..... gonna try potatos this year and put carrots in another hole that we haven't used yet... that hole is 4' x 8', so should hold a few cans, but we have to build a top over it this summer....We are in Zone 8,, Washington State west of mountains, about 20 miles from the coast and 12 miles south of B.C. Canada.... It didn't get way cold, but I am sure we were well below frost line, and the doghouse added another layer of protection... could have put pellets in there too for insulation, but didn't need it.  small can could be lifted up and out fairly easy, but I mostly just got down and reached ok with my super long arms.
 
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Michelle Heath wrote:.  Just wondering if anyone has tried this using hay instead of straw?



I forgot to address this before. I haven't used hay, but based on my one time experience with smashed up damp straw, I think it would be fine. You might want to go a little light on potatoes and a little heavy on hay the first time, just to get an idea of how the whole set up works for you in your climate.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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First thoughts on hay versus straw in the root cellar:

Hay and straw are not interchangeable in all circumstances.  There’s a thread somewhere on permies about the differences.  Later, I or some wonderful helpful and skilled person will likely provide the link to it.

For now, let me just say straw is primarily cellulose and lignin, and other similar complex and indigestible hydrocarbons, with air spaces.  It is the structural component that remains once the annual grain plant has completed its life cycle and made seeds.  As it completed the cycle, just about everything - nutrient wise- was extracted to support the most vigorous possible seeds.

Hay is harvested and dried with highest possible nutrient density, protein and sugars in particular.

This nutrient density in the hay (not present in straw) will support numerous organisms including molds, fungi and bacteria.  

It’s possible that the conditions in the root cellar would minimize the growth of those organisms, but I would not bet on it.  “Nature hates a vacuum ”.  Something will devise a metabolic pathway to utilize an available (food) resource.

Another difference between hay and straw is the air space.  Hay has blades of grass, some hollow  stems (depending on the kind of hay and when in its life cycle it was harvested), and often grain, depending on what stage of its life cycle it was harvested.

Essentially, straw is hay with more air space, more cellulose and much much much less sugar protein and other food stocks.  As compared to hay, straw will support a very diminished community of mold, fungi and microbes, and increased insulation.
 
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