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My experience with root cellaring (and other veggie cold storage), so far  RSS feed

 
Posts: 56
Location: Saskatchewan zone 2/3
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I was reading another post about root cellars, and had a lot to say about storage conditions and varieties, so I thought I'd give this its own thread, instead of hijacking that one.

We live in Saskatchewan, Canada, which is zone 2/3, with extremely cold winters (we normally hit -40 at some point for a bit) that effectively start around Halloween, and end in late March.  It is also quite dry here - I think our area gets around 14" per year, and the air is rarely humid except for brief periods in mid summer, usually on hot days just before or after a rainstorm.  We have a 90 day growing season (plus or minus - this year, our first frost was almost three weeks later than expected).  Harvest is normally in early September for frost-tender plants, and late September to early October for roots.

Our acreage came with a farmhouse, which was built in the 1950's.  There is an actual dirt-floored root cellar built into the cement basement, on the north-west corner of the house, and shaded from the west by trees and bushes.  It is around 8x10' with low wooden walls (maybe 18 inches or 2' high) along each long side to form dirt-floored bins.  We've also added a shelf on one wall for the eggs.  Even in high summer, the root cellar tends to be quite cool.  If we sprinkle some water on the floor, it drops a few more degrees, as well.  We've been experimenting with storing food there since our first garden here, in 2011.  This is all observational, and not the best observation, at that - I have no idea what the actual temperature or humidity down there is at any given point.  Our system is based on observing things in the moment, and adjusting conditions if there is a simple way to do so. 

We've found that not only do different crops need different storage approaches, but even different varieties of the same crop may need different conditions.  Also, some varieties simply don't store well, no matter what we do, and some varieties store exceptionally well, no matter what we do.  So the first hurdle, for us, has been finding crops and crop varieties that store well under our conditions.  We don't have a lot of control over temperature, as until this fall, the window to the cellar was painted shut (now, we can adjust the temperature cooler by cracking that window open a sliver, though we haven't experimented with that much yet), but we could adjust humidity fairly easily by sprinkling water on the floor or putting things into plastic bins or bags.  Here are the crops and varieties we've done well with, and our notes on their storage:

Apples:  we've planted several varieties of storage apple, but only the Honeycrisp apples are currently bearing.  We store them in the perforated Ziploc vegetable bags on one end of the root cellar, away from everything else.  So far, this has worked really well (this is the second year with the Honeycrisp apples).  The apples were harvested in late September, sorted for anything that was damaged or bruised (I made those into apple crisps right away), and the sound ones were rinsed for bugs, bagged up, and put in the cellar.  Last year, we stored them in 5-gallon buckets, but that was not optimal, as the bottom ones eventually got too humid and rotted, while the top ones shriveled, and there was no easy way to manage the humidity for the whole bucket.  Honeycrisps are supposed to last 4-6 months in storage; last year, we got around 3 months out of them.  This year, we expect to do much better, as the apples are beautiful, plump, and firm right now (two months after harvest), with no signs of shriveling or spoilage.  Store-bought apples will stay reasonably fresh in the root cellar for a while, though we have to check on them frequently, as when one starts to go, they pretty much all do at once.  We've tried storing apples from others down there, but apples are really variable in how well they keep, so now we don't bother unless we know exactly what kind of apples they are. 

Beets:  We grow Cylindra beets, mostly because they are nicer for us to scrub and chop; we have also grown Detroit Dark Red.  Both seem to last a few months in the root cellar, but they are picky about humidity.  If things get too humid, the tops rot and get slimy, and the beets get a covering of white mold.  If the beet itself feels firm, we've been known to cut away the mold and cook it up anyhow; this is probably not recommended, however.  If things are not humid enough, beets shrivel up very quickly.  We put them, unwashed, in shallow Rubbermaid containers with a covering that we can adjust (open or close) to manage humidity.  Beets need to be monitored fairly closely, but if you get the humidity right, they are a great root cellar vegetable.  We ate beets from the cellar last night, and they are still lovely and firm, around two months after harvest.  We have noticed that the yellow or golden beets do not store as well as the red ones (we've tried a few different golden beets, and none have stored well for us - now, we just eat them fresh). 

Cabbage:  We don't grow our own cabbage, but have bought or been gifted larger amounts of cabbage at various times, and put it down in the cellar.  Cabbage seems to get slimy if things are very humid, so we put them in burlap sacks by the potatoes.  They haven't lasted as long for us as most other things - maybe a couple of months - but we don't know if they were storage varieties or not.  Also, with the way we stored them, after a while, the outer leaves would get dried out, discolored, and papery fairly quickly, making it look like the cabbage had gone bad.  However, when we peeled off the first few layers, there was perfectly sound, tasty cabbage underneath.  Occasionally those cabbages have been chock full of little green caterpillars, which also apparently root cellar very well, as they were quite alive when we cut into the cabbage (blech).

Carrots:  We grow Nantes Coreless or Danvers Half Long, and they store equally well.  Like the beets, they are a bit picky about humidity, and tend to shrivel/get slimy really fast if they don't like the humidity you give them.  Carrots normally last a month or two longer than the beets under our storage conditions, so we make a point of using more beets early in the winter, and saving the carrots for later.  I think carrots prefer things a bit cooler than our root cellar; my mother has stored washed garden carrots in a ziploc bag in the fridge for over seven months, but I think the longest we've managed in the root cellar was about five (with them becoming too shriveled / bitter to eat sometime in late February or early March, if we haven't used them by then). 

Eggs:  We store our unwashed eggs in the root cellar all summer (we don't get that many eggs in the winter, so we just eat them as they come).  We worried about them getting off flavors, as it is musty down there, but it hasn't been a problem.  We've had them sit down there for several months and still be fine to eat.  I don't know what the limit would be, as we make a point of rotating them so the oldest ones get eaten first.  Storing them down there gives us enough space to make sure we have a good supply well into winter, even if the hens aren't laying (or aren't laying much) for lack of light. 

Onions:  We mostly grow the yellow Spanish type onions from sets.  We've also tried the red ones, but found they don't store nearly as well, so if we grow them, we use them up first.  We found that onions don't like our root cellar at all - it's too humid.  They prefer a cool, dry spot.  After curing them (often on a sheet on the living room floor, as we pull them as close to first frost as we can leave it) for a couple of weeks (until the necks are papery and dry), we put them in baskets in the spare room, with the furnace vent closed and the door shut.  If we've planted enough, they usually last until the chives are well up in April/May.  You have to be diligent about picking out and using the ones that sprout, though. 

Potatoes:  We've never found a potato that didn't store well in the root cellar.  They don't like it as humid as the other roots, though, so we store them in burlap sacks, rather than plastic, and keep the root cellar humidity about at the level they like (then adjust everything else higher as necessary, using the covered plastic bin or ziploc baggie method, with extra water sprinkled in if necessary).  We just harvest them, let them dry in the sun for the afternoon, brush off the excess dirt, pick out any that are damaged, bag them up, and put them downstairs, unwashed.  We could probably store them loose in the bins, but with the window letting light in, we prefer to bag them up.  If we've planted enough, we can be eating them right up until the next planting time (May), though sometimes they get bitter toward the end (we haven't figured out why - it might be the varieties we grow, or it might be the storage conditions).

Rutabagas:  we've only grown them ourselves one year, and most had some degree of worm damage.  The damaged ones still lasted a couple of months, and the undamaged ones a bit longer, but we ate all the undamaged ones before any rotted, so I'm not sure how long they would have lasted.  We stored them, unwashed and not waxed, in bins like the carrots and beets.

Squash:  Squash are with the onions - they don't like the root cellar.  Again, it's too humid for them, and they tend to go mushy very quickly.  With squash, the variety matters a lot - some hardly store at all, and some seem to last basically forever (ie a year or more).  Maximas seem to store best for us (our season is too short for most c. moschata squash, though I hear they are the best keepers).  C. pepo squash don't generally store well for us, with the glaring exception of spaghetti squash - we found one that was still edible over a year after it had been harvested!  We keep the squash in the cool spare room with the onions, if we have enough space; overflow ends up all over our house, including the kitchen counter and the coffee table in the living room.  Depending on the variety (especially the spaghetti squash), even the relative abuse of our warm living room doesn't slow them down by much. 

We make a point of eating the squash in the order it tends to rot.  We normally grow New England Sugar Pie pumpkins (c. pepo), which are normally done by the end of December (sometimes sooner), Red Kuri squash (c. maxima) which usually lasts until March, and Spaghetti Squash, which generally lasts until we eat it all or feed it to the chickens to make room for the next crop.  We've also had good luck with the Iran squash, though they grew too big for us, so were hard to use.  This year, we also grew Sweet Meat squash and Mandan squash, and both look like they will end up being good keepers, as well.  One of the big tricks with squash seems to be making sure the stem is completely dry before putting them anywhere cool.  The rot often seems to start at the stem, and spread from there.  This is especially a big deal with the c. maximas, which have a thick, fleshy stem; the c. pepo squash mostly have a hard, woody stem that dries quite quickly.  Also of note, most squash doesn't ripen on the vine for us, as our season is too short; we pick them green and let them ripen in the house.  This doesn't seem to be a problem with anything that has grown to full size before harvest, but the smaller ones seem to rot more quickly, so we try to eat the little squashes (of any variety) before anything else, as soon as they ripen. 

Of all the things we've tried, only potatoes, onions, and a couple types of squash last through until the asparagus is up in May, but almost everything is still good in December, and we regularly serve root-cellar carrots and beets at Christmas.  Of course, this will be different for everybody, depending on when you harvest, how cold and humid your cellar is, and what grows in your area, but I'd be willing to bet that (for instance) potatoes will last longer than beets for most people. 

We love our root cellar, and we grow a lot more vegetables than we otherwise would because of it.  We don't really have time to do a ton of canning or dehydrating, so just digging things up and hauling them downstairs is ideal for us.  It does require regular checking, though, especially later in the season, to make sure that things that start to go bad don't ruin the whole bin, but that takes a few minutes a week, and is easy to do when you're down there getting veggies for supper. 

 
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Great post, Jess.
My climate isn't as cold or dry as yours, but we store some fruit, mostly apples. We also have a much longer growing season. We have also stored Korean Giant Asian pears.
John S
PDX OR
 
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Location: Sask, Canada - Zone 3b
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Wowwie, what a write up

From my experience, with the shrivelling carrots they do get bitter, but I've just put them in a bowl of water before using which gives them a palatable bland taste - good enough for soups.

Totally agree on the stems for squash needing to be dry. I grew Galeux d'Eysines Pumpkins 2 years ago and had so much of a bumper crop of everything that I had to place the pumpkins in a corner near my front door. Out of about 30 I think only 4 went bad and I was able to use them all up by mid February. Two of the pumpkins that rotted were discovered when I picked them up by the stem and they broke off instantly revealing mold underneath. I'm certain if I had them in a cellar they'd have all lasted until early April.

I'm surprised your apples stayed good for that long. I tried for awhile, but crab apples or any local apples didn't last more than a month. They all get cut and frozen now.

I'm of the same philosophy as you, I'd much rather eat food over the winter in the order they'll expire than take all that extra time and energy to do canning.

 
Jess Dee
Posts: 56
Location: Saskatchewan zone 2/3
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Thanks, folks  

@John - I think I'm a couple of zones too cold for Asian Pears, which is too bad, since I love them.  We have planted some hardy regular pears, and a couple of them are supposed to be long keepers, so we'll see in a few years.

@Jarret - I've never heard of soaking carrots, but will definitely give it a try if the current crop starts to shrivel before we finish them! 

About the apples, those Honeycrisps are a storage type, but a lot of the super-hardy apples don't store so well.  Our crabapples certainly don't, so I make those into jelly right away.  I've planted a couple other storage-type apples, but none of them are bearing yet, so I can't say for sure how long they'd keep.  We went to a local U-pick a couple of years ago, and none of the apples we got there (five or six varieties, but we didn't know the names) kept past about six weeks - you probably have to go looking for the storage types. 
 
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Great Post.  I want a root cellar so bad.  It seems that many of the veg have issues with humidity.  I wonder if wood chips would prolong shelf life on stuff that doesn't like humidity.
 
Jess Dee
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Scott Foster wrote:Great Post.  I want a root cellar so bad.  It seems that many of the veg have issues with humidity.  I wonder if wood chips would prolong shelf life on stuff that doesn't like humidity.



Thanks!

I'm not sure how wood chips would help with the stuff that doesn't like humidity.  I do know people recommend storing carrots (which do like humidity) in sawdust, as it keeps things more evenly moist, so I don't think wood chips would help with keeping things dry.  To be honest, the onions and most of the squash store pretty well at room temperature anyway (well, cool room temp - we don't keep our house super-warm).  If you don't have a cold, dry place to put them, they'd do better in a warm dry place than a cool damp one, and the difference between cool and dry versus warm and dry is probably a few weeks with the longest storing stuff - so, with our onions, they might last until late May if they were cool and dry, or mid to late April if they were warm and dry (I actually tested this one year, and while I don't remember exact dates, this is close), and in either case, we generally end up eating them all by early April, and then using chives to season our food for much of the summer.

I guess what I'm getting at is that it is the longest-storing stuff that prefers cool and dry, and holding them at warmer temperatures does seem to knock a few weeks off the storage time, but with the time frames in play, it's not that big a deal.  We're pretty lazy, and like to keep things as simple as possible, so if the spare room is in use (like it is this year) and we can't keep it cool, then the squash and onions live in a warmer environment than they'd prefer.  We've got squash and pumpkins and onions on the kitchen counter, shelves in the living room, and in the pantry where the freezer lives (the warmest spot in the house), and they are all doing fine, so far.  The pumpkins will probably go bad sooner this way, but we're making more of an effort to eat them early, knowing that.  Not a huge deal. 

Root cellars are, in general, pretty awesome.  However, a fridge does basically the same thing (though it's smaller).  We have also used our mudroom / entry as a sort of cold storage area, by closing off the furnace vent and cracking a window.  Maybe you could do something similar with an unused space in your home. 
 
Scott Foster
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Jess Dee wrote:

Scott Foster wrote:Great Post.  I want a root cellar so bad.  It seems that many of the veg have issues with humidity.  I wonder if wood chips would prolong shelf life on stuff that doesn't like humidity.



Thanks!

I'm not sure how wood chips would help with the stuff that doesn't like humidity.  I do know people recommend storing carrots (which do like humidity) in sawdust, as it keeps things more evenly moist, so I don't think wood chips would help with keeping things dry.  To be honest, the onions and most of the squash store pretty well at room temperature anyway (well, cool room temp - we don't keep our house super-warm).  If you don't have a cold, dry place to put them, they'd do better in a warm dry place than a cool damp one, and the difference between cool and dry versus warm and dry is probably a few weeks with the longest storing stuff - so, with our onions, they might last until late May if they were cool and dry, or mid to late April if they were warm and dry (I actually tested this one year, and while I don't remember exact dates, this is close), and in either case, we generally end up eating them all by early April, and then using chives to season our food for much of the summer.


My bad, I figured wood chips would draw moisture from the veg.  Something similar to dropping your iPhone into a bucket of water and putting it in rice to draw moisture.  I was planting a bunch willows that I started roots on and my iPhone literally jumped out of my pocket and into an HD bucket full of H2O.  I put it in rice and the phone continued to work for about a month. 

 
Jess Dee
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I always wondered if that rice thing would actually work.  Interesting to know that it does
 
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Great write-up Jess!

Regarding wood shavings for root cellars...  In my experience, damp shavings for carrots and beets work well to keep them closer to their preferred humidity.  My definition of damp is not dripping but not so dry that you'd expect it to soak up a spill very well at all.  I layer the roots in a 5 gallon bucket (shavings, roots, shavings, roots, etc) and then snap the lid partially or fully on.  My root cellar isn't humid enough for them otherwise since it's in my basement without a dirt floor. 

This year I'm storing apples for the first time.  I also used shavings for them but used dry shavings.  So far so good but time will tell on that.

Jess Dee wrote:Root cellars are, in general, pretty awesome.  However, a fridge does basically the same thing (though it's smaller).  


I may very well be wrong, but I've heard that refrigerators are not as humid as a root cellar so things will dry out faster when put in a fridge.  When we move carrots/beets up from the root cellar, we use a plastic grocery bag and keep some of the damp shavings in the bag.  Then we tuck the bag closed in the veggie drawer.  That seems to help keep them humid for us.
 
John Saltveit
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Traditionally, many have put each apple into a paper bag or a piece of old newspaper.

I've heard of some varieties, Golden Russet I think, that shriveled. They actually buried them, dug them up in the spring and they were perfect.

There is a lot of room for experimentation. Here in the we (s)t PNW, it doesn't get real cold and it's wet, so storage techniques will be different than in really cold, dry places.
Some suggest burying in old, not running refrigerators.

John S
PDX OR
 
Jess Dee
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Location: Saskatchewan zone 2/3
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John Saltveit wrote:Traditionally, many have put each apple into a paper bag or a piece of old newspaper.

John S
PDX OR



I did a bit of experimentation at our last place, and under those circumstances, paper versus loose in a box didn't make a difference in time to rotting, but it did make it way harder to see what had gone bad, so I ended up with a much bigger mess to clean up.  Now, that was in less than ideal circumstances, in a cool basement room (rather than a real root cellar), and with apples that were not long-keepers.  It might make more difference with keeping apples, I don't know.  Maybe I'll give it another go next year
 
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