Root Cellars

Beryl Harris

Fall is upon us and it is time to bring in the fruits of our labours, we have lots of freezers whilst perhaps the best frozen food is at the super markets, but to go back to simpler times a root cellar worked very well – it is a shame that builders have forgotten, or perhaps do not even know about root cellars. I think that as we use up our natural resources, we are getting into more and more trouble.

Root cellars can still be found in many old farmhouses – and cottages, for I still have one. Most new homes and a lot of older ones do not have the luxury of a root cellar, but it is often possible to convert part of your basement, a room or even garage to make room for vegetable and fruit storage.

You can build your own root cellar by walling off a part of a basement using the unfinished, uninsulated exterior walls, preferably in a corner. You will need to include ventilation with an inlet and outlet vent. You can either build vents in a window, replacing the glass or cut through the wall. The inlet vent should deliver cold air near the floor and the outlet vent draws from the top. It will be necessary to have a method to close off the vents in freezing temperatures.

Ventilation, temperature and humidity are your three main concerns. Vegetables, such as onions and squash require low humidity, whilst most root crops store well in moderately moist conditions. Temperature preferences range from near freezing to 15°C (60ºF) It is very important to take notice of both recommended temperatures and humidity requirements to maintain quality and longevity.

Good ventilation is a must, as many fruits and vegetables give off gases not only causing unpleasant odors, they reduce vitamin content and cause the ripening process to accelerate, thus reducing the shelf life. I would recommend that you try and obtain a copy of Organic Farming’s “Stocking Up” I do not know if it is still in print, but try the used book stores,’ or even on line.

Once you dig up potatoes from your vegetable garden, do not wash them but knock off excess soil. You need to allow them to dry and harden for a few hours and any damaged or forked potatoes should not be put into storage but eaten as soon as feasible. With potatoes it is most important to exclude light because they get bitter and form toxic substances. Also if the potatoes get too cold (below 5°C) the starch in them forms sugar and an off taste.

For storing carrots, beets, parsnips and turnip, remove the tops close to the crown and store in layers separated by damp but not wet packing material like peat moss.

When we first retired, Jack wanted to build an in-ground Solar Home; by the time we had found the ideal site (4 years later) we were well established in our community and were reluctant to move. So we shelved that idea, but made our present home as self-sustaining as possible. I would snap up anything to do with this particular way of life including how to store our own vegetables. We sent money to help get “ Harrowsmith” started; it was a risky thing to do, as they did not know if anyone would send money – they were inundated. Money just poured in, so many of us were running from the city and its fast pace of life, but few had any idea how to look after ourselves, thus was born this wonderful magazine. There was no advertising and the first few years it was printed on newsprint, but chock full of ideas, and good advice. Part of the deal was free copies of any magazine to be printed for several years.

No matter what kind of root cellar you have, the old adage still remains, fruit and vegetables must be in good condition, No spots of decay or bites. I discovered that fruit flies bite! You must be very careful digging, picking, plucking and handling, this is of great importance. If the crops are not of excellent quality (no cuts, bruises, decay or disease) when they go into storage. Their chances of a long life are greatly diminished. However you cannot just stick them into storage and forget about them, until you need some potatoes for supper. You must keep an eye on the crops. Any that are showing signs of unusual softness or decay, should be removed immediately.

I would suggest that you keep track of all the “stuff” that goes into storage – use your garden diary, better yet ask “Santa” for a real “Gardener’s Journal”. Lee Valley Tools have a good five year one.