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Root Cellaring Basics

In the temperate regions of the world, one of the biggest challenges to self reliance is WINTER! Nothing grows, the sunlight is low and weak, the temperatures are freezing, etc. There is a reason that most ancient cultures had some sort of midwinter celebration, and it wasn't because of Santa Claus. It was because the winter was half over and spring was coming. Spring and the ability to again produce food. The good thing is that many of the foods that we can grow in the summer can naturally resist spoilage much longer than others (some can remain fresh and unspoiled all winter), especially if they are stored in a dark place that reduces the environmental swings while favoring a more moderate temperature and higher humidity. These foods are perfect candidates for careful storage in a fresh condition and should form the basis of a winter vegetable diet. These vegetables and fruits should seem familiar, since we already naturally tend to consume them in the winter. They include cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc), root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, etc.), and apples. Additionally, many vegetables, such as chard, spinach and broccoli withstand frost very well and can be harvested fresh from the garden well into the winter, particularly with the judicious use of a cold frame.

Most storage vegetables can be grouped into a few categories based on temperature and humidity needs, though each variety also has a few special treatment techniques that improves its storage life. Take a look at our Cold Storage Guide for storage needs of some of the more common storage vegetables. Within each type, some varieties will store better than others, and there are many specialty vegetables that store well that are not on this list. Other foods that also preserve well in cold storage include nuts, seeds, grains, dry beans, lacto-ferments, meat, cheese, oil-rubbed eggs, etc.

One of the nice things about root cellaring is that it doesn't require a complex, state of the art, humidity-controlled environment. In fact, certain root vegetables will store well all winter long when mulched sufficiently right where they were growing. Yes, each vegetable has optimum storage conditions that will maximize its storage life; however, many of our ancestors stored all of their winter produce very well in a pit dug in the ground or in a cool basement room or attic (they didn't have central heating so the attic was generally pretty cold). One winter, we stored pumpkins very well for months on the stairs heading down to our garage. It was pretty chilly there, but certainly not temperature and humidity controlled. The three most important things to try to control are humidity (which can be modified fairly easily), temperature and air circulation. Take some time to evaluate the storage areas you already have or could easily create, and most likely you are already pretty well set up for effective root cellaring. Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel provides numerous options and variations for effective root cellar solutions even in the city. Don't have a traditional root cellar yet? Try vegetables you can mulch/bury in-place, a buried container, a pit, under the porch, in the crawlspace, a closet on the north side of the house, under the stairs, along the basement wall, in a window well, or in a corner of the garage or shed. Perhaps just adding a little insulation around a small nook, or trying a different vegetable, might be enough to double your storage time.

Be creative and you'll be surprised at how successful you can be with very little effort, and then all of your hard garden work in the hot summer sun will pay off magnificently in the form of hearty stews and pumpkin pies throughout the cold months of the winter as you bask comfortably by the side of a crackling fire!

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