Gardeners find spring and summer to be all about growing food, and the fall and winter about storing food. Fall brings a large and bountiful harvest from your own garden as well as more inexpensive prices from the local farmers markets. But in the winter months, pricing on produce seem to rise considerably. So it makes sense to store as much as you can when fresh produce is in abundance and cheap.
One of the easiest and oldest ways to preserve your fresh fruits and veggies through those winter months is with cold storage, also know to some as root cellaring. Historical records in fact, indicate that the aboriginal people from the land down under Australia, were using techniques of taking their food and burying in the ground to help preserve it more than 40,000 years ago, and in the 17th century England walk-in root cellars started to become more and more popular.
What is a root cellar you might ask? It’s simply an underground room used for preserving your fruits and veggies for several weeks or even months. Many homes tend to have them built into the basement or even separate from their home. Some major features of the cellars are simple, they are cool in temperature, and have the right level of humidity and are well-ventilated.
The cooler temperatures help to preserve the produce by simply slowing the rate at which produce release ethylene gas and helps to slow the rate at which they start to go bad. Essentially that’s the reason we use a refrigerator.
The ideal temperature should be between 32 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but it depends largely on what type of fruits and vegetables you are looking to store.
Humidity is another one of these important factors in how successful you are with your cold storage. Most of your produce tends to store best in an environment in which the relative humidity level is high- often between 85-95%. Due to the construction of most root cellars, they will tend to be naturally humid but it’s a good idea to include a hygrometer (an instrument for measuring humidity).
Also if you find that your root cellar is a little too dry, there are ways of increasing the humidity by sprinkling a little water on the floor (if the floor is gravel or earth) or even using some damp sawdust. The other side of that coin is if you find your humidity level is a little too high, you can always lower it by adding barrels of rock salt or even by making sure the ventilation is increased a bit.
Another key element to your root cellar’s success is proper ventilation. This helps you gain greater temperature control and is also important for controlling the ethylene gases that your produce will release, increasing your grasp on how long your food can be stored. If these gases aren’t able to escape properly, they can lead to your entire root cellar rotting much more quickly.
What foods can be kept in a Root Cellar?
Beets, carrots, onions, and potatoes tend to store very well even for several months through the winter. Apples are another one of those that can stay quite tasty for a longer period of time in cold storage.
What a lot of people may not realize is that when stored properly, you can even have produce like tomatoes, cucumbers and cauliflower as well. Granted these delicious items take a little more care in their storage. Tomatoes can be stored in boxes in a single layer, cucumbers can be housed in waxed or moist packaging, and that tasty cauliflower can be simply wrapped in leaves.
How should I arrange my Root Cellar?
When you go to stock your root cellar, it’s always a good practice to take air circulation into consideration. Shelving should be arranged to promote plenty of airflow around your produce; and try not to cram those suckers in there like sardines, they can’t breath.
If you choose to store food on the floor, use pallets or something like cinder blocks to raise them up an inch or two off the ground in order to get plenty of airflow to them. Remember to do a little research into produce that produce higher levels of ethylene gas and make sure those are placed higher up and closer to the outlet vents. Some fruits that are of concern are your apples, tomatoes, and pears. If you have some strong smelling foods such as cabbages, wrap them in newspaper to help prevent other foods absorbing that cabbage type odor.
Guarding Against those pesky Rodents
One of those huge problems you may run into with your root cellars is rodent infestation. To help prevent this ensure that all of your entry points, including your vents, are covered with something like wire mesh.
Also, make sure to inspect your food regularly and watch out for rotting produce or items that are close to spoiling. This will help to keep the rodents away from your root cellar and helps keep bacteria from spreading and spoiling the other food.
Also make sure to stay away from housing your canned good in your root cellar, as the levels of humidity can cause your lids to rust, and that would not make a tasty meal.
A root cellar does tend to take a certain degree of work and effort, but they are a great way to preserving those great flavors of your summer produce throughout the colder months of the year.
Author: Kirsten Cowart