Root cellar alternatives

By Carrie Black

How to store your crops for winter

The last time I went house hunting I had a long list of requirements and even longer list of desires. Where those two lists melded into each other was a root cellar. I wanted a real root cellar. The kind that keeps turnips crisp and sweet until Yule and apples edible until the depths of summer.

Old houses often come with some semblance of a root cellar. I saw hand-dug beauties from the early 1900s lined with field stone, fridge cold in August. More utilitarian affairs from the 1950s where three-fourths of me could stand upright and the accumulated dust from an ill-placed dryer vent would challenge an archaeologist. And things that used to be root cellars now called, in a fit of enthusiasm and one short run of heating duct, a bedroom.

Surely, somewhere in all of this there was amazing dirt, a few fruit trees, and a real, functioning root cellar… Nope. In the end, my perfect dirt came with an acceptable house, a few outstanding fruit trees, and a crawl space that only deserves the name if you are the size of a gerbil. No problem, I can dig and build. And procrastinate 10 years.

In the meantime I have found some very acceptable, almost root cellar, alternatives. I will happily use them until I get the real one dug, or I die. Whichever comes first.

Root cellar goals:
Temperature above freezing and below 60 degrees. Humidity high.

Old fridge in garage – A stripped fridge ($20 on KSL) is my favorite option. It sits in my detached, unheated garage and keeps potatoes just the right amount of warm in January. Until it gets really winter cold I leave the doors open during the day. If your spuds sprout, add ventilation holes in the doors (cover with metal mesh to keep pests out, use magnets to hold the mesh on).

Cooler in perpetual shade – I used this one before acquiring the fridge. Set a cooler (any size you like) any place outside that stays in the shade all the time (no cheating). Leave the lid open at night (cover with metal mesh if pests are an issue) and shut during the day. This will keep potatoes, sweet potatoes, and the like good for an amazing length of time. Pack root veggies in sand or straw for even longer storage. Use separate coolers for fruit and vegetables since the gases from one will hasten spoilage in the other.

In an unheated garage – This really only works for onions which don’t care if they freeze, as long as they are kept whole and freeze gradually. They will be okay in anything that breathes, such as hanging mesh bags or open boxes on a shelf. (Put them on the concrete floor and I will not be held responsible for the resulting rot pile.) Anything you don’t eat in time will sprout and you can use the tops like green onions. Bonus – no pest wants to eat an onion.

In the coldest room – This is why there are cabbages in my bedroom in November. And peppers hastily saved from the frost, alongside boxes of apples, and piles of winter squash. Keep things in a single layer for longest storage time. If you have a basement, this can be a grand solution – make an unheated room by shutting the vents for as long as your produce lasts.

Temperature controller on a chest fridge – It’s easy enough to make a chest freezer into a fridge with a temperature controller so why not take it further and make the perfect root cellar? If you can stand to use a little electricity, this makes an amazing storage space. Look up the ideal temp for the thing you want to store and set your controller accordingly. Remember to check up on your produce often since the old adage about one bad apple is around for a reason.

Every root cellar and every root cellar alternative is a little different. Be prepared to experiment and eat better.

Carrie Black has a learning fetish, is a chlorophyll
junkie, is obsessed with good chocolate and addicted to good company.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2019.