Chip Bubl, a horticulture faculty member with the Oregon State University Extension Service, recalls hearing a story about a man hauling a truckload of carrots from Washington to New York. He had a small box of apples in the load, and over a few days, the ethylene gas from the apples mingled with the carrots. It was not a happy marriage. “He had 40,000 pounds of carrots that were completely bitter by the time he got to New York,” Bubl says.
It’s an apt illustration of the delicacy of produce, and one that reinforces the complexity that comes with storing fresh fruits and vegetables together in a root cellar.
Keeping a root cellar is a great way to extend your harvest and enjoy your garden produce past the end of the growing season. It can save you money, reduce your carbon footprint and give you healthy meal options. But it’s more than just setting boxes of produce on shelves in a storage space—it involves careful planning, organization and monitoring.
While there are creative alternatives to the traditional root cellar, some basic tips apply to most root-cellaring endeavors.
1. Manage the root cellar climate.
Temperature, humidity and ventilation are key to your root cellar’s success. Most crops do best stored at 32 to 40 degrees F, with about 90 percent humidity. Others need warmer temperatures (50 to 60 degrees F) and lower humidity (60 to 70 percent).
A basement with a dirt floor is an ideal root cellar environment because it contributes to higher humidity than a concrete floor. If your space is too dry, you can increase humidity with a humidifier or by setting out pans of water or dampened burlap bags.
2. Air out the root cellar.
Ventilation keeps odors down, slows spoilage by venting ethylene gas, and helps regulate temperature and humidity. Adding intake and outlet ventilation pipes can help, but be sure to screen all ventilation openings against rodents.
3. Turn out the lights.
Put shades on windows and keep lights turned off when you’re not in the root cellar—light causes some produce to sprout or lose quality.
4. Organize storage containers.
You’ll need boxes, bins, baskets and sturdy containers, along with shelving that can withstand cold, damp conditions. Before you get started, make a list of the types of containers and shelving you’re likely to need given the types of fruits and vegetables you want to store. Also note supplies you’ll want to keep on hand, such as sand, mesh bags or hooks.
5. Separate produce.
Know which fruits and vegetables to avoid storing next to each other, and organize accordingly. Apples produce ethylene gas, which will make potatoes sprout and hasten spoilage for other produce. Other ethylene gas producers include peaches, pears, plums, tomatoes and muskmelons.
6. Take notes.
Hang a whiteboard, calendar or notebook in the root cellar that you can use to track your inventory. Note when crops are harvested, when you need to use up inventory of that particular food item (based on harvest date), what produce you use and what’s left. Check your produce often, and remove any fruit or vegetable showing signs of spoilage. If you’re not sure how long to keep an item, check online for storage guides:
- Rainy Day Foods
- Cornell Cooperative Extension’s factsheet, “Storage Guidelines for Fruits and Vegetables”
- Washington State University Extension’s publication, “Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home”
7. Set the temperature just right.
It’s important that your root cellar be cool, but if the temperature drops below freezing, you’ll need a way to increase the temperature. Closing vents and adding a 100-watt light bulb might be enough to keep temperatures optimum. (Keep a thermometer in the coldest part of your cellar, or monitor a glass of water for ice.) In milder areas, like western Oregon, cold, dry (the dry is important) weather—when you get it—presents an opportunity to draw cold air in to cool down the space, as long as you don’t cool it down so much that you get cold injury (not too likely with brief exposure). You also get a chance to vent out ethylene.
8. Do research first.
You’ll find online resources about root cellaring, as well as a wealth of information in books. Two to look for: Mike and Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables (2nd ed., Storey Publishing, 1991) and The Joy of Keeping a Root Cellar (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010), by Jennifer Megyesi.
About the Author: Colorado freelancer Debbie Moors channels her inner squirrel each fall, relishing the sight of her well-stocked root cellar.
This article was excerpted from “Root of the Matter,” which appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Hobby Farm Home.