Once your root cellar is ready, think about which methods will work well for you: What suits your available space and the crops you plan to store? To find out if your crops will store well with the technique you have in mind, check the crop-by-crop guide below.
A list of produce that I’ve had the best experience with for keeping in cold storage follows. If you don’t see a fruit or vegetable listed, it probably isn’t a good keeper in these conditions. Generally, you shouldn’t waste valuable produce or energy on items that will mostly have unsatisfactory outcomes. Therefore, start small the first year and keep notes on successes and failures for the next year.
Many fruits don’t store well in cold storage for long periods of time. Apples and pears are among the few fruits that can be stored in cold storage for up to six months, depending on the cultivar. So, choose long-keeping cultivars if you’re planning to store many of them in your root cellar.
Partition off a section of your root cellar for fruits or at least make sure they’re in separate containers, away from vegetables. Never store fruits with potatoes, turnips or cabbage. Apples and pears release a gas that causes potatoes to sprout, while turnips and cabbage can give out odors that might be absorbed by other produce.
Depending on the cultivar, apples will keep for two to six months if stored at 32 degrees F. Apples are among the best-keeping fruits, especially cultivars such as Granny Smith that can last up to six months. Stayman Winesap and Rome Beauty are the next best.
Normal storage ranges from four to six months with these cultivars. You can keep Jonathan, McIntosh and Delicious (red or yellow) for shorter periods.
Most cultivars should be stored at a temperature of 32 degrees and 85 to 95 percent humidity. Wrap apples in newspaper or nest them in straw or clean dry leaves. Apples “breathe” more than most other fruits and give off a pungent aroma, so keep them away from other produce. Store them in boxes, barrels or buckets. Cover with 2 inches of packing material on top.
Oranges and grapefruits are some of the few citrus fruits that can be stored in a root cellar. These fruits will keep for up to two months if stored at 32 to 40 degrees and at 80 to 90 percent humidity. Just make sure to store only blemish-free fruits.
After picking, quickly cool grapes to 50 degrees. Spread them out in single layers and leave them until the stems are slightly shriveled. Then pack them in shallow containers no more than 4 inches deep, cushioned with dry straw.
Store them in a place that is slightly humid and has a temperature of about 32 degrees. Grapes will keep for one to two months.
Depending on the cultivar, pears stored at 32 degrees will keep for two to six months. Anjou, Easter Beurre, and Winter Nelis keep better than Bosc, Bartlett, Cornice, Hardy and Kieffer.
Harvest while they are still green and appear to be immature. Choose fruits that are free of blemishes and bruises. Wrap pears in newspapers or nest them in straw or clean, dry leaves. Store in boxes or barrels, trash cans, or buckets, covering with 2 inches of packing material on top. Store pears away from other fruits and vegetables. Maintain a temperature as close to 32 degrees as possible, as well as a high relative humidity of 85 to 90 percent.
Beets to Endive
Many vegetables, especially root crops such as potatoes, can be kept well through the entire winter, as long as the required temperature and humidity are provided. If you’re a beginner, start with the most stored root vegetables: beets, carrots, potatoes, turnips and rutabagas. The following vegetables are good for cold storage.
Beets stored at 32 degrees will keep for four to six months. Harvest beets in late November, when the night temperature reaches 30 degrees.
Remove most of the greens, which might otherwise rot, but leave a 2-inch stub. Never cut off the greens right at the root. You might very well cut the vegetable, inviting quick decay. Don’t wash.
Pack the beets in containers surrounded by straw or in moist sand for keeping in any outdoor storage pit or a root cellar. Place them in an area with temperatures slightly above freezing and a humidity level of 95 percent. You can also leave the beets in the ground covered with 6 inches of straw and harvest them as needed.
You can keep Brussels sprouts in the garden for a remarkably long time, sometimes right up to New Year’s Day in areas that enjoy moderate winters. If you aren’t blessed with such weather, create a basement “garden” of Brussels sprouts so that you can pick them as you need them.
To do so, don’t pick the sprouts off the stem, but dig up the whole plants carefully, keeping the roots and the soil clinging to them. Plant them upright by burying the roots in a box of soil. Lightly water and pick sprouts as needed.
Cabbage & Chinese Cabbage
Late cabbage stored at 32 degrees will keep for five to six months, while early cabbage stored at the same temperature will keep for only a few weeks. So, consider choosing a late cabbage cultivar.
Prepare cabbage for storage by removing the loose outer leaves. You can store individual heads, separately wrapped, or entire plants. If you store only the heads, wrap them with newspaper, burlap or other material, and store them in boxes or bins at a temperature just above freezing in a damp area. If you want cabbage heads to stay crisper longer, leave the roots on and store them outdoors in a container of damp sand or soil.
Cabbage emits a strong odor during storage, so most people prefer to store it in an outdoor storage arrangement.
Carrots stored at 32 degrees keep for seven to nine months. Store as you would beets.
Cut off the roots and leave the leaves intact. Use covered boxes or baskets with moist sand layers. Cauliflower can be stored for one to two months.
Celery stored at 32 degrees will keep for two to three months. To ensure the best storage time, pull the crop, leaving the roots intact. Leave the tops dry; don’t wash.
Keep the plants at a temperature of 32 to 34 degrees and the roots in slightly damp sand or soil. To avoid odor contamination, don’t store with cabbage or turnips. In areas without severe winters, you can leave celery in the garden, covered with a thick layer of leaves or straw.
Stored at 32 degrees, endive will keep for two to three months. Store this leafy vegetable with its roots in slightly moist sand or soil. You can also use your basement to store the roots of witloof chicory until they sprout delicate, mild heads of Belgian endive. Here is how.
Grow the chicory all summer in your garden and harvest it in late fall. Put the roots in a box of moist sand and set them in total darkness in your 50- to 60-degree basement. After several weeks, small endive heads will sprout. Harvest them before they reach 6 inches tall.
Garlic to Onions
Stored in a dry place at 40 degrees, garlic will keep for six to seven months. Just like onions, you must cure garlic before storing it. Dry garlic thoroughly, making sure the bulbs aren’t in direct sunlight.
If you have large quantities, lay the plants in the garden with their tops covering the bulbs. If you have just a few, bunch, tie or braid them and hang them in a well-ventilated cool room to store and dry. Or remove the tops and roots with a knife or shears, leaving 1 inch of roots on the bulb, and store them as you would onions, in a cool, slightly humid (60 to 75 percent) area.
Green but full-size tomatoes will ripen in up to two months if held at 55 to 70 degrees in moderate humidity. Ripe tomatoes don’t store well, but hold green ones in storage and encourage them to ripen there.
Harvest all tomatoes that are of good size, ripe and still green, just before the first killing frost. Remove from the plants, wash and allow to dry before storing. If you remove the stems, there is less chance that the tomatoes will puncture one another. Separate green tomatoes from those that show red, and pack green tomatoes no more than two deep in shallow boxes or trays for ripening.
Whole roots can keep for one to two months at 32 degrees. Dig out whole horseradish roots and store them in a root cellar in damp sand in a bucket or plastic bag. Or leave the roots in the ground throughout the winter.
To make digging easier, cover the rows with about 1 foot of leaves or straw before the ground has frozen. Horseradish roots are thin-skinned, and the quality deteriorates once dug up, so you might dig up no more than a two weeks’ supply at a time.
Stored at 32 degrees in high humidity, they’ll keep for two to five months. Store as you would horseradish.
Stored at 32 degrees, kohlrabi will keep for two to three months. Remove leaves and roots, and store them in an area with about 95 percent humidity.
Leeks stored at 32 degrees will keep for one to three months. Harvest after nights reaches 30 degrees. Cut off most of the green tops and leave the tails intact. Use boxes, cans or buckets lined with a plastic bag. Layer the leeks with sawdust or moist sand; use peat moss or straw for outside storage. Keep them at a temperature of 32 degrees and 95 percent humidity. You can also leave leeks in the ground covered with 6 inches of straw and harvest as needed.
Onions will last throughout the entire winter if stored in a cool, dry place. Pull the onions when their top falls over, shrivels at the neck of the bulb and turns brown. Keep the bulbs off the ground in the shade or bring them inside out of the direct sun for about two weeks or until skins are papery and roots are dry, before storing. Then remove the tops and place them in bins or string bags or braid their tops together. Store onions at temperatures ranging from 33 to 45 degrees in an area with about 60 to 75 percent humidity.
Parsnips to Turnips
Stored at 32 degrees, they’ll keep for up to six months. Store as you would beets.
Stored at 40 degrees and 95 percent humidity, potatoes will last throughout the winter. Leave tubers in the ground for about two weeks after the vines have died—as long as the weather is dry—to make sure that the potato skins have toughened up for storage. Then dig the potatoes, and store them in a dark, humid place at about 40 degrees. Lower temperatures tend to turn starch into sugar and change the flavor. Never store with apples, which give off ethylene gas and encourage potatoes to sprout.
Pumpkins & Winter Squash
Harvest when very mature, before frost, with the stem attached. Cure for about two weeks in 70-degree temperatures so the skins will toughen.
Wash pumpkins and winter squash with a mild bleach solution to prevent mold from forming during storage. Or wipe them with a soft cloth moistened with vegetable oil to deter mold. Store on a shelf in a dry, 55-degree place. Don’t pile them up, as their weight may crush the bottom layer. Store on the top shelf near the ceiling of the root cellar as long as it’s dry.
Pumpkins and winter squash can be stored for four to six months, depending on the cultivar.
Stored in a warm (55 to 60 degrees) area that is well ventilated and the humidity is 85 to 90 percent, sweet potatoes will keep throughout the winter. Store sweet potatoes that are free from injury. Cure them for one to two weeks in a warm (85 to 90 degrees) and humid (80 to 90 percent) place until the skin toughens and the wounds at either end grow a protective, corky coating.
Stored at 32 degrees, winter radishes will keep for four to six months, with nearly indistinguishable changes in flavor or texture. Store in the root cellar as you would beets.
Rutabagas stored at 32 degrees will keep for up to four months. Store as you would beets. You can also wrap them well in plastic wrap that clings tightly to protect their skins and keeps their strong odor contained.
Stored at 32 degrees in the root cellar, turnips will keep for four to five months. Store as you would beets. As with rutabagas, you can wrap turnips in plastic wrap that clings tightly to protect their skins and keeps their odor contained.
This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.