It's a fundamental notch in any homesteader's totem pole: Root-cellaring, or the practice of storing fresh, whole, harvested fruits and vegetables in a cool environment (usually underground) in order to enjoy them long after the growing season has ended. But this age-old tradition isn't the sole domain of hardcore back-to-the-landers. Anyone wishing to increase their consumption of local and seasonal produce can reap the benefits of a root cellar. And given the popularity of home-gardening and farmers' markets, it makes sense to look for ways to extend our fresh-food-eating season.
Right now, when the ground is buried in more than two feet of snow, it's difficult to imagine eating fresh carrots, apples, or Chinese cabbage plucked straight from our backyard plot. Instead, we head to Hannaford and pick up not just beets and potatoes but veggies that are out-of-season, too: tomatoes, berries, peppers. In this way, we're perpetuating an unnatural food system, one that expends energy to ship in food from afar and costs more to boot.
It doesn't have to be this way! I've written about various food preservation techniques in this column before, but among canning, freezing, drying, and root cellaring, the latter is by far the simplest, making it possible to enjoy the fruits of your gardening labor through mid-winter and beyond.
"A properly constructed root cellar does not take a back seat to any other method of food storage," says Maine organic farming expert Eliot Coleman. "It is no great feat to manage a simple underground root cellar so that the produce will be equal or superior in quality to anything stored in an artificially refrigerated unit, even after long periods of storage."
All you need is a space where produce can be kept cool and damp; between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit (you don't want the food to freeze), with 90 to 95 percent humidity (to prevent shriveling), are considered optimal conditions. The area should be kept dark (light promotes sprouting in potatoes) and well-ventilated (to control condensation). Pre-storage, green tops should be trimmed, but veggies shouldn't be cleaned before they're packed up — dirt helps keep disease away.
Whether you're a homeowner or a renter, there are cold-storage options for you. Those with access to a basement, shed, or garage have it easiest, but DIY alternatives are out there for all those who are committed to enjoying their own damn yams, thankyouverymuch.
• The most ambitious choice is to dig your own root cellar outside, either into a hill or straight down into the ground, lined and insulated with concrete or stone.
• If you have a basement or cellar, you should be able to cordon off one section (again, concrete blocks work best), insulate the exterior walls from the heat, and, if necessary, install some ventilation. A similar option is to repurpose a bulkhead as a root cellar; if you go in this direction, you'll find a very helpful tutorial on the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association website (tinyurl.com/bulkheadroots).
• Sheds, garages, three-season-porches, or ice-cold spare rooms are also good storage spots for certain root and bulb vegetables; garlic and onions keep especially well in spots that are cold but not necessarily moist.