How We Store Our Vegetables Without A Root Cellar
Though my sister and I eat a lot of our vegetables fresh from our garden, we need to store some of our vegetables if we want to eat from our garden all year-round. We freeze some extra broccoli and greens and can some tomatoes, but we store most of our vegetables tucked away in various locations.
Cool and Dry – The Easiest Storage!
I've had many years experience in growing and storing vegetables that keep in good condition for months in a cool room in my house. These include winter squash, garlic, sweet potatoes, and onions. I really love vegetables that I don't have to can or freeze – just pick them, cure them, and stack them away!
When I lived alone and had lots of unused space in my home, I just spread a plastic sheet out on the floor of a spare room and placed my vegetables in a single layer on top of it. You will always lose a few vegetables to rot, and the plastic kept the floor underneath from being damaged.
My spare rooms have always been upstairs. I couldn't afford to heat rooms that I just used for storage, so these spare rooms usually stayed between 50-60 degrees for most of the winter. It's a perfect temperature to store winter squash and sweet potatoes. You don't want to store these vegetables in a cold and damp place.
And, although 50-60 degrees is warmer that what is usually recommended to store garlic and onions, I've had pretty good luck with them anyway. Part of the secret is growing varieties that are good keepers. I am usually still eating all four of these vegetables in April.
My sister moved in with me in 2012, and our extra storage space is now more limited. We brainstormed how and where we wanted to keep our crops. We came up with two locations – upstairs closets in unheated areas that would stay cool over the winter.
One closet is in our upstairs bathroom, which has large shelves already built-in. We had unexpectedly harvested nearly 250 pounds of sweet potatoes in 2012, and needed some sturdy shelving to hold most of them.
We didn't have any other built-in shelving available, so my sister found some plastic stackable storage units that have generous ventilation holes. These units are open in the front so we could easily select which vegetables we wanted to take down to the kitchen. They have allowed us to store a couple of hundred more pounds of vegetables in half of an upstairs hallway closet.
Cold and Moist – More Challenging
We don't have a proper root cellar at our home for our cabbage, apples, Irish potatoes, and similar crops that require cold and moist storage conditions. They store best when kept around the upper 30's and very humid.
Our basement is too warm and dry, and we don't have a crawl space. Since we are able to store most of our root crops in the ground, covered with mulch inside cold frames, we don't need a large “root cellar” area – so it doesn't make sense to try to convert part of our basement into one. In addition, our winter temperatures have been a bit too warm over the last few years to be able to use a regular root cellar.
We tried digging holes into the ground to create small buried storage locations. Unfortunately, our soil is so poorly draining, that each hole we dug filled up with water after every heavy rain and took days to drain away. Burying our food is not in the picture for us – though I plan to experiment in our high raised garden beds that drain well.
So, we initially kept our apples, cabbages, and potatoes in separate 5-gallon buckets, and kept switching them around in various locations as needed.
They started out in our outdoor shed for a couple of months right after harvest in October. When it got too cold, we covered the buckets with several layers of heavy blankets. We kept a remote temperature sensor under the blankets so we could move the buckets when they dropped to the mid 30's. I once had a neighbor that successfully stored her Irish potatoes all winter long in bushel baskets in the crawl space under her house – so if you have a crawl space, check it out!
Eventually, we had to move the buckets into our house. We chose our coldest room, which normally stays between the upper 40's to mid 50's in mid-winter. That's a lot warmer than I would prefer, but we didn't seem to have a lot of choices.
We have to cover the buckets with a heavy dark blanket, so the light coming through the window doesn't turn the potatoes green and poisonous. The buckets don't offer any ventilation, so the moisture from the potatoes condenses on the inside of the buckets. In these warmer temperatures, the potatoes start to sprout and send out roots, but they until they start to shrink and soften, they are usually still quite usable.
Fortunately, even in these less than ideal storage conditions, the cabbage heads still look pretty good, even though they are starting to sprout roots.
In January 2014, I suggested we experiment with using insulated styrofoam coolers to store these crops in our hoop house. Our hoop house varies in temperature from the 40-60's F during the day, to the mid-upper 20's at night (except for occasional arctic blasts, when it might drop into the mid-teens in the hoop house for a couple of nights).
So far, it's been working out pretty good. The coolers have the same moisture condensation as the buckets. This can cause early rotting for some crops. In January, the temperatures inside the coolers have been ranging from the upper-30's to mid-40's. We bring them inside for a short while when we expect severe cold. When the hoop house warms up more in the spring, we'll shift the coolers to our outdoor shed. When it gets too warm there, we'll put what our remains of our storage crops into our refrigerator.
My favorite resource for learning more about storing winter vegetables is the old classic book: Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables The authors include more information about various options to store your vegetables – even if you can't have a root cellar!
So, don't give up on storing some of your winter vegetables if you don't have a perfect storage location! Just use a min/max thermometer and check out all the various nooks and crannies that you may have to work with. You can still often store your crops for a few weeks or months under less than ideal conditions.
You, too, can feast year-round from your small backyard!