When it comes to storing your harvest, you have a couple of options. Freezing, dehydrating, canning, and storing fresh in a root cellar. I prefer freezing berries, corn, beans, peppers, peas, tomato based vegetable soup and eggplant. I like to dehydrate my herbs, early season apples and pears. Canning is great for pickles, tomato based soup (which can also be frozen), and beets. The root cellar is a great place to store your late season fruits, root vegetables and pumpkins for the winter. Onions, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, turnips, cabbage, pears, and apples do well in a root cellar. Granted these fruits and vegetables don’t all have the same temperature and humidity preferences, but most are similar.
What is a root cellar anyway?
A root cellar is simply a place where you store produce that maintains a constant low temperature 35-45 degrees with high humidity 85-95% throughout the winter. Ideally, a root cellar also has ventilation. Your produce will need a fresh air source. You may have a root cellar right now, and not even realize it. Sometimes a well pump room in an old basement might have those conditions, or an unfinished room in a basement with a dirt or gravel floor might be a good candidate. A crawl space or area under a porch can also be good root cellars.
How do I know if I have a good site for a root cellar?
I would recommend that you purchase a temperature gauge that has a humidistat to determine if you have a good site in or around your home. If you have a site that is the proper temperature, but not the right humidity or vice versa, there are things that can be done to make the site more ideal. My root cellar has good ventilation via high low vents. I also use these vents to regulate the temperature. I broke my root cellar in half by installing a wall and a door. The root cellar closest to the basement is somewhat warmer and drier, while the root cellar on the other side of the wall has a dirt floor, with lots of northerly ventilation, so it's cooler and more humid. This allows me to store certain fruits and vegetables on one side or the other depending on the conditions they prefer. Even on the humid side, it can still be a bit drier than I would like. I overcome this issue by dampening the straw that I keep my potatoes in and the sand that I keep carrots and parsnips in. If you think your site will be too difficult to fix humidity or temperature issues, cheap root cellars can be made with an old freezer buried in the soil and covered with straw with a vent attached.
Fruits and Vegetables that like 33-45 degrees with 80-95% Humidity
Leeks, Sunchokes, Carrots, Beets, Parsnips, Horseradish, Turnips, Cabbage, Potatoes, Apples & Pears
Fruits and Vegetables that prefer 50 degrees and 60-70% Humidity
Garlic, onions, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes
I have a root cellar in my basement that was built under the breezeway to my house. I installed high and low PVC pipes to control the temperature and the ventilation. Most fruits and vegetables like cold temperatures and high humidity, while there are some that like somewhat warmer and drier conditions. I found that the root cellar I built in my basement was good for the latter, but not what the majority of produce stores best at. I tried adding water to the floor, opening and closing the ventilation, but nothing seemed to work very well.
I started to think about the possibility of building a dirt floor root cellar in my backyard on the north side of my home. Then, as I was thinking about the high cost of building a structure with a roof, I had an idea. Why not partition my existing root cellar. It is plenty big, so maybe I could partition it with a wall and change the conditions on one side of the wall to be colder and more humid. The main reason I was not getting the humidity level I wanted was because the floor was concrete with a vapor barrier. So I decided remove the concrete and vapor barrier on the side furthest from the door to my basement. This would keep mold away from my house and that side would be colder because it would not be up against the heated house.
The wall was insulated and air sealed to keep the cold room cold, and the warm room warm. I had (4) high low vents, and we positioned the wall so each room now had (2) vents. We used concrete board and a fiberglass door so mold would not become a major issue. We had to cut the shelving to accommodate the wall. I am not a carpenter, so I hired a good one. It was well worth the money, and I was able to save quite a bit by being his laborer for a couple of days. I spent most of that time hauling buckets of concrete out of the basement up the stairs and in to the bucket of my tractor. I would then dump the concrete into a truck with my tractor. I can’t imagine trying to lift up a wheelbarrow in to the truck. That would have been a nightmare. I would carry two buckets at a time for balance. I would estimate that the buckets weighed 40-60 pounds each depending on how full I filled them up.
I was encouraged to find that the dirt/ gravel floor that was under the vapor barrier was in fact wet. This should raise the humidity enough for my produce. I do have to wait a bit for the moisture to saturate the air. Also, it is noticeably colder than the first room, so I will have colder temperatures as well.
Fruit and Vegetables that like to be stored cold and wet (32-40 degrees 85-90% humidity)
Fruit and Vegetables that like to be stored cool and drier (40-55 degrees 60-70% humidity)