Ask Casey: Let’s Make a DIY Root Cellar!

After seasons of gardening failure, this year I suddenly have a spectacular crop of squashes appearing daily. Any ideas on how to store these beauties for use during the long, cold winter?

What, you mean you don’t squash-bomb people like my neighbor Jim does? (Kidding, Jim. I love coming home to random piles of produce on my doorstep!)

Apart from canning, fermenting, and other preservation methods that change the taste and texture of the garden’s bounty, our homesteading ancestors also came up with a few options for storing squash, carrots, potatoes, and more in their original state.

Until the first hard freeze comes through in your region, root vegetables like leeks and sunchokes can be left in the ground (sometimes even throughout the winter if they’re in raised beds and covered in mulch).

But if you want to actually use the vegetables when another storm dumps two feet of snow on your garden, you’ll have to bring the crops indoors.

squash blossoms

The absolute easiest way to make a “root cellar” space for your vegetables without building a new space or digging into the ground is to find the coldest space in your house.

It doesn’t have to be a basement nook, but if it is, make sure it’s far away from the furnace room. Think about an unfinished attic, an unheated garage, a mudroom, or unused sun porch.

Cool temperatures and high moisture levels are the best friends a vegetable can have for maintaining freshness over the winter.

Squash, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes are the easiest to store indoors, staying happy around 50 degrees F, while most other cellarable produce needs a colder environment: between 32-40 degrees. (The University of Missouri has an excellent storage temperature reference chart.)

Leave a thermometer in the space in question to get an accurate reading before setting it up, lest you end up with rotting radishes and putrefying parsnips.

Once you’ve found a suitable corner, fill a plastic bin—any old storage bin from Target or the local home improvement warehouse—with playground sand (again found at the home improvement store or your local garden center).

Bury the root vegetables, then cover the sand with a layer of hay or sawdust for insulation.

Those lucky people with two refrigerators can convert an unused crisper drawer into an in-fridge cellar for cauliflower, pears, Brussels sprouts, and other vegetables that crave the cold.

farmer's market beets

Note, though, that while you might be able to keep your beets in great shape for months, the leafy tops of the veg in question probably won’t make it intact.

So trim the greens and sauté them up while they’re still fresh, then plunk the cut but unwashed vegetable into its winter home.

For those of you who do want to take things a step further and create a true cellar for your vegetable storage, here are a few resources:

  • The book Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel is pretty much the Bible of root cellar construction and maintenance, referenced by nearly every other resource (and now also here!).
  • Or The Complete Root Cellar Book has more building plans, along with recipes for the lovely produce you’re storing in your super-cool new cellar.
  • Feeling so confident that you actually want to grow produce indoors over the winter? Hie thee hence to WinterSown.org, a community whose members are much more successful at this technique than I’ve ever been.

Have any GFS readers built their own root cellar? How’s it working out for you?

Ask Casey is proof positive that there are no stupid questions—just stupid quips that Casey thinks are funny while she’s figuring out your food-related quandaries. Ask me anything! Email me and I’ll answer it here.

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  1. Huh. I’d never considered a mini-cellar in a bin and would have never thought to re-bury the crops. Brilliant. And I *am* one of the ones lucky enough to have a second fridge out in the garage. Exciting – now I have some thinking to do!

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