The root cellar’s modern-day alternatives


Bulb fennel will keep for months in a root cellar. (Barbara Damrosch)
Contributor November 6, 2013

Storage of winter vegetables might not seem like a compelling issue if you don’t have a root cellar, and let’s establish the fact that few of you do — at least not in the sense of a cavern dug into the earth or into a hillside, filled with potatoes, carrots and beets.

Many people who have an ordinary cellar do manage to wall off a corner of it that they can maintain at the ideal temperature of 33 degrees by opening and closing a small cellar window, and upping the humidity to 95 percent by spritzing the ground with a hose. A few others bury a metal garbage can in the ground with a removable insulated top. Still others — and this is actually quite common — have an old spare fridge in the utility room or the garage that does the job nicely.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

Even your kitchen fridge might accommodate a small amount of earthy treasure; in fact it can serve as a practice run to see what is cellar-worthy. Have you noticed that your celery keeps three weeks longer in the crisper drawer than your lettuce? Old-timers used to dig them with their roots intact and cellar them planted in moist sand. They lasted four months. I’ve done that with cabbages bred for storage, leaning against the side of the cellar with their roots mounded with damp soil. Even a less firm Chinese cabbage stored that way will keep for two months. In short, a surprising number of leaf or stem crops have more storability than you might think.

Leeks are a prime example. Most gardeners who extend leek season with a winter variety simply leave the plants in the ground. In climates where frozen ground makes them undiggable, or turns them to mush, they can be protected with clear plastic-covered structures. But once again, note how well they keep in the fridge. They might stretch a little from continued growth, but when they’re that cold they won’t form the hard inner core (the beginning of a flower stalk) that renders them inedible.

Bulb fennel is another crop that keeps a long time if cold enough. I might leave the fronds on for a week or two, because they’re great for seasoning, but those will soon turn yellow, whereas the bulbs will last up to three months. You might find a few dark spots on them after a while, but if you cut those out the rest is just fine for roasting, braising or adding to winter soups and stews.

Even some of the firmer leafy crops such as endive and kale are worth a try. If “planting” them, roots and all, in damp sand is a bit beyond you, try wrapping them in damp towels, or just stuffing them in a black plastic bag in an outbuilding that only freezes a little bit.

Lovers of garden-grown food are a determined lot, and where there’s a will there’s a way. My friend Debby, who lives in New York and commutes on weekends to the Hamptons, has no root cellar but has found an uncommon solution — not for everyone, perhaps, but fine for Debby. She stores her winter vegetables in her car.

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Tip of the week

Most clay pots are not freeze-proof — they split in winter — and should be taken inside now. Spread old potting soil onto garden beds or the compost pile and use fresh mix next spring. Clean pots before storage by removing soil and fertilizer salts with a stiff, dry brush. Stack them in a cellar, garage or shed — anyplace where they will remain dry. Cracked pots can be broken into shards and used at the bottom of next year’s containers for drainage.

— Adrian Higgins

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