Cold storage for the home gardener

🕔Oct 04, 2011

Fred Watson flicks on the generator and leads me to a large building set into a hillside. “My grandfather, Steve Yelich, built this cellar in about 1920. He and my grandmother Sophie kept everything in here—potatoes, carrots, turnips. They fed their family and also sold a lot of produce to the Watson’s Store, as well as the Goodacres’ store, and Leach’s store too.”

He shows me a receipt from Watson’s Store for goods received, dated May 1946, for 500 lbs of potatoes and 188 lbs of turnips, for a total value of $21.26. “It was tough to accumulate any money back then,” he remarks.

The cellar is large by any standard: about 20 feet wide and at least 50 feet long. “All this stone they hauled from the property.” Watson points to the field stone that lines the walls of the cellar. “Work was never a problem for these fellas—look at the size of these rocks! They had no cranes except a tractor to pull the stuff here.” The cellar was turned into a mechanic shop after the family stopped farming vegetables, and the only hint that it once held food is the line of canning on one wall, displayed like a museum exhibit. “That’s probably been in here for 40 years!” grins Watson as we head back outside.

Jeannie Boyce and Roger Benham walk through the narrow tunnel ahead of me; I pass under the low beam and wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark before I step into the cool, cavernous room. “I originally designed this as a bomb shelter in the ’70s,” Jeannie smiles, “but thought I’d use it for a root cellar until I needed it.”

The structure was constructed by mounding a large pile of earth and gravel, laying chicken-wire and plastic over it, then covering it all with layers of cement. “There’s about two tons of cement in that cellar. We let it dry, then dug it out. I had a lot of help, and it took days. It was a lot of work,” she remembers.

Inside, the cellar looks like a cement igloo with its domed roof and short corridor entrance. “Roger built these bins to keep mice out of the food,” Boyce says, pointing to the wood-and-wire bins set against the walls. From the outside, the cellar blends into the bush, with just the door giving it away.

“I’ve built two root cellars in my life,” says Benham. “On the first one I made a big mistake: I used 2×6 lumber and covered the walls with plastic, but it rotted in a few years because it wasn’t breathing. I learned from that, and the next one I made was hand-dug from clay and strengthened with 2×6 beams. That one was a great success.”

Key ingredient
Historically, most houses had cold cellars, or at least cold rooms where preserves and crops such as potatoes, carrots and beets were kept cool and ready for the kitchen. These days, a double garage is a more likely selling feature in a home; however, many gardeners can use what they already have to make sure their harvests don’t spoil. As gardening and eating locally gains popularity, winter storage is a key ingredient for success.

Mark Fisher, owner of High Slope Acres Farm near Telkwa, shows me into his cold-storage area. It is the unheated basement of the house, built with cement-block walls and a concrete floor. “I don’t have a root cellar, but this works great,” he says, pointing out the areas where he stores potatoes, garlic and onions from his farm. “This space stays at an average of 4 degrees, but I’ve found exact temperatures and humidity seem to be less important than consistency.”

Fisher also uses an old refrigerator for storing carrots, beets and cabbage. “I believe in using what is already available; even buying a new, energy-efficient fridge is a savings in time and money when you consider the materials and labour that go into a root cellar.”
Former homesteader and long-time gardener Paul Glover has built and used a variety of root cellars, but in recent years has converted to the “old fridge” method of storing vegetables. “A fridge, plugged in and set at just above freezing, stores potatoes, cabbages, carrots and beets for eight to 12 months—even longer in the case of potatoes and beets,” he says. “We’re eating cabbage and carrots in May that are fresh and crisp, and even in July the potatoes have barely begun to sprout.”

To prepare vegetables for long-vterm fridge storage, wash, air-dry and pack in plastic bags to maintain the high humidity these vegetables need. As for increased electric consumption, Glover says that the fridge, kept in a cool back room and rarely opened, has not noticeably affected the hydro bill.

Different crops require different storage conditions. These can be managed by placing the crops at different locations within your house, or cold-storage area, and by using different packing materials.

Cool and Moist: Potatoes and Carrots
For best results, store potatoes at about 7 degrees C and 95 percent humidity. Keeping potatoes in a dark place will also prevent them from turning green and helps prevent sprouting. Choose containers that allow the potatoes to breathe but keep mice at bay.

Carrots enjoy even cooler and moister conditions than potatoes and are best kept at zero to one degrees and at 98 to 100 percent humidity. Carrots can be stored in wooden or plastic slatted crates, or well-packed in moist sand or peat.

Some say that potatoes and carrots will keep better if they are allowed to dry with the soil on their skins. It is also important to remove any vegetables that are damaged or show any signs of rot or disease, as these will be the first to spoil. Another important note is that apples release ethylene gas and will cause potatoes to sprout and will make carrots bitter. Store apples in a different room, far away from potatoes.

Cool and Dry: Onions and Garlic
Onions and garlic should be cured at 20 to 30 degrees Celsius with excellent circulation before being stored. These crops keep best at about zero degrees and 65 to 70 percent relative humidity—that is, they last longer in a drier environment. Good air circulation is key for these; storing in mesh bags or hanging in bunches from the ceiling are tried-and-true methods.

Warm and Dry: Squash
Squash also needs to be cured at 20 to 30 degrees for 10 days with good circulation before storing. Squash keeps best at about 15 degrees; a closet in a cool room is ideal.

For most home gardeners, a crawl-space, unheated room or corner in the basement is sufficient for keeping food over the winter. Sturdy shelving, crates or bins are helpful in keeping things tidy and organized, as well as keeping out unwanted visitors like mice. Monitoring the condition of the food stores is also important; one or two rotting or damaged vegetables can cause a whole bin to spoil.

Thinking about my own tiny cabin, I have to dig deeper to find a storage solution that will work for me. The storage clamp is an old method: a trench dug a few feet into the ground and layered with straw on the bottom. The crops are placed on top of the straw and buried with the excavated soil. A well-packed straw chimney allows moisture to escape. The clamp is emptied progressively from one end, so the rest of the crops remain covered and protected from the cold.

Since I’m only partially committed to the pioneering lifestyle, I consider my options; I’m not as hard a worker as Steve Yelich was. Fortunately, my neighbour has a backhoe, and building a storage clamp could be the perfect excuse for him to take it out for a spin.