Storing fresh fruit and vegetables from the garden is an easy task in summer months. However, once the cooler months roll around, the abundance of produce is so overwhelming that not even our fridges can keep up.
Utilizing fridges as our main source of food preservation isn’t always the best, either. There are several downfalls that come with using a refrigerator to preserve food. For example, the nutritional value of foods will decrease if kept for over several weeks, and if your home experiences a power outage, all of that food could potentially go to waste.
How Did Our Ancestors Preserve Food?
You might have wondered at some point in your life – how did my ancestors preserve a whole winter seasons worth of frost-intolerant produce? While the techniques vary widely across cultures, the main method of food preservation was by utilizing a root cellar, storing large amounts of produce in the cool underground. This allowed them to enjoy the benefits of fresh vegetables throughout the cold winter months and far into spring.
Historical records indicate that the Indigenous peoples of Australia were utilizing the technique of burying food in the ground to preserve it more than 40,000 years ago. The Incas historically introduced the production of chuños to South America – a way of preserving potatoes by exposing a frost-resistant potato variety to the very low night temperatures of the Andean Altiplano, freezing them, and then exposing them to intense sunlight during the day (1). By the 17th century, walk-in root cellars started to become popular in England.
With the variety of food preservation techniques around the world, it is clear that root cellars served an amazing purpose. Imagine storing a whole harvest’s worth of your food in an area that required almost no energy to power? Sounds pretty great to me.
What Is A Root Cellar?
A root cellar is basically an underground room for preserving fruit and vegetables for several weeks to months at a time. Many homes have them built in the basement, but they can also be structures separate from the home. When properly built, root cellars are cool in temperature, have the correct humidity levels and are well-ventilated.
While many cannot just get up and build their own old-world root cellars, a little common sense and wisdom of temperature and humidity guidelines will allow anybody to whip together an ideal plan for prolonging produce shelf-life throughout winter.
Keeping the rules of root cellars in mind, we should pay attention to temperature, humidity and air circulation.
Cooler temperatures help to preserve produce by slowing the rate at which they release ethylene gas, thereby slowing the rate at which they go bad. While the ideal temperature of a root cellar varies depending on what fruit and vegetables you will be storing, it should be between 32 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Humidity levels will also depend how fresh your produce stays. Most produce stores best in an environment where relative humidity is high – between 85-95 percent. Most root cellars are naturally humid, as they are constructed of the earth, but it is still a good idea to include a hygrometer (device that measures humidity) in your root cellar. If the root cellar is too dry, you can increase humidity by sprinkling water on the floor, or by packing vegetables in damp sawdust. If humidity levels are too high, you can increase ventilation or add barrels of rock salt.
Proper ventilation will allow for greater temperature control, as well as controlling the amount of ethylene gases produced by the fruit and vegetables being stored. If these gases have no way of escaping, your entire root cellar will quickly rot. There should be at least two vents, one high and one low. Warm stale air needs to float out of the top of your chamber, as fresh cooler air makes its way through the bottom.
Light accelerates the decomposition of fruit and vegetables. Storage in complete darkness is the best way to preserve the shelf-life of produce.
Many people have devised make-shift root cellars if they don’t have the resources to make an “official” root cellar that come with some homes. The videos below describe just how to do so.
Trash Can Cellar
Barrel Root Cellar
How To Store Fruit and Vegetables
If you’re wanting to extend the life of your fruit and vegetables, utilize the following tips. As a rule of thumb, do not wash any produce prior to storing. Washing them will reduce their ability to keep throughout the months. Instead, provide enough drying time for the dirt on the outside to dehydrate, and then brush off any large clumps.
When stored properly, all of the vegetables below can last a very long time. Most people think that only root vegetables like carrots, beets, potatoes and onions can last several months, when in fact, tomatoes, cucumbers, and cauliflower can last just as long if properly stored.
Here’s how to store your fruit and vegetables long-term:
This fruit can be dangerous to store with other produce, because as they age, they release ethylene gas, which causes other produce to rot, too. Isolate apples in shallow containers with lids. They keep best in 80-90% relative humidity, and prefer temperatures of around 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit. Check them often, and if you see any signs of rot, remove the bad apples immediately.
Beets can withstand more humidity than apples, but they prefer the 32-40 degree Fahrenheit range. Before hard frost hits, hoe dirt over the protruding shoulders, keeping the foliage exposed. As winter begins, add mulch to the rows with up to a foot of leaves, straw or hay (more for colder climates, less for warmer). This method can also be applied to carrots, parsnips, turnips, celery, rutabagas, cabbages, leeks, kale and with some success, spinach. The longer you keep cold-tolerant produce in the ground, the better. Cool fall and winter temperatures actually increase the sugar content in many vegetables like beets and carrots (thus, making them taste ten times better!).
This vegetable is very frost-hardy, and can be left in the garden until late fall. They can be kept in a root cellar, but a lack of moisture will shorten their life span. Keep brussels sprouts at a temperature of 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit and a high relative humidity level of 90-95%.
Can withstand light frost when it is young, and moderately severe frost when mature. You can utilize the same method of mulching beets with cabbage. They prefer cooler temperatures of 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit, and high moisture levels of around 80-95% relative humidity. You can pull out the entire plant (roots included), and this will ensure the cabbage lasts a little bit longer. If a stump of cabbage is left in the ground for the following year, however, a smaller leafy cabbage will emerge the following season. If you decide to pull out the cabbage with roots included, you can store them by tying a sturdy string to the roots (like hemp cord) and then let them hang upside down in the cellar.
As described above, carrots can be kept in the garden under mulch, much like beets. They prefer temperatures of 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit, and relative humidity of 90-95% in a root cellar. If you are storing in a cellar, harvest before the soil freezes and cut the stems close to the carrot. Store them in a bucket of leaves or sawdust with a loose lid.
Prefer cool temperatures of 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit and very moist relative humidity levels of 90-95%. You can wrap cauliflower in leaves to extend their shelf-life.
Prefer cool temperatures of 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit and very moist relative humidity levels of 90-95%. They don’t tend to last too long into the winter months,
This vegetable, which is actually the root base of celery itself, is one of the best keeping vegetables during the winter months. Trim off the longer roots, making sure not to cut too close to the bulb. Store in damp sawdust, sand, or moss, at an ideal temperature range of 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit. They prefer a very moist relative humidity of 90-95%.
This spice needs to be air dried in a warm, arid area for 2-3 weeks before storage. Remove the root and store at 32-50 degrees Fahrenheit with 60-70% relative humidity and good airflow.
Try to grow frost-hardy varieties if you’re wanting to keep for the winter months. They can withstand a bit of snow, and the mulching process (as described above with beets) may be used up until the ground freezes. Harvest with some roots still attached, and store upright at 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit, preferable in wet sand. Try not to wet the leaves during storage. They prefer a relatively high humidity of 90-95%.
Require curing until the necks are tight before storing. To cure, spread them in a dry area with lots of airflow, or hang them upside down. They prefer temperatures of 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit, with a relative humidity of 60-70%. Make sure to store them in breathable containers like mesh bags or crates.
Store well in uncovered ground until a solid freeze, at which point they should be mulched. The frost improves their flavour for a delicious spring harvest. If you harvest during winter, store them in damp sawdust at 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit, and a high relative humidity of 90-95%.
Should be cured in a dark place for 1-2 weeks at 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit. After this, they prefer cold temperatures of 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit, and moist relative humidity of 80-90%. You can also store potatoes outdoors by piling an insulating material like straw or hay on top of unused winter garden space with a few inches of dirt on top. Keep a ventilation hole, clear of dirt, on one side of the pile and a drainage ditch around the perimeter equipped with a small runoff canal. Throughout the winter, you can reach through the ventilation hole and fish out the produce. If you have a tarp, you can cover the top of the pile (not the ventilation hole) to prevent the storage mound from eroding away. If you have lots of potatoes that need storing, and more than one pile is not an option, layer the pile with 4-6 inches of insulating medium, followed by a single layer of potatoes, followed by 4 inches of soil. Repeat the layering process.
Cure pumpkins as you would a winter squash (see below) with the stem attached and stored around 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit. Relative humidity should be around 60-75%.
These guys can be stored all the way till spring if properly cured and stored. To cure, let them air-dry in a warm humid environment of 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit and 90% relative humidity for 10-14 days. This will toughen the skin and improve their flavour. Sweet potatoes store best in an unheated room of 50-60 degrees, with moderate relative humidity of 60-70%, taking great care not to let them drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
This root veggie should always be harvested before a heavy frost hits. Remove the tops, and store as you would carrots in a moist insulator such as sawdust, moss or sand.
Should be harvested before a hard frost, when the skin is tough enough to prevent penetration from a pressed thumb. Allow the seeds to fully develop before consuming. Leave the stem on the fruit and cure for 10 days at 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Store them in a moderately dry and warm spot, where the temperature doesn’t drop below 50 and preferably stays below 60 degrees. The best relative humidity for storage falls between 60-70%.