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Published October 11, 2013, 10:10 AM

Growing Together: Store a winter’s supply of garden vegetables

Sometimes I wish we could turn the clock back a century on home construction and design.

By: Don Kinzler, INFORUM

Sometimes I wish we could turn the clock back a century on home construction and design. I’m a huge fan of indoor plumbing, and I appreciate electricity beyond a single lightbulb hanging from the center of the ceiling.

But I wish all homes were designed with an old-fashioned basement root cellar for vegetable storage.

The earthy-sweet aroma of potatoes, carrots and onions freshly harvested and arranged in a root cellar is truly one of the finer things in life. Most homes of yesteryear had a cool, moist room specially arranged for storing a winter’s supply of home-grown vegetables. There was often easy access for hauling directly down to the basement by the classic exterior stairway covered with slanted cellar doors.

Today’s houses are different. Hauling sacks of potatoes and baskets of onions into a modern basement is difficult when dodging a big screen TV or worrying about soiling cream-colored carpet in the downstairs family room. And trying to cure a pile of buttercup squash on the basement’s leather sectional sofa could be problematic.

To enjoy a root cellar we don’t have to give up modern conveniences nor go back to the days of the outhouse. Along with increased interest in vegetable gardening has sprung new ideas for storing produce. A quick internet search provides several easy-to-follow plans for simple, modern-day basement vegetable storage rooms.

The plans have several common characteristics. Cool temperatures are easier to achieve if the room is located along an outside wall. Consider a corner of a utility room or unfinished closet. An existing basement window or screened coverable vent is useful for fresh cool air intake. A basic insulated stud-wall frame with door is all that is needed.

I’m a good candidate for most projects because if I can accomplish the task, anyone can. A few years ago I built a vegetable storage room in a corner of our unfinished basement. Carrots, onions and potatoes harvested in October last until the following April.

If you can’t construct a separate room there are other creative options. Space under basement stairs or corners of utility rooms can be partitioned off with plastic sheeting. A second refrigerator works well for storing root vegetables.

Harvest

Root crops store best if left in the ground right up until there is danger of soil freezing. Frost in the air doesn’t hurt in-ground vegetables. Cool temperatures increase the sugar content and flavor of carrots and parsnips.

After digging carrots and parsnips, prepare them for storage by cutting off tops, leaving about a half-inch of green stem. Gently remove excess soil by hand. Unwashed produce tends to last longer in storage. Separate broken or bruised items to be used first.

Harvest onions after the tops have fallen over and withered, but before a hard freeze. Pull the onions, twist off the tops and “cure” in open flat boxes or trays at 60 to 70 degrees until the necks dry. When the onions rustle upon handling, they are ready to move to storage.

Potatoes may be dug any time after the vines die. Cure at 50 to 60 degrees for two weeks before placing in winter storage. Excess soil should be rubbed from the tubers by hand rather than washing.

Harvest pumpkins and “winter” squash, such as buttercup and acorn, when vines have blackened from light frost but before hard freezes of 25 degrees or colder. The outer shell should be hard and not easily dented with your thumbnail.

Storage

There are three types of vegetable storage conditions based on temperature and humidity.

“Warm-dry” storage at temperatures of 50 to 55 degrees with 60 percent or less humidity is best for squash and pumpkins. Squash will store from two to four months depending on variety.

“Cool-dry” storage at temperatures of 32 to 40 degrees with 60 percent humidity is suited for onions, dried peas and dried beans. Onions will store up to four months. Basement root cellars that aren’t too moist can be maintained at these conditions.

“Cool-moist” temperatures of 32 to 40 degrees with 95 percent humidity are idea for carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes and cabbages. (Potatoes are best stored above 38 degrees to prevent developing an off-sweet flavor). Basement root cellars provide these conditions if you maintain humidity. This can be done by storing the vegetables in containers and covering loosely with plastic or burlap. Sprinkle with water occasionally. We store our carrots in old fashioned crocks. Some gardeners store root crops in damp sand.

Entering a well-stocked root cellar is an experience for the senses. The earthy aroma and piles of produce assure us that winter is going to be OK.


Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com

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