Digging a Vegetable Clamp

I’m sure we’d all love a 10×10 cellar with proper humidity levels, sturdy shelves and a light for convenience.  Not all of us have the time/money/space for one.  Don’t despair though, ancient man managed quite a bit of food storing, with just holes in the ground and caves.   Proper root cellars will keep things longer most years, but you can still get quite a lot of storage time out of the simpler methods.

Hole in the ground – Yup, that’s the level of simplicity I’m talking about.  I’ve stored potatoes, parsnips and carrots all winter with this method. I hear is works with beets too. First, dig up the roots, and cut the tops off to about 1 inch.  Gauge the size of your harvest.  Dig your hole, and don’t be a pansy about it. You need to dig down at least 12 inches deep and as wide around as you need for a single layer of roots.  If you make it too shallow your roots will freeze and spoil faster, and rodents will have an easier time finding the stash.  Line the hole with straw for potatoes, or sand for carrots/parsnips.  Make sure your hole isn’t in a flood prone area. Place in roots, and cover, making sure that they have 6-8 inches of soil above them.  Mark if you want, with something low key like a rock or stake. The roots will stay nice and crisp and cool for the fall/winter.  For those of us with really cold winters, there comes a point when the ground freezes and harvesting from the Hole goes on hiatus. Those roots will still be good if you dig them up as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring.

Bury a trashcan – Using a buried trashcan will avoid a lot of the moisture issues that can plague Hole-in-the-ground stashes.  If you bury it so the top is near the ground level, you can arrange to still harvest even after the soil has frozen.   Use a stick to help get soil down around the sides of the trashcan, you want good contact between the soil and the can to aid in insulating.   Hopefully this goes without saying,  but use a clean trashcan.

Vegetable Clamp –  If moisture or soil composition keeps you from digging buried cashes, a clamp might work for you.  Using a patch of bare earth, put down a thick layer of straw.  Mound your roots on top of the straw, in a pyramid shape.  Put a thick layer of straw over all of that.  Shovel dirt over the entire mound, leaving some straw uncovered at the top for ventilation.  6 inches is the minimum for the earth covering, 10-12 inches will get you further in zone 4 winters.  Clamps are more noticeable, scavengers of the 4 legged and 2 legged  variety will have an easier time spotting clamps than they would something like the buried trashcan.

With all of these, bags of leaves can make good insulation, as can snow.  Be creative about using the free materials around you, and you’ll find you can store your root veggies cheaply over the winter.

– Calamity Jane

9 comments… add one
  • SLHaynes October 13, 2011, 9:31 am

    With the trashcan method, would you recommend a galvanized metal trashcan or heavy plastic? Thanks!

    • craig October 13, 2011, 10:07 am

      I would recommend a metal trashcan. I’ve seen plastic cans chewed into by 4 legged critters no matter how sturdy they are.

    • Calamity Jane October 13, 2011, 1:30 pm

      What Craig said. Metal cans will eventually rust if there’s moisture, and that can cause holes, but otherwise they are tougher against vermin.

  • Caoimhin October 13, 2011, 11:54 am

    I have used home made boxes in my unheated garage. Basic 24″ deep any size you want. Fill with sand, straw or saw dust and store your root crops. Either mother earth news or organic gardening had a story about this in the pre internet days of 1988. I also hang the garlic and store the onions in old panty hose. Put an onion in tie a knot, add another onion tie a knot. When each leg is full hang it up. As you need an onion cut them off below the upper knot, starting at the bottom. Winter squash keeps well in the garage on wooden shelves. Stored food needs to not touch each other. When they touch they start to rot. I don’t know why but they do. The trick is storing enough to last the winter.

    • Calamity Jane October 13, 2011, 1:42 pm

      An unheated garage will work until the temps turn things into ice cubes. I’m not sure where you live, but in zone 4 Iowa or Maine, that means our food would be Popsicles by December. By burying them we can use the earths captured heat to keep things unfrozen for a few more weeks.

      • Caoimhin October 13, 2011, 2:13 pm

        I learned this from my uncle in Marion Indiana about 60 miles north of Indianapolis. Now the attached garage is finished and insulated . I guess with all the heat off the freezers it never got that cold in there. We grew, froze and canned most of our food. We were preppers because that’s what you did back then never knowing if a snow or ice storm would shut you down or a tornado or the darn ruskies nuking us . Out here in New Mexico this January we hit 22 below for the first time in 30 years. It was such a short freeze that nothing in my garage froze. I understand the earths heat and what you are getting at in the root cellar options. Your frost lines are 36 to 48 inches deep. I store my canned and packaged foods in very large foam ice chests. These have 3 inch thick walls. Never too hot or too cold in then. Thanks for your great work.

  • Jason October 16, 2011, 2:48 am

    In your article you mentioned burying trash cans, why not use 5 gallon buckets with lids that seal – wouldn’t that have the same effect with far less digging?

    This was a great article, thank you – I love simplicity.

  • Dave, RN October 23, 2011, 4:49 pm

    Digging is almost impossible where I live in Texas. I once had to dig a 2.5 foot deep hole10 inches in diameter for a whole house water filter. I was next to thehouse so I cold n’t use a power tool. Took DAYS to dig that tiny hole.

    The soil here is just cement. Digging anything pretty mcuh requires power tools like a post hole drill or small catapiller.

  • Mateo August 1, 2018, 5:27 am

    I know this is old but perhaps if you still monitor this site you have some updates. I am on the south coast UK and during the spring and summer months (when it generally doesn’t spend too much time above 70F, that warmth is enough to spoil veggies stored in a trash can clamp. The temperature picks up to the 80s/90s F and humidity, even when the can is empty will reach 90%. How do you combat this? We recently had a 2 month period of whether at 75F-80F and the beets were going mouldy. Do you use straw in the clamp, sand, something else or nothing at all?


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