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. (Granted, these will work better in colder locations, if you are a hot dry place, I’d encourage you to dehydrate instead of bury.)
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 it 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. Unless some tunneling rodent finds them first.
Bury a trashcan – Using a buried trashcan will avoid a lot of the moisture issues that can plague Hole-in-the-ground stashes. A metal can will rust eventually if you bury it somewhere moist. Metal will slow down burrowing rodents though. 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 and grass clippings 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, even without an ideal cellar.
– Calamity Jane