I’ve always dreamed about a root cellar. A cave of damp earth dug into a hillside with a door for access, filled with apples and potatoes and squashes and ferments to get us through the winter. But in Seattle, with clay for topsoil, and hardpan and water table one inch down (not to mention rats the size of cats because of the ever-present access to fresh water, ivy rockeries and garbage cans) that dream is just not practical.
So what can I do to keep from working so hard to make my harvest shelf stable and energy efficient (or neutral)? Well I can still cold cellar! And so can you!
Many receptacles make perfect cold cellars. Ice chests or unplugged refrigerators in cold climates, garbage cans filled with damp sand, bales of straw surrounding boxes of fruit, or even your garden beds. In many cases just a subterranean garage and cardboard boxes will suffice.
It turns out different foods store better under different conditions. Here are my top choices for easy storing produce:
1. Potatoes store easily in an extra fridge, ice chest, cardboard boxes in a temperate garage, or boxes surrounded and covered by hay bales in near or below freezing temperatures. The trick is to keep them in absolute darkness, check them frequently and remove any rotting potatoes. In many climates they can be stored in the garden and dug as needed. Just be sure they are located in an area with good drainage before attempting that.
2. Winter squashes, once properly cured, can sometimes be stored until spring in warm and dry conditions with good airflow around each squash. I don’t even bother roasting, pureeing and freezing pumpkin for pies any longer since I can do it on an as needed basis all winter long (when I would rather the oven were on anyway).
3. Soft neck garlic, shallots and onions, once properly cured, can be stored either hanging from rafters in the garage or in hanging mesh baskets in the kitchen or somewhere warm and dry. One other option is to hang them inside a greenhouse. Garlic is usually ready in July and you can use them to provide shade for tender winter starts or keep fall salad greens from bolting in August temperatures inside the greenhouse. The warmer temperatures inside a greenhouse will hasten their drying time.
4. Carrots and beets need high humidity and cool temps so do best either in a closed bag inside the refrigerator (once the tops are removed) or in a garbage can or rubber storage container full of damp sand. I’ve successfully stored fall beets in a spare refrigerator into February in this manner. In some climates carrots can be stored in the garden all winter long. In colder climates you should cover them with thick leaf mulch or straw so the ground does not freeze lest they be inaccessible when you want them.
5. Cabbages are best made into saurkraut but you can store extra heads in clean, dry straw in boxes, ice chests or spare refrigerators. The outer leaves will wilt but just peel those off and use the inner ones. They won’t be as crisp as fresh summer cabbage but they will roast up beautifully or make perfect additions to winter soups. Some varieties of cabbages, when started in mid summer, store perfectly well in your garden all winter long without special protection. Imagine harvesting dinner from your garden in the middle of winter!
Your challenge: Choose one of these items, buy it from a local farmer, and store enough of it to last your family at least 3 months.
Even if this feels like a baby step – it’s a huge step towards building a local food economy and food independence! You don’t need to grow the food yourself (although bonus points if you did) but buying it from a local farmer – and not from the grocery store – will prove to you that it is possible to make this way of eating habitual. In other words, with enough late summer and fall planning, it’s possible to eat locally all winter long in your climate!