Casaubon's Book

The definitive book on root cellars and the cold storage of vegetables is Mike and Nancy Bubel’s _Root Cellaring_, and I’m very fond of this book. Over the years, we’ve relied on it for all sorts of things, and it has helped us find a spot in our house suitable for natural, unrefrigerated cold storage of our produce. It is a wonderful and extremely useful book.

We keep apples, potatoes, carrots, quinces, cabbages, brussels sprouts, pears, onions, beets, celeriac, parsnips and other vegetables on our porch for months – and that means that we mostly eat locally during the winter, and that we are eating cheap food, put up when it was abundant and inexpensive, rather than pricey winter vegetables. Natural cold storage requires almost no energy inputs, is incredibly cheap and available to many people in cold climates. It is almost perfect.

When I wrote _Independence Days_ which, of course, is about low-input food storage and preservation, root cellaring was central. I wrote about my experience, much of which has been guided by the Bubels – and credited them. One of the things I wrote was that we store carrots and parsnips in buckets of moist sand, which keeps them fresh longer. And this was absolutely true until this year – I’d had a bad experience keeping carrots in ventilated plastic bags (suggested to me by friend) in quantity – they’d all gone slimy. And when I tried the Bubels’ sand suggestion it did work really well- the carrots kept until March.

The difficulty of this method was that involved dealing with buckets of damp sand. The buckets were heavy, and if the sand got too moist, the carrots would sprout and lose their texture. If they got too dry, they would shrivel and lose texture and flavor. While the carrots kept well, somehow every early spring found me dumping at least one bucket of unintentionally composted carrots mixed with wet sand out on the garden. But because it had been so much more successful than my previous attempts, I advised people to do it too.

Well, this year I decided that I wasn’t going to deal with the sand. November was hectic and we just had too many other things going on. Because of the terrible weather, we had a bad carrot year, so I wasn’t keeping that many carrots and parsnips over the winter. I decided that I’d just dump them into laundry baskets, eat them up as best we can, and give the rest to the goats and rabbits as a feed supplement. I figured we’d be out of our own carrots early, but with the opening of a local year-round farmer’s market, I knew carrots would be available to me. It was an experiment born of sheer laziness and frustration with my crappy growing season.

So we threw them in the laundry baskets and ignored them. And lo and behold – my carrots look just as good after more than two months of storage, as they did in the damp sand – better, perhaps, since none of them have started to sprout. At my weekend, someone said “I thought you kept them in damp sand!” Oops! Well, yes, we did, until this year. And I even told other people to try it. But I admit, I don’t think I’m ever going back to the damp sand method, even if it turns out that the carrots don’t keep until March. The reality is that the lower PITA factor is worth a potentially shorter season (and I honestly don’t know if this will be the case). Realistically, the odds are that this year we’ll run out before March anyway.

I have long been violating some of the classic rules of root cellaring. I don’t have a completely isolated space to keep my apples in, so they go around emitting ethylene gas near my potatoes. I put the potatoes a few feet away, but somehow, no disaster seems to ensue, and we have potatoes well into spring. I don’t hang my cabbages upside down – I dump them in a box together. Now I’m adding “the maltreatment of orange root crops in the name of lazy-ass preservation” to my list of cold storage misdemeanors.

I set myself a note this morning, that if Independence Days ever actually makes it into a second edition, I should amend it, so that other people don’t feel like they have to rush around finding damp sand. And I think about all the other books I’ve read over the years where an author says “I used to say you should do this…” but then explains that they don’t do that anymore, and I know I’m in good company – just when you think you know enough to write a book…

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 curiousalexa
    January 18, 2010

    You know, I’m really glad you ran out of time to put them in sand this year, with such satisfying results. Me being one of those people trying to figure out where to get buckets of sand (I’m still trying to figure out why I’m reluctant to use the sand in the yard) as well as spacing the carrots so they don’t touch, and wondering how to manage them if you have to dig them out to check them, and and and…

    What you call lazy I call efficiency – get the most done with the least effort. If that means winter storage of carrots involves dumping them in a laundry basket, awesome, more time for other projects! But how can I keep the mice from them? (allergies preclude having cats in the pantry.)

  2. #2 Dacks
    January 18, 2010

    I’ve used sawdust, or shavings, although I’ve never tried to keep them for the whole winter. They stay a little cleaner in the sawdust.

  3. #3 Chris in Canada
    January 18, 2010

    Sharon, I read Independence Days and I put my carrots in sand in a bucket in the cool basement. They are sending up pale yellow-green shoots but the carrots are still firm, juicy and sweet. Who knows how they’ll be in March. Tell us more about where you’re keeping the laundry baskets. Is your laundry room really cold? Did you leave the dirt on the carrots? Just need a little more info, so I know where to try it next year in my house. Thanks!

  4. #4 Claire
    January 18, 2010

    I haven’t yet gotten enough carrots to store, but I have had real good results storing radishes, leeks, turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, and potatoes in 5 gallon plastic buckets in the stariway leading from outside to our basement. No sand or anything, I just put the veggies in the buckets, put the cover on, and store them as is. I don’t wash the veggies either. They seem to keep longer if they are unwashed, in my admittedly limited experience. In spring I rinse out the buckets and let them air-dry in the sun. I have kept storage radishes and Jerusalem artichokes into March this way (haven’t had enough of the others to last until March, but the leeks are still good at this writing).

  5. #5 Anna
    January 18, 2010

    We’re still working on building a root cellar, so we’ve been storing our carrots loose in the crisper drawer of the fridge. They had no problems for a few weeks, then the ones on top started drying out a bit. So I wet a dish towel and wrung it out so it was damp but not sopping, then put the dish towel over the top of the carrots. Every two or three weeks, I’ve been rewetting the dish towel, and those carrots are as firm and fresh as the day I dug them! Unfortunately, they’re so tasty that the huge mass of carrots I thought would last until next summer are already two thirds gone. :-)

  6. #6 Stephen B
    January 18, 2010

    Last year I wanted to store carrots for the first time. Well I got lazy myself and didn’t get around to getting sand, so I just dug up the carrots and put them in buckets with some of the same topsoil they had been growing in and stashed them in the garage. True, some eventually sprouted when I dampened the soil too much, but they didn’t really get hairy and tough until the end of February. By then I had a few other things to eat still, so it was no great loss. They needed more cleaning when using them too, but no more so than when I dig them normally out in the garden for summer and fall harvesting.

    This year I just repeated the whole thing, but will attempt to keep the soil a bit drier this year.

  7. #7 Kate
    January 18, 2010

    I think I just figured out that this little ‘room’ in our basement is actually the ca. 1941 root cellar/food storage space. I’ve been reconsidering our whole property since reading “D&A” and have realized we’ve got some good bones here (old chicken shed, large outbuilding, root cellar, ghosts of the old victory/vegetable garden, all from 1939 to 1941) in terms of “adapting in place.”

    Now, to get those pine trees down so the garden plot gets sunshine again…

  8. #8 knutty knitter
    January 19, 2010

    We just leave them in the ground round here. There are a few frosts but not snow and it never really gets that cold. Just dig as you use them. Same with most other veg.

    My mum did the same inland where it was much colder and drier. The worst was trying to dig out of frozen ground but you do get the hang of that after a bit of practice.

    viv in nz

  9. #9 Jean
    January 19, 2010

    I did the same thing! I hurried to dig them before a big snow – which was the first hard frost, and tossed them in a bucket. They are unwashed, with the tops trimmed off. They sat in the mud room for a while then I put them in the cold cellar and they are holding just fine. I like that I can dig through them and find the sizes I want without digging through sand or shavings.

  10. #10 DennisP
    January 19, 2010

    A couple years I tried carrying a box of sand to the back porch where I had the carrots, ready to put in the box. But a box of sand is really heavy – I just wasn’t going to try carrying it down the stairs into our root cellar (really, the oil room – where we keep our furnace’s oil tank). Instead I’ve been using dampened sawdust. Works wonderfully well and is a whole lot lighter. I can’t see why anyone would want to use sand! Our carrots will keep into March or April; well, maybe not this year – we may run out of them!

  11. #11 Greenpa
    January 19, 2010

    Sharon, I too used sand for carrots- because a book said so- and abandoned it after 3 years or so.

    We now have a Rolls-Royce stand-alone root cellar (no cruddy Cadillac) – because we need one for business, and I can tell you that successful storage in the cellar is just incredibly precise and picky; every last detail you can think of can mean the difference between beautiful stuff; and a nice mass of goo.

    Sand- is wildly variable. My guess is in the old days, great-grandpa went out and got THE RIGHT sand, and they just kept re-using it. Some sand packs, and drains badly. Some has too many fines. Etc. Quartz, granite, limestone sands- all wildly different. I had quartz; but it was ROUND – long worn round in a river; not “sharp”- no mason would have used it. I just couldn’t keep the moisture uniform; it was always too dry on top; too wet in the bottom. I also have a sneaking suspicion the oldtimers may have cleaned their sand between seasons- maybe spread it in the sun for a week?

    Temperature- really has to stay in the right range. If it gets up to 45°F once a week- that’s too warm for long carrot storage. If it stays around 34°F all the time- your regular potatoes will turn rather ickily sweet.

    Humidity- if it varies up and down a lot, many things will change- stuff near the tops of bins can get too dry, and start to rot- etc. If it’s up near 100% all the time- mold will grow everywhere, starting little fungal ecosystems that eventually get aggressive.

    Another one of those things where if you grew up with it- having to help put stuff down, and clean it out for next season, with mom/dad etc. working alongside you- you learn the details with no pain. Well, apart from the occasional swat.

    None of which should stop anybody from DOING it. You learn that way, too. :-)

  12. #12 nedwina
    January 19, 2010

    I had to dump my sand stored beets because the fungus gnats were thriving. And migrating to the rest of the house, eew. Very frustrating and gross, but not a deal breaker. I expect better luck next season with some of the suggestions here. (Thanks.)

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