Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! Root Cellar?


Today is a gorgeous day. Sunny. Upper fifties. Very odd. But I am getting the chance to catch up on a lot of the things that kind of got shuffled to the side in the "real" fall while I was running around and spending a lot of time up in Erie. I;m almost done taking down the frame for the trampoline. My dears, everyone who lives in the country has a trampoline. Everyone. Do not ask me why. I'm going to be pulling some husks off some nuts later since they're nice and wet and squishy from last night's rain. But the real reason I'm here today is to spread the word about root cellaring. I also have bread to bake, and I started some springerle cookies yesterday. Bread is it's own lifetime's worth of storytelling, and springerle cookies belong in posts about Christmas cookies which are certainly forthcoming.

Because I can't just get down to brass tacks, I'm going to tell a story about seeds instead. There are lots of different kinds of seeds, but I'm talking onions, carrots, and potatoes today. If you plan on eating your own "roots" all winter, it's important to choose seeds for "storage varieties". I planted yellow onions -- Johnny's Seeds Frontier Hybrid to be exact -- but I lost a lot of them to drought and naughty goats, so I don't really need to think about storage. A brown paper sack under the sink will about take care of them. I also planted Napoli carrots for sweet snacks and Bolero for storage, And I love potatoes. I love them. They are the best food ever. So I planted three varieties: Yukon gold, some kind of pink potato and Kennebec. The Kennebecs were supposedly going to be my storage potatoes, but I only harvested the Yukon gold and ate every single one of them! Late summer floods didn't really do that much to me out on the hill, but my second two varieties of taters rotted in the ground. A tragedy!

So, what I have now is bunch of carrots that need to be dug out of the garden and stored somewhere. It is possible to leave them in the garden. If the ground is not frozen, they are as well off there as anything. BUT, I also like to work my gardens over a few times a year since I don't use a rototiller. It's past time for my upper garden where the carrots are to get turned over, composted, covercropped, and put to bed for the year.

I have read of any solutions for creating a root cellar. Underground is really an ideal situation because it's cold but not freezing, and that is the natural condition for root crops anyway. You can actually dig into a hillside and construct an outdoor storage area. You can convert a portion of your basement in yoru house into a root cellar. One way to do this is use a set of outside steps that will be probably covered in snow and unsuable for the winter anyway and just stack your storage crops in baskets and bags. Also, wall off an area near a basement window and let some cool outside air in just in this spot. I have a partially finished basement, and one room is dirt floor. When the door to this room is shut, the space is very chilly and would be idea if it was also not very wet and full of wood.

We heat our house with a wood furnace in the basement, and the unheated wood room is not good for storing anything unless you think mold is yummy. So, I needed to think about outside solutions. I kept reading about buckets or even large plastic wastecans. You can layer the vegetables by variety or in different directions and put the bucket or chan in the garage. I suspected that most of these people saying that their garages stayed near freezing but did not go below very often living in slightly milder climes than I do. I struggle for a good two or three months to keep unfrozen water in the garage and the shed for the cats and the goats. Chances are good that my carrots will freeze, too.

Then, I read about how you could take one of those cheap plastic garbage cans and dig it into the ground and keep the vegetables insulated that way. Now, I know those cans are cheap, but I'm cheaper. I just couldn't muster up the seven dollars for a big garbage can. Luckily I didn't have to.

My old camping cooler, my companion of many a roadtrip and many a festival took its last trip last summer. The screws in the lid just came out one too many times, and the lid just wouldn't hold anymore. And besides, I'd been coveting one of those coolers that supposedly keep things cold for five days in hot weather. My old cooler seemed to have lost some of its integrity and was getting kind of melty during those July days sitting back in camp . Instead of a trashcan, i decided to drop my old cooler in the ground instead of just tossing it out.

I dug a hole in kind of a shady area on the edge of the yard. I filled in around the sides to pack it in good. I thought long and hard about the different storage options suggested by about twenty different books, and I went with damp coarse sane inside the cooler. laid in the carrots, and buried them.

Things did not exactly go as planned.

Problem #1: We had an abnormally warm year last year. Even after I waited until last fall to put the carrots in the container, they still grew new tops while in storage. I think this took nutrients and quality out of the roots. I may be crazy.

Problem #2: Access. When the weather was okay, it was easy to get the carrots. But there I was in the middle of a snowstorm, wanting carrots, and my carrot cooler was buried under a lot of snow. I did go out a few times in the winter and dig down through the snow to find them, but it was messy and I couldn't get the lid back on tightly because of the snow in the seal which leads to ....

Problem #3: Even though I had trouble getting into my carrots in the snow, obviously my friends the mice did not. Do not ask me how they got into a sealed cooler. I can't say. I can say that at least two or three of them never made it out. When I did get in during the winter, I had to chuck mouse corpses out on several occasions. I felt a little leery of eating the carrots raw after they had root cellared with dead mice for who knows how long.

My solutions:

1. I know I can't control the weather. I'm holding off storing my carrots until it looks like it will stay reletively cold.

2. I plan on using scrap wood and panelling to build some kind of roof over the place where my coolers are in the ground so I can get to them even when it is snowy.

3. Note that above I did say coolers, plural. I worked recycling at a music festival over the summer, and that is like dumpster diver's heaven. Grills, chairs, air mattresses, blankets, clothes, tents, even full cans and bottles of beer. People just throw stuff away at the end of the weekend, especially if it is muddy and wet. So, I found another large sized cooler with the exact same broken lid problem as my old one. I'm putting it into the ground and trying a little scientific method. I'll keep the sand in my old cooler but leave it out of the new one to see which bunch of carrots makes it through the winter better: sand or no sand.

4. I'm hoping that this year isn't such a bad mouse year, because last year was like a plague of mice. It was rediculous. I live trapped many many mice and tossed them outside. I was trying to be all nice and Buddhist about it by not using real mouse traps, but my adopted cat Syrup, who I got from my brother who really is a Buddhist, is not a Buddhist. He is a cat, and he eventually figured out that when I went down to the swamp with the live trap, I was carrying stunned mice with me, and he started following me and eating them before they had a chance to recover from their ordeals. But these mice may have deserved it, because they made my kitchen unsafe with their droppings and made my oven smell bad and chewed my bags of flour and evaded almost every trap I set for them until I got the mouse sized Have-a-Heart. Made in PA. Hooray!

Other than hoping there aren't any mice, I also think if I managed to keep snow out of the seals on the cooler lids but building a cover over them, maybe I could keep the mice out that way.

Included at the top of the page is a picture of my blackberry bushes, in bloom, in early November. They have had a rough year and been all confused by the weather, but I want to talk about berries later, too.

1 comment:

Pearl Emmons said...


Thanks for the tip about the cooler. I live in the city and don't really have a place suitable for root cellaring and have been thinking about digging a cooler into the ground for quite some time. It was nice to hear about the problems. Did you find that venting was an issue??