Root cellars extend fresh food

A basement or garage can also work to store fruits and veggies

By Marielle Gallagher / The Bulletin

Published Nov 6, 2012 at 04:00AM

Making the late-harvest fruits and vegetables last is possible. Try tucking them into a cool, dry place like a root cellar in order to enjoy them all winter long. “My contention is ~ east of the Cascades, you're in root cellar wonderland,” said Chris Bubl, agricultural extension agent at Oregon State University. “(Central Oregon) soil drains well and it's very easy to take advantage of the insulating effect of burying something in the ground.”

At Rainshadow Organics farm in Terrebonne, which is owned by the Lawrence family, farmer Sarahlee Lawrence says she stores much of her fall harvest in the farm's large root cellar. This includes winter squash, onions, garlic, shallots, beets, turnips, rutabaga, parsnips, leeks, potatoes and cabbage. She also dries and stores herbs like coriander, sage and thyme. Storing large quantities of the harvest in the root cellar enables Lawrence to keep the produce all winter and sell it year-round in a Community Supported Agriculture format.

What is a root cellar

The Lawrences' root cellar was built into a hill with only the face of the building exposed to open air. “The ground was excavated and all the moved ground is now here on the side, and the (root cellar) is backed up into the hill,” said Lawrence. “The ground is 52 degrees Fahrenheit all the time so that means that that's what your cellar is going to be.”

Root vegetables and fruit do best when stored at 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes the below-ground temperature an ideal location for food storage.

Lawrence explained that if Central Oregonians don't have a root cellar they can use an insulated garage or basement.

Bubl added that Central Oregon air is perfect for drawing in cool air to a garage or basement as needed. “Put in some kind of method that can draw air — a fan that can push air from the cellar out or cold air in artificially. So on a 20-degree cool Bend night you may want to bring the cool air in,” said Bubl.

Why it works

Temperature, humidity, darkness and ventilation are the key elements to control when storing fruits and vegetables. If vegetables are properly stored and temperature and humidity are controlled, everything should keep through to spring.

In order to prevent rot, adequate air movement is imperative. “Ventilation and being able to retain a little moisture but staying dry are the keys,” said Bubl. “Basically the concept is keeping them cool, but not cold. They can be somewhat moist. But you want to keep them dark with an air flow around them,” said Bubl.

Lawrence, who stores much of her produce in plastic milk crates, suggests only filling the crates about a quarter full. That way, in the event that something rots, it won't ruin the whole batch. If produce is stored in boxes, they need to have holes in the side for breathability. Bubl suggested storing potatoes in burlap bags.

When Lawrence prepares winter squash for storage, she separates each squash from the next with cardboard to prevent the spread of any rot. Bubl explained that, as with all living things, there are still living organisms on the skin of the produce. “If they're all jumbled together you get a disease progression that goes from squash to squash.”

Bubl recommended storing the squash inside for a week in order to create a protective rind on the skin. “Let them cure for a little bit and then put them in a 45- to 55-degree location,” said Bubl. Before storing squash, Bubl advised clipping the stem to prevent it from breaking off, which creates a point of entry for organisms.

Separation of veggie and fruit

Bubl suggested storing fruits and vegetables in separate places. One of the reasons for this is because of ethylene gas put off by apples. This is another reason why proper ventilation is helpful for storing fruits. “(The ethylene gas) will start building up in the room and cause physiological responses in the other vegetables.” It can cause sprouting in potatoes and onions, and it will turn carrots bitter, according to Bubl. Conversely, potatoes can make apples taste musty. Even odors can be transferred to other vegetables. According to a Washington State University Extension report, “Storing Vegetables and Fruits At Home”: “Cabbage and turnips can give their odors to celery, pears, and apples. Cabbage, kale, rutabagas, turnips, and winter radishes give off strong odors that could spread through a house, and, therefore, should be stored in outdoor storage areas only.”