It’s February and I’m thinking about that question for food-lovers in northern climes: how do we continue to eat healthy, local food through the winter months?
I thought I’d take this opportunity to chime in and share some perspectives (and lessons learned) on the topic of root cellaring from our windswept hilltop in Pipers Glen, Cape Breton. Here, we operate a small market garden and strive to have year-round access to as great a diversity of vegetables possible.
We’re nowhere near where we want to be on this particular goal, but every year we get a little bit closer.
There are three main areas that we consider when setting up and stocking our root cellar for the season. And I should mention that right now, our “root cellar” is a small crawl space with an earthen floor underneath our house. Right now, we only store vegetables there. Eventually, we plan to build a big, “proper” root cellar and to store many more food items in it. But for now, our little crawl space is doing its job relatively well.
Our three main areas of consideration:
- What are the best vegetable varieties to store?
- What are the specific storage needs (temperature, humidity, light…) of these vegetables?
- Which storage mediums and containers should we use?
Choosing the Right Vegetable Varieties
Not all vegetables are suited to winter storage in Cape Breton. We want to set ourselves up for success, so we only want to keep vegetables that we know will store well here. For us, that list includes storage favourites like: potatoes, cabbage, beets, carrots, parsnips, garlic and onions.
When we plan our planting for the year, we choose vegetable varieties that are particularly well-suited to storage. We want those varieties that will not only last for many months but whose flavour will be maintained (or even improved) over time.
When sourcing seeds or vegetables that you intend to store, it’s a good idea to find out whether they’re varieties suited to storage. Seed descriptions will often tell you – and farmers you ask will know.
In addition to storing the right varieties, it’s important that the vegetables you store are in peak condition. You want maximum quality and minimum spoilage, so choose the vegetables that are at peak maturity and free from visible disease, bruises and insect damage.
Storage Needs of Specific Vegetables
Every vegetable has a particular range of temperature, humidity, and light conditions that will be optimal for its storage. It’s good to be aware of these conditions and to measure the temperature and humidity in any area where you intend to store vegetables in order to ensure the conditions are right. Some vegetables are more forgiving than others! For your reference, here’s a breakdown of the basics:
Our crawl space works best for crops like beets, carrots and potatoes that prefer cold and moist conditions. We don’t have access to a good cool and dry place, so we don’t keep many onions yet. Our garlic keeps very well hanging in a mesh bag at room temperature in our kitchen (though a cooler spot would be preferable, garlic does store well at room temperature).
In houses heated with wood stoves, like ours, there is often a warm spot in the middle and cooler areas around the periphery. This can be used to your advantage! You don’t have to have a root cellar in order to store fresh vegetables through the winter – an uninsulated porch, pantry, cool spot in the basement or a cool, dark closet can do the job well. In a cold corner of our house we have several large Rubbermaid bins filled with bulk items like beans and lentils, flour, pasta, cans, tea, coffee, honey and peanut butter Check the temperatures and humidities, and if you’re in the right ballpark then you’re good to go!
Storage Mediums & Containers
Once you’ve got the right vegetables and the right location and temperatures to store them, you need to determine what kind of container you will store them in and what (if any) medium will surround them in that container.
We use milk crates for our potatoes and Rubbermaid bins (the same ones that are used for harvest and market through the growing season) for beets and carrots. We generally keep our parsnips in the ground until spring, but if we harvest them early, they go in the same bins. Vegetables that need moist conditions shouldn’t be exposed to air. For us, garlic and onions go in mesh bags, as they prefer to be dry. The most important factors in choosing a container are to retain moisture and allow air circulation, as required, and protect from rodents!
In the fall, we collect many buckets of good, clean, non-beach sand from a location near where we live. We layer sand between the beets, parsnips and carrots in their containers and dig them out through winter. The purpose of a packing material like sand is to insulate against temperature fluctuations, retain moisture, and reduce disease transmission.
Many people also use sawdust, dry leaves, clean straw or peat moss for this purpose and all can work equally well. We use sand because it’s easily accessible for us and free.
Eating It Up
There’s a special kind of satisfaction in being surrounded by winter and digging out delicious, nutritious produce to eat. It’s a reminder of the warmer seasons. It’s an opportunity to save the extra that might have come out of your garden. It usually offers better flavour and nutritional value. And buying in bulk in season (or growing your own!) is usually cheaper than buying food in winter when it’s often more expensive.
On that note, I can hear my husband chopping downstairs and I can smell the onion and garlic on the stove. That’s my cue to wrap this up and wish you happy winter eating, folks!
Written by Kailea Pedley, Off-Grid Farmer at Patchwood Farm, Piper’s Glen, Cape Breton. Kailea Pedley is a food champion in Cape Breton. When she is not farming, she sits on the Steering Committee of the Island Food Network, as well as working with the Cape Breton Food Policy Working Group. Kailea is also a participant in Ecology Action Centre’s, Community Food Leader Program.
Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre. Learn more about our program at https://www.ecologyaction.ca/ourfood