Sunday, October 28, 2012

root cellaring for the winter

fall, front yard, tricycles.

I was standing in the kitchen Saturday afternoon, looking out the window, thinking about what I needed to do next.  I had been working on the rental place in the morning, making a bunch of minor repairs, together with my son, who loves being daddy's little helper these days.  We stopped by our community garden plot on the way back, and pulled up all the tomato cages and loaded them into the station wagon.

Then we went for a walk, or a hike- as he called it- through the scrubby patch of forest and weeds and junk next to the railroad tracks that flank the garden.  Then we came home to mom and sis for lunch.

So, I was feeling really accomplished by early afternoon and looking forward to getting into our backyard garden.  Gita saw me looking out the window and read my mind. 
"Sit down and relax, sweetu- you don't have to work hard all the time," she told me.  And at that moment I loved my wife so much- for appreciating that I worked hard and also for suggesting that I relax a bit.

So I took off my shoes and coat and looked around the house.  What would I do if I were going to relax?  One of my favorite things (which I happen to be doing at the moment) is sitting down with a shot of whiskey and writing about the week.  But the kids were watching cartoons on the computer, so that was out.  And I haven't been to the library in months, maybe more than a year, so I really didn't have anything to read.

And when I stood and thought about it, there really wasn't anything I wanted to do more than be out in the backyard garden on a beautiful, sunny, cool fall afternoon.  Which is what Saturday was.

So I went out to the garden, got my gloves and my old shovel and dug up all of the turnips and parsnips and put them up in the root cellar.

 And it really was relaxing.

I once heard a friend say (and I can't remember who or what the context was) "Farmers are the only people who really love to work.  They get up in the morning and can't wait to start working".

I have quite a few generations of farmers in my ancestry and that may account for why I find pulling up and storing turnips to be one of the most enjoyable ways to spend a fall afternoon.   I didn't grow up on a farm, and went and got lots of education, just like I was supposed to, so I wouldn't have to do manual labor at this point in my life.

But I've found that manual labor, at least when it's not being forced on me, is much more satisfying than cubicle work.  So, of course, I keep the cubicle job, and work my little eighth acre farm on the weekend.  Then I wake with a sore back on Monday, ready to punch the clock for the man again.
pulling turnips

I wrote an earlier post about our root cellar, and I had a chance to clean it up a bit and reorganize it a few weeks ago.  It had started to become more of a catchall basement storage room than root cellar for a while, with birthday party decorations, and unused cookware and boxes of stuff from our wedding cluttering up the place.

I was able to move all that out to another part of the basement, and move my homemade wine from that area into the root cellar, and then made some extra space for- of all things- root vegetable storage.

The cellar was apparently built as a root cellar by the original builders of the house, who also happened to be farmers.  It's a
low-ceilinged room with a step up from the
first a layer of leaves and peat, then a layer of turnips

basement floor, which probably kept in dry in the past when the rest of the basement would flood in the spring.  In 1909, when they built the place, there wouldn't have been any way to refrigerate fruits or vegetables, so a cool room was essential for keeping garden goods into the winter.

The small window in the root cellar is propped open now to let the fall air cool it down more quickly than it would if
then another layer of leaves

I were just relying on the ambient soil temperature to cool it to root cellar temperature.  I have a little thermometer down there that reads about 50F right now, and I'll close the window when it reaches 40 or 45.  That might take until some time in November.

So the process of putting up turnips and parsnips was pretty easy.

then more leaves, top it all off with peat- and put it in the root cellar
First I pulled or gently dug up all of the parsnips and turnips (while wearing gloves, cause I seem to get a rash from these things otherwise) shook off the dirt, and clipped the tops back to an inch or so of green.

Then I lined the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket with dry leaves and some peat moss, layered in a layer of root veggies, put another layer of dry leaves, and another layer of root veggies on top of that.  The top layer was mostly peat moss to cap off the process and inhibit spoilage, which is what was recommended by this website.

We'll see how these keep over the winter.  I'm sure that root cellared root vegetables have sustained more than a few of my ancestors through both northern Wisconsin and northern European winters, so I'm hoping to see how well it does for me.

green tomato and carrot pickle- desi style
Gita's part of the world has a different way of dealing with something there is always too much of this time of year- green tomatoes.

This is not a Nepali recipe- it's native to Southern India- but the process would be familiar to almost anyone in South Asia.  Hot pickle, or achar,  is delicious on the side with rice and lentils, or veggies, or meat, or even with just rice and plain yogurt. 

I've never made it before, but asked Gita, and she had seen it made- so I looked for some recipes, and found a couple of good ones.

It's not difficult- some green tomatoes, some carrots, oil, a lot of cayenne pepper, garlic, fenugreek, and of course hing, which is not a part of western cooking, but would be if my fellow westerners could get past smelling it for the first time.   If you've cooked with it you know what I mean.

I ended up with five pint jars of the stuff, from a small pile of green tomatoes and a couple of woody overgrown carrots.  I boiled them all in the water bath for twenty plus minutes and they were good to go.  So we have that to add to the root cellar now.

It's a good feeling to have a root cellar full of good things going into the winter.  For the last few years, we've gone into it with dozens of jars of homemade applesauce in the cellar, but we haven't gotten to that yet.  We still may.  All of that in good time.  It's not a matter of survival.  Not yet.  Better to practice the art of preserving your harvest now, before it becomes a necessity, I suppose, than try to learn it when it really matters. 


  1. Thanks for the inspiration, on the preserving. As for storage, I bought $200 of rice beans apples flour etc, anticipating Sandy. If He/She breaches the Manhattan flood wall, and floods the subways, where all the electrical lines are...what was that line from Revelations?

  2. I would love to rig up a root-cellar in our basement. It's unheated but pretty warm in the winter. Our preservation habits started from just dealing with too much produce to eat, but have inspired us to aim for a few year-round staples to keep on hand. Like you say, it's not a matter for survival but for convenience and quality, and I feel like the more skills we have the better, for future needs.

  3. I've heard it said that the best place to keep your root vegetables is in the ground - i.e. just dig up what you need, when you intend to eat it. I can think of disadvantages to this (you won't know if you have a good crop or a bad one, and you probably can't use the land to grow anything else) but the preservation conditions should be ideal.

    1. you probably already know this, but you can store your root vegetables, such as a harvest of carrots, packed in dirt in big buckets which then can be stored in a root cellar (or cool dark place). apples can also be stored in metal garbage cans in a root cellar (not sure about plastic)....

  4. Thanks to everyone who commented on this post. Minnesota winters don't allow me to keep root vegetables in the ground- or at least keeps them inaccessible for 4-5 months. Then they're usually mush in the spring after the thaw.

    I've heard of some people putting a heavy mulch of leaves on their garden to keep the soil from freezing and the roots available, but it would take a lot of leaves to do that here. I'll follow up in the spring on how my roots in the cellar did in peat moss. So far, they're OK, though a bit dessicated already (maybe due to the peat) but tasty! The parsnips seem to be resprouting, probably because it's still about 50F in the root cellar, and not a proper root cellar temperature. This week's cold snap should fix that.