Between the Rows: Root Vegetables and Cellars
The Recorder, November 27, 2015 by Pat Leuchtman,
Our Thanksgiving table will include Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, beets, parsnips and carrots.
Even the Pilgrims might have had some of these vegetables at the first Thanksgiving. Root vegetables were an important part of the food supply in Europe before canning and freezing were available. Root vegetables were harvested in the fall and stored for winter use without preserving them in some way, like pickling or drying.
When I was a child living on a Vermont farm, I remember the bins filled with sand and carrots in the basement. There was also a root cellar dug into a hill beyond the house for potatoes. Added to my aunt’s canning, producing scores of jars of vegetables and fruit, she and my uncle managed to provide their family with a good measure of their family’s diet.
I even kept some carrots and beets in the basement of our Heath house in our early days there. However, a root cellar required more management skills and time than I possessed. Last year, the Heath Agricultural Society held a well attended Cellars and Cave tour, giving visitors from across the valley a look at what is entailed in operating a root cellar. Some cellars were used for vegetables, some for cheese, and some for homemade hard cider.
The cellars varied in complexity from what was essentially a large insulated closet in the garage for storing apples, onions and potatoes, to a more elaborate walled-off corner of a basement that included a window and a flexible duct that made it possible to adjust airflow and temperature. Setting up a site with fairly consistent or adjustable chill and humidity is essential for a root cellar.
Those who are planning to try and keep vegetables and fruit like apples through even a part of the winter must begin by choosing vegetable varieties and apples that are most amenable to storage. For example, the McIntosh apple harvest is usually over in October, but the apples will only keep well through December. Other apples like the old New England Baldwin apple and newer varieties like Fuji will keep through the winter. Many of the old winter keepers are now more available than they were in the recent past.
The same is true for vegetables. Kennebec and Katahdin are among the list of good potatoes for storage, as Danvers and Scarlet Keeper are good storage carrots. Most catalogs will tell you which particular varieties will store well into the winter.
“Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables” by Mike and Nancy Bubel is a comprehensive book for those who are interested in storing some of their winter harvest. They give information about choosing specific crops, storage requirements, and the many ways of building a root cellar. My copy dates back to 1979, not long before we set up our first bins. Root Cellaring is still available and still a functional tool.
Most of us are happy to have a summer garden, enjoying freshly picked lettuce and tomatoes, as well as green beans, summer squash and peas of many varieties. Others of us will enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of setting up a root cellar, and eating our own root crops or other keepers like cabbage and Brussels sprouts.
I spoke to Dave Jackson at the 100-acre Enterprise Farm in Whately about how he keeps root crops. He says he uses a large walk-in cooler. During the good weather the cooler keeps his summer vegetables fresh before they are packed up into CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares. In the winter he uses the cooler for vegetable storage, getting as much value as possible out of the farm’s infrastructure. When I was the Buckland Librarian I bought apples from the Scott Orchard, saw their enormous cooling room and got my first understanding of the way orchardists handle their harvest. Vegetable farmers have the same need.
Jackson agreed that local consumers are looking for more local food over a longer season. He said local farmers have found a variety of ways of keeping root crops available, from the basic old-fashioned root cellar to cooling rooms and solar power. All cold storage options need to keep a consistent cold temperature, usually between 36 to 45 degrees, depending on the crop.
Jackson also gave me a tip, in case I ever take up root cellaring again. He said apples should never be stored with carrots. I knew that apples produce ethylene gas that might cause other fruits to ripen more quickly, but I did not know that the ethylene gas might change the flavor of other fruits – or vegetables. I guess that is why our refrigerator produce drawers are marked to keep fruits and vegetables separate.
Greenfield’s farmer’s market used to be in business from May through October. Happily for us, local farmers have worked to meet our desire for more local food over a longer season. I attended the first Wintermarket in February of 2008. At this year’s second winter farmer’s market I bought squash, parsnips, beets and carrots and look forward to the next markets in December, January, February and March!
I see the growth of farmer’s markets, CSA farms, and roadside stands giving us a growing and stronger local food security. That is something to be thankful for.
Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980. She now lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com.