Storing Root Crops

By Charlie Nardozzi

Eating fresh garden produce doesn't have to end with the coming of winter. Wherever you live, you can store roots crops, such as carrots, beets, turnips, and parsnips, in the garden (to be harvested before they start new top growth in spring), or in special storage areas in the basement.

Overwintering Roots in the Garden

If you live where the soil freezes hard, insulate the ground around your roots now. To keep the soil at an ideal 35° to 40° F, put a 10- to 12-inch-thick layer of hay, leaves, or straw mulch over the rows, extending 18 inches on both sides of the rows. This will prevent the soil from freezing, so you can even dig roots through the winter - from under two feet of snow. Vegetables stored in the ground don't have good keeping power once dug, so eat them a day or two after harvest.

If you live where winters are mild, in-ground storage is still an option. Insulate root crops to maintain a cool soil temperature to prevent them from sprouting. Cover the rows with a 6- to 8-inch-thick layer of mulch, extending it 18 inches on either side of the rows.

Harvesting for Storage

When harvesting to store roots indoors, cut off the tops, brush off some of the excess soil, and place them in storage. Don't wash roots before you store them. Only store the best roots. Any that are damaged or bruised should be eaten soon.

Simple Indoor Storage

To stay crisp and fresh, root crops need cool, moist, dark surroundings; 34° F temperatures with high humidity is ideal. If you want to keep it real simple, you can store roots in your refrigerator crisper drawer for several months, but storage space there is limited.

The best location for storage is a root cellar. Since most homes don't come equipped with one, however, you can create your own, insulated root storage container using a large, sturdy cardboard or wooden box. Add 2 to 3 inches of some insulating material (sawdust, moist peat moss, or sand) on the bottom and sides. Place a layer of roots on top of the sawdust, leaving 2 to 3 inches of space near the sides. Cover the roots with a 1/4-inch-thick layer of sawdust. Alternate layers of roots and sawdust, filling in all around the edges with sawdust as well. Add a final 2 to 3 inches of sawdust on top, and store this root box in a cool basement. Roots can touch each other in storage, but don't pack them in tightly like canned sardines. Some moist air must be able to circulate.

When you visit your storage area to get vegetables, check for any roots that may not be keeping well and cull them. Don't worry if a few are starting to deteriorate -- some individual vegetables just don't keep as well as others.

Question of the Week

Q. I want to use an area of my yard to build a compost pile. It gets only 2 to 3 hours of sun a day. Can I still use this spot for composting?

A. Composting happens regardless of where you do it, so pick a place that's most convenient for you and within easy reach of a hose to keep the pile moist. The temperature of a compost pile depends on its ingredients (carbon, nitrogen, air, water) and how they're mixed, not on whether it's in sun or shade. However, shade can be helpful because the pile probably won't dry out as quickly.

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