Vegetables stored in closet

Do you want to eat year-round from your garden, but don’t have a root cellar? Don’t let that hold you back! Here’s what we do to store our vegetables.

Though you can eat a lot of your vegetables fresh from your garden, you’ll need to store some of your vegetables if you want to eat a lot of food all year-round from your garden. My sister and I don’t have a root cellar.  We freeze some extra broccoli and greens, and can some tomatoes, but we store most of our vegetables tucked away in various locations.

Cool and Dry – The Easiest Storage!

I’ve had many years experience in growing and storing vegetables that keep in good condition for months in a cool room in my house. These include winter squash, garlic, sweet potatoes, and onions. I really love vegetables that I don’t have to can or freeze – just pick them, cure them, and stack them away!

We use unheated rooms for storage, as these spare rooms usually stay between 50-60 degrees for most of the winter. It’s a perfect temperature to store winter squash and sweet potatoes. Some people can store these crops in a cool corner of a dry basement, or in a closet in the coldest corner of the house, but you don’t want to store these vegetables in a cold and damp place.

And, although 50-60 degrees is warmer that what is usually recommended to store garlic and onions, I’ve had pretty good luck with them anyway. Part of the secret is growing varieties that are good keepers. I am usually still eating all four of these vegetables in April, and my squash and sweet potatoes until June – if we don’t run out.

We currently keep these vegetables in two upstairs closets in unheated areas that stay cool over the winter. One closet is in our upstairs bathroom, which has large shelves already built-in. We had unexpectedly harvested nearly 250 pounds of sweet potatoes in 2012, and needed some sturdy shelving to hold most of them.

Sweet potatoes in closet
By late winter, we had already made a serious dent into our stored sweet potatoes.

We didn’t have any other built-in shelving available, so my sister found some plastic stackable storage units that have generous ventilation holes. These units are open in the front so we could easily select which vegetables we wanted to take down to the kitchen. They have allowed us to store a couple of hundred more pounds of vegetables in half of an upstairs hallway closet.

Vegetables in stackable storage units
These stackable units are working perfectly to store some of our crops – including butternut squash, onions, garlic, and even more sweet potatoes. We’ve already eaten most of what we had put here.

Cold and Moist – More Challenging…

We don’t have a proper root cellar at our home for our cabbage, apples, Irish potatoes, and similar crops that require cold and moist storage conditions. They store best when kept around the upper 30′s and very humid.

Our basement is too warm and dry, and we don’t have a crawl space. Since we are able to store most of our root crops in the ground, covered with mulch inside cold frames, we don’t need a large “root cellar” area – so it doesn’t make sense to try to convert part of our basement into one. In addition, our winter temperatures have been a bit too warm over the last few years to be able to use a regular root cellar.

We tried digging holes into the ground to create small buried storage locations. Unfortunately, our soil is so poorly draining, that each hole we dug filled up with water after every heavy rain and took days to drain away. Burying our food is not going to work for us – though I plan to experiment in our tall, well-drained raised garden beds.

We initially kept our apples, cabbages, and potatoes in separate 5-gallon buckets, and kept switching them around in various locations as needed.

They started out in our outdoor shed for a couple of months right after harvest in October. When it got too cold, we covered the buckets with several layers of heavy blankets. We kept a remote temperature sensor under the blankets so we could move the buckets when they dropped to the mid 30′s.

Eventually, we had to move the buckets into our house. We chose our coldest room, which normally stays between the upper 40′s to mid-50′s in mid-winter. That’s a lot warmer than I would prefer, but we didn’t have a lot of choices.

We had to cover the buckets with a heavy dark blanket, so the light coming through the window didn’t turn the potatoes green and poisonous. The buckets don’t offer any ventilation, so the moisture from the potatoes condenses on the inside of the buckets. In these warmer temperatures, the potatoes start to sprout and send out roots, but they until they start to shrink and soften, they are still quite usable.

Potatoes stored in buckets
These potatoes were starting to sprout because they are too warm, but they were still usable.

Fortunately, even in these less than ideal storage conditions, the cabbage heads still look pretty good, even though they are starting to sprout roots.

Storage cabbages
These large heads of cabbage were keeping really well, considering their less than ideal storage conditions.

In January 2014, I suggested that we experiment with using insulated styrofoam coolers to store these crops in our hoop house. These coolers would help protect our vegetables from the fluctuations in temperature. Our hoop house varies in temperature from the 40-60′s F during the day, to the mid-upper 20′s at night (except for occasional arctic blasts, when it might drop into the mid-teens in the hoop house for a couple of nights). But it averages out close to a decent storage temp.

So far, it’s been working out pretty good. The coolers have the same moisture condensation issue as the buckets. This can cause early rotting for some crops. Fruits and vegetables store best when they have good ventilation, along with the right temperature and moisture conditions. But we have to work with what we have, for now, and I’m satisfied with the makeshift arrangements until we can figure out something better.

In January, the temperatures inside the coolers have been ranging from the upper-30′s to mid-40′s. We bring them inside for a short while when we expect severe cold. When the hoop house warms up more in the spring, we’ll shift the coolers to our outdoor shed. When it gets too warm there, we’ll put what our remains of our storage crops (if any) into our refrigerator.

My favorite resource for learning more about storing winter vegetables is the old classic book: Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables The authors include more information about various options to store your vegetables – even if you can’t have a root cellar! I once had a neighbor that successfully stored her Irish potatoes all winter long in bushel baskets in the crawl space under her house – so if you have a crawl space, check it out!

So, don’t give up on storing some of your winter vegetables if you don’t have a perfect storage location!  Just use a min/max thermometer and check out all the various nooks and crannies that you may have to work with. You can often store your crops for a few weeks or months under less than ideal conditions.

You, too, can feast year-round from your backyard!

~ Debra