If I would ever build another place to live, the first thing I'd consider is the root cellar, or the equivalent, that would naturally keep cold enough for me to store food in. I can't emphasize it enough; the ability to store food without a freezer, refrigerator, fuel-consuming processing or artificially cold rooms (cold-bot controlled) is for me the key to self-sufficiency. Fermentation is one way to give food a longer storing capacity, but many crops will keep fresh all the way until next summer if kept in the right way. For the past few years, we've experimented with different ways of storing food fresh and now we're eating garlic, onions, squash, carrots and beets in June. Usually we run out of our supply before it goes bad. By fall planting greens in cold frames for an late winter harvest and by planting short varieties of carrots early spring, we now overlap many crops from one year to the next.
Where ever it's cold enough with the right moisture can be used to keep food. Most root crops want a temperature around mid to low 30's, without freezing. If you're cellar isn't the right place, perhaps the garage could work, or the mudroom. A north facing bulk head will do, by opening and closing the door you can control the temperature.
The first thing to consider is to plant storage varieties of the crops you'd like to keep. Onions, for example, have both summer varieties with more water in them and storage varieties that are denser and more pungent. I try to prioritize the space in the garden too, less for summer squash that ripens when everything ripens, and more for winter squash that we can enjoy into late spring.
We pack our carrots, beets, rutabagas and celeriac in wooden boxes with damp spruce sawdust. We built the boxes uniform so we can stack them and keep the rodents out. The boxes are also measured to hold mason jars of ferments. The damp sawdust does not only keep the produce moist, it also stays cooler then the room temperature, so in the spring when our cellar quickly gets too warm the root crops are cold and snug in the boxes.
We store our cabbage in the same way, but in much bigger boxes. We pick the cabbage by pulling it up with the root and clean of several layers of outer leaves. The biggest challenge with cabbage is to not let worms or slugs remain in between the leaves, they will quickly spoil the produce. The leaves that you do end up cleaning off can be fermented whole in crocks and served as leafy tortilla wraps. The Chinese cabbage gets picked the same way but we “replant” them in sawdust just the same way they sat in the ground. A deeper box can be flipped over the heads to keep them away from light.
Onions, garlic and leeks all spend the winter in our mudroom, where it stays cold but doesn't freeze. The butternut squashes and pumpkins hang out in our sleeping loft, where we stopped sleeping after it turned into a food storage. Squash wants it warm (60-70 F) and dry. We store several bushels of apples and pears fresh too, in our mudroom. A good fresh storage fruit has no bruises (picked from the tree and handled carefully), has the stem left on and no signs of bugs. The fruit that doesn't meet those requirements we store as sauce, dried or as apple cider. Cider is an excellent way of using fruit that has too much damage for any other purpose. Read up about how to make it, find someone that will press it for you and invite friends for taste-trials! Applesauce is one rare item that I do can, along with other fruits. Blueberries, cranberries, strawberries and rhubarb all gets processed with traditional canning, to the tunes of 100+ pints every year.
How about the parsnips? Well them we keep right where they are, in the ground. As the tops die back in the fall with cover them with mulch and leave them. In February or so, just as we begin to crave some variety to our meals the ground with usually thaw out just enough for me to go out and fork of big sheets of frozen seaweed and dirt and dig the buttery-sugary crisp and cold parsnips.
If you can keep it you can eat it, anytime.
Dennis Carter and Anneli Carter-Sundqvist live year round on a highly self-sufficient, off the grid homestead. In the summer, they run the Deer Isle Hostel, providing budget accommodation, positive-impact living education and a unique experience for 100's of travelers each year. They grow and keep a whole year’s supply of food without freezer or refrigerator, they provide their own building material, garden amendments, medicine and fuel using island resources and great creativity. They recently got awarded The Homesteader of the Year 2013 by Mother Earth News and the Best Budget accommodation in the Down East Magazine.
Photos by Dennis Carter, Anneli Carter-Sundqvist