Preparing for the Root Cellar: Harvesting and Post-Harvest Handling of Vegetables

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Cover Courtesy Storey Publishing
“Root Cellaring” by Mike and Nancy Bubel includes specific storage requirements for each crop and building instructions for big and small root cellars.

Root cellaring is an energy-saving way to store vegetables and fruits using the earth’s naturally cool, stable temperatures. In Root Cellaring (Storey Publishing, 1991), Mike and Nancy Bubel go beyond the traditional underground root cellar and discuss the whole range of ingenious techniques — from garden trenches to root boxes — to put by as much garden produce as you can without processing. In this excerpt from Chapter 4 of their book, they explain how to maximize your crops’ lives in the root cellar by timing the harvest just right and employing the best techniques for the post-harvest handling of vegetables and fruits.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Root Cellaring.

When heavy frost sparkles and crunches in the grass each morning, we know it’s time to begin to think about bringing in the root vegetables. The soft fruits—tomatoes, peppers, and such—have already been picked when the first light frosts struck, and stored away for short-term keeping. Hard-shelled fruits like squash and pumpkins were left in the field to cure after they matured and are now sprawled on the porch, waiting to come in where it’s warmer. The roots, bless them, wait patiently underground—and even continue to grow during the weeks of fine weather that often follow the first frost.

It’s a good thing that the fall harvest can be done in stages, for when at last it is time to bring in the roots, there’s a lot to be done—digging, trimming, rounding up containers, gathering sawdust, sand, and leaves, lugging baskets inside, and packing the vegetables away. If you grow a lot of root vegetables as we do, you can count on spending several weekends getting them out of the ground and into the root cellar.

Timing of the harvest. This is important. Although soft fruits should be gathered before frost can nip them, and hard-shelled fruits should be protected from heavy frost, root vegetables may be left in the ground even until black frost—that unmistakable hard freeze that kills off even the last green weeds and blackens the beet tops. It is, in fact, a good idea to leave the root vegetables in the ground as long as you possibly can, so that when you do harvest them the temperature in your root cellar will no longer be affected by Indian summer quirks and will stay low enough for good keeping.

Experience (translate: doing it wrong the first time) has shown us that there are two things to watch out for here. One is the tendency of some root crops, especially beets, rutabagas, and sometimes turnips, to shoulder their way above ground. When exposed like this, they should be mulched to prevent damage from severe frost. Second, it’s awfully easy to get busy with other garden clean-up chores and postpone the harvest too long—until the ground is frozen and hard or impossible to dig. Those Indian summer days beguile us into thinking they’ll last forever. Watch the weather and the calendar. Try to wait out that last lingering spell of mild weather, but be realistic, too. Once November has gotten a foothold, winter’s on its way. In the northern parts of New England, the Midwest, and the Great Plains, make that October. In the upper South, though, you can safely wait until December.

Cold weather at digging time prolongs storage life in another way: low temperatures encourage the vegetable cells to store up a higher concentration of sugars and starches rather than water which would be more readily lost, leading to undesirable shrinkage.

If possible, it’s better to harvest storage vegetables in dry weather than during a rainy spell. While the ground may be more difficult to dig if it is hard, especially if the humus content is low, vegetables dug during dry weather may keep better because (1) they are not plumped up with recently absorbed water, and (2) they have less soil clinging to them and consequently need less handling to prepare them for packing away. Whether the soil is dry or wet, we usually use a fork rather than a shovel to unearth our vegetables, because the fork is less likely to slice through the roots.

One of our country lore consultants tells about stopping to watch a farmer and his family pulling cabbage from their field and loading it in a cart in a steady rain. “Why,” he asked, “don’t you wait until tomorrow when the sun will shine?”

The farmer seemed to know what he was doing. Continuing down the row, he said, over this shoulder, “The moon sign’s right today. The cabbage’ll keep better.” (We might also add that in another day’s time the large heads might have split after absorbing the rainwater.)

Just as many gardeners try to plant seed in a favorable phase of the moon, many moon sign devotees are convinced that produce picked in the right sign of the moon will keep better.

The Foxfire Book, The Moon Sign Book, our current Farmer’s Almanac, and local folklore all seem to agree: if you pick apples and pull root crops during the decease of the moon, in the third and fourth quarters, bruised spots will dry instead of rotting and the food will keep better. Grain to be stored, they say, should be reaped just after a full moon.

We leave it to you to decide whether or how to use this information. We have not yet experimented with harvesting by moon sign ourselves, but we are less skeptical about it than we once were.

Post-Harvest Handling of Vegetables

Cleaning. This should not be necessary in most cases. It’s perfectly all right to leave a light coating of dusty soil on the surface of your root vegetables. Gently brush off excess dirt, but avoid scrubbing or washing the roots. They’ll keep better if you don’t clean them up too vigorously. You can scrub them well just before you eat them. When it is necessary to dig the vegetables from wet ground, let them dry off just a bit (but keep them cold) so that you can carefully knock the clods of heavy soil from their surfaces.

Handling. Be gentle with your post-harvest handling of vegetables. Never toss the vegetables into a cart. Always put them down with deliberate care. They’ll last much longer if you do. Bruising at harvest time can cause a lot of unnecessary spoilage. The bruised flesh will be the first to rot in storage. There are bacteria and fungi everywhere looking for just that sort of terrain on which to live.

Selecting. Good selection will prolong the life of your stored hoard, too. Poorly developed, nicked, or bruised fruits and vegetables aren’t likely to make it through the winter. In spoiling, they may encourage decay in other sound foods touching them. Store only your best produce—sound, mature, well developed. Set aside the immature and cut-open or insect-damaged specimens to make a big pot of stew, soup, or mixed pickles, or use them to fatten a pig.

Curing. This isn’t necessary for most root vegetables. They should, in fact, be hustled quickly from their cold moist underground situation to cold, moist storage. Most root vegetables should not be exposed to the drying sun after digging. Bulbs like onions and garlic need a week in the sun to dry for storage, and squash and pumpkins should be exposed to sun for about two weeks to develop a hard rind. Sweet potatoes should be cured before storage too. Those storage vegetables that do need curing will not keep as well if you skip this process.

Clipping tops off. This should be done right after digging, before packing the vegetables away. Why not leave the leafy tops on? For one thing, they’ll draw off a good bit of moisture from the root as they wilt. And they’ll turn slimy sooner or later when the vegetables are packed away, if indeed you are able to get them decently packed up with all those extra leaves in the way. Replanting root vegetables indoors in soil or sand especially for production of tender new leaves is another subject, covered in chapter 10.

Leafy tops of parsnips and beets are good to eat. When time permits, I like to have a big pot of vegetable soup simmering on the wood stove during harvest days, all ready to absorb the extra rib of celery, leaf of broccoli, runty head of cabbage, and sliced-open potato that are too good to waste. Don’t get carried away with trimming off extraneous parts of your vegetables, though. Root tips and small feeder roots should not be broken or pulled off to neaten things up. Even small skin breaks invite spoilage. Wait until serving time to trim those odd knobby parts, forked roots, and excess rootlets.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel, published by Storey Publishing, 2013. Buy this book from our store:Root Cellaring.