Raising the Root Cellar: Crops for Winter Storage

Reader Contribution by Charlyn Ellis
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On January first, the seed catalogs come out of hiding. They have been flowing in for several weeks, but I like to keep them back until the holidays are almost over, giving me something to look forward to in early January, when the world is still dark and muddy. The back garden is the low spot for the entire block. It is often flooded during heavy winter rains and not always accessible in January, so it is a good time to start planning for next year’s garden.

My garden consists of nine raised beds, four-by-ten feet, which hold annual crops. There are also three raised beds for permanent plantings: blueberries, asparagus, and herbs. We supplement the space using large black nursery pots, which move into the front driveway for tomato plants in the spring, and wine barrels, which hold currants, a bay tree, and an apple.

We just added a greenhouse, which has one three by eight foot bed and space for various tubs and planters. And we are about to build a bed on the south side of the house, which will replace the three barrels there at the moment, giving us a little more planting space and the chance for roots to touch earth. When it is all planted, I am able to harvest our dinner vegetables from the back yard from June until October and supplement for another month on either side. With careful planning, there is also some space for storage crops.

I expect to raise all of the potatoes we will eat for the year — about 95 pounds, minus what I put aside for next year’s seed. I raise five varieties — ‘Yukon Gold’, ‘All Blue’, ‘Desiree’, and ‘Kennebec’, plus a fingerling — so they take up two and a half beds from early March until mid-August. Last year, I cleared one bed early and replanted to fall greens, which I plan to do again. It is comforting to know that there are potatoes in the bins in the basement under the stairs.

This year, I want to grow more winter squash. I need twelve fruits to make it through the winter as we eat one every other week. This will mean planting some ‘Delicata’ seed for early eating along with the ‘Baby Blue Hubbards’ and ‘Sweet Meats’ that last until late March in the larder. They like warm sun, so I will try planting them in the new bed along the south wall of the house, running them up the wall with the beans and tomatoes to provide afternoon shade inside. If I start them in the greenhouse in late April, they should have enough warm weather to produce a good crop.

I also want to grow some solid cabbages for January consumption. So far, my cabbages have been heading up in July and August, right when the aphids and hot weather hit. We eat a lot of cole slaw — but I would rather be eating it now, in January, when there is little else fresh in the world, than in July, when everything is brimming over. Timing and varieties are key.

Territorial Seed is offering a ‘January King’ that is both winter-hardy and tasty (160-220 days) as well as ‘Mandy’, which promises tight, large heads that stand high (105 days). I am tempted to try both, started in April and planted in a empty potato bed in late July.

Finally, I want to turn one garden bed — the one nearest the greenhouse — into a Three Sisters Garden. The corn stalks will shade the shower from the backyard and I can run the vines up the wall and fence. ‘Indian Woman’ beans have a climbing habit, even if they are “bush” beans; ‘Winter Luxury’ pumpkins will be thrilled to be off of the ground. I am considering popcorn, rather than sweet corn, both for cornmeal and decoration. Right now, I am eyeing ‘Painted Gem’ and ‘Painted Mountain’ — the ‘Painted Mountain’ ripens faster.

With all of this new planning, what will have to go to make space? Probably a few kale and collard plants, those early cabbages, and the radishes that go to seed every year. Or, maybe, we will just grow up and over. I have been thinking about some arches over the pathways for several years — it may be time to build them.

Charlyn Ellishas been growing vegetables since she was five years old, when her mother bought her her first rake and pitchfork. She and her family are urban homesteaders and have a large organic vegetable garden, fruit trees, a beehive, four chickens, one rabbit, and two cats on a small urban lot in the center of town, surrounded by college students. Charlyn considers permaculture principles when she makes changes in her designs, especially the idea that the problem is the solution. Find her online at21st Street Urban Homestead, and read all of Charlyn’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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