Many vegetables and fruits can be stored in a root cellar, an old fashioned food preservation method we should all embrace.
Root cellars are a low-maintenance method of food preservation that requires no extra work on your end. Storing fruits and vegetables in a root cellar helps to preserve freshness in the least labor-intensive way possible.
Doesn’t that sound awesome?
One thing to know is that you want to store ONLY the freshest, best food possible, and it needs to be treated carefully. This rule applies to bulk vegetables purchased at a farmer’s market or dug out of your garden. Veggies and fruits with bruises or rotten spots don’t earn spots in the root cellar.
Another thing is that storing vegetables in the root cellar requires a specific temperature and humidity requirements. I mean, you don’t have to follow these conditions strictly, but being close helps preserve the veggies.
What is a Root Cellar?
A root cellar is any storage location using the natural cooling, insulating, and humidifying properties of the earth. It’s one of the longest, time-tested storage methods.
Not all vegetables store well in a root cellar!
Generally, root veggies like carrots, potatoes, beets, and parsnips store the best in a root cellar, but it also works well for hardy fruits. It’s the ideal environment to store home canned or fermented foods, as well as the bulbs of perennial flowers.
If you make homemade wine or beer, a root cellar will also be a great storage option!
Root Cellar Requirements
Whether you want to ensure your current root cellar fits the bill or you want to create a new root cellar, you’ll want to know what is classified as a true root cellar.
- It has to be able to hold a temperature of 32 to 40 degrees F and a humidity level of 85-95%. This is why it won’t always work in warm climates.
- Root cellars cannot be built in places with a high water table or a septic system nearby.
- It should be easily accessible.
- The design should allow you to control humidity, temperature, ventilation, and drainage.
How Long Will Vegetables Last in a Root Cellar?
The cool, humid environment in a root cellar lets most foods last longer than other storage methods. It highly depends on what crops you store, but they will last anywhere from two to nine months, with an average being four to six months.
Their storage life will reduce if the temperature or humidity goes out of the ideal range.
13 Root Cellar Vegetables and Fruits
You might be surprised to know that you can store some leafy greens in a root cellar. Cabbage is the most popular pick.
Don’t worry about cleaning your cabbage. Ideally, you would keep the roots attached and replant it into the soil in the root cellar. It’s easiest to do this in a large basin, such as a garbage can.
Another option is to wrap each cabbage individually and place it on a shelf, leaving a few inches between each head. Most importantly, you don’t want to leave the cabbage just openly out because the odor will move throughout the root cellar and damage the flavor of celery, apples, and pears.
If that’s not an option, that’s okay too! Remove the exterior leaves and store the cabbage heads on a slatted shelf inside of your root cellar. Cabbage family members prefer cold temperatures and high humidity for the longest storage, typically around 32 to 40 degrees with 90% humidity!
Red cabbage varieties do store better than green, and for long-term storage, pick a late variety of cabbage.
Average Shelf Life – 3 to 4 months, depending on the variety
Storing apples in a root cellar can be a bit tricky because they require cold temperatures, around 32 to 40 degrees with 90 to 95-percent humidity.
Heirloom apple varieties do better than the newer varieties of apples, and tart keeps better than sweet apples. Some of the best apples for root cellar storage include:
- Arkansas Black
- Pink Lady
- Rome Beauty
You want to only store mature, unblemished apples, and wrap each individually in newspaper. Then, store the wrapped apples in a wooden apple crate or a cardboard box. For best results, wrap each apple individually – yes, this is a bit of work – and place them in a wooden apple crate.
Average Shelf Life – 2 to 7 months, depending on the variety.
After the potato plants die back, it’s time to dig them up. Potatoes need to cure in a dark place at 45 to 60 degrees F for 10 to 14 days.
After curing, potatoes can be stored at 38 to 40°F and moist conditions with humidity levels between 80 to 90%.
Storing at colder temperatures make the potatoes have a sweeter taste, and warmer temperatures lead to sprouting. Make sure you don’t store with ethylene-releasing crops.
They should be stored in complete darkness in sand, sawdust, or moss. Bins work well!
Average Shelf Life: 4 to 6 months
4. Sweet Potatoes
Most root crops are obvious choices for root cellars. Harvest sweet potatoes in the late fall, picking only the undamaged, unblemished potatoes for long-term storage.
Remove excess soil and cure in temperatures between 80 and 85 degrees F for 5 to 10 days with high humidity.
After curing, transfer the sweet potatoes to a dry storage area with temperatures not below 55°F and dry conditions with humidity levels between 60-70%. Make sure that you store the sweet potatoes in a well-ventilated box.
Average Shelf Life – 2 to 3 Months
Leeks are in the onion family and handle root cellar storage decently. First, place a heavy layer of mulch in your garden until a hard frost. Then, it’s time to dig up the leeks, keeping them intact. Some gardeners actually prefer just to leave the leeks in the garden with several inches of mulch.
For storage, place the leeks in a deep bucket. Store them upright in damp sand or soil. Leeks do best when stored at a cold temperature, between 32 to 40°F, with high humidity, around 90 to 95%.
Average Shelf Life – 3 to 4 months.
Carrots taste the best when you leave them in the ground after a few touches of frost. Keeping them in the garden for as long as possible is ideal. You can place some straw over top of them in the garden.
You will want to pull them up before the ground freezes – trust me. Have you ever tried to pull carrots out of the frozen ground? It’s not fun.
Carrots need to be stored in your root cellar at 33 to 40°F and high humidity, between 90 and 95%.
Dig them up before the ground freezes, then remove the tops close to the carrots. The tops, called fronds, deplete the carrot of moisture and nutrients that are necessary for the crop to survive in storage. Then, place your carrots in a box with moist sand or peat moss.
Average Shelf Life – 4 to 6 months or longer!
Beets are a root crop that stores well in cold temperatures, between 32 and 40 degrees, with high levels of humidity, between 90 to 95%. Harvest the beets in dry weather, when the roots are around 2 inches in diameter.
Dig up the beets, cut off the tops, but make sure to leave 1 to 2 inches from the top of the root. The root tip needs to stay intact!
Once harvested, brush off loose soil and layer the beets in damp sand, sawdust, or peat moss.
Store them in either a plastic container with a tight lid or a wooden box. When you store them, sort by size with the smallest beets on top to be used first. The larger the beets, the longer they store.
Most importantly, don’t allow the beets to touch each other because it increases the spoilage rate.
Average Shelf Life – 3 to 5 months
Pears are similar to apples, and they require cold temperatures to store in a root cellar. Their ideal temperatures are 33 to 40°F with moist humidity conditions between 80 and 90%.
Each pear needs to be wrapped in newspaper, then stored in a cardboard or wooden box with plastic. They store best on the bottom shelves of the root cellar. Make sure that you only store unblemished, unbruised fruits.
Storing pears in a root cellar is a bit difficult because they’re sensitive to temperature and store set at the lowest temperatures. Try to keep them away from veggies that emit ethylene gas and try to use them up before two months.
Average Shelf Life: 2 to 3 months
Another ones of the best root cellar vegetables. They need to be stored in temperatures between 33 and 40°F and high humidity, between 90 to 95%.
Parsnips can be left in the garden under a layer of mulch, just like carrots. The problem with doing that is parsnips don’t like the freezing and thawing cycles that naturally occur with leaving them in the garden beds. Storing parsnips in a root cellar is a great choice.
All you have to do is cut off the tops and layer them in a box with damp sand or peat moss.
Average Shelf Life: 1 to 2 months
When it’s time to harvest the garlic, dig up the heads and brush off the loose soil. Make sure you handle the garlic heads delicately!
Garlic heads need to cure for 10 to 14 days in a well-ventilated location. The bulbs shouldn’t get wet or sunburned. Once cured, braid the tops together and hang. You can also cut off the tops and keep the bulbs in mesh bags.
To prolong the life of your garlic, always keep in dry conditions. Otherwise, they will start to sprout. Garlic does best temperatures between 40 and 50°F with 60 to 70% humidity. Remember that softneck varieties store better than hardneck!
Average Shelf Life – 5 to 8 Months
Onions store for months in a root cellar in the proper conditions. First, make sure you place the harvested onions on newspaper, screen, or hardware cloth.
Store them in a dry, well-ventilated area, out of the sunlight. Cure for 10 to 14 days until the skins are papery and the roots are dry.
Then, cut 1 inch above the onion and store in ventilated containers. A few choices you might like are net bags, paper grocery sacks, or pantyhose! Don’t store onions in plastic bags or storage containers because they need to breathe.
Average Shelf Life – 5 to 8 Months
Years ago, pioneers and homesteaders stored pumpkins to last throughout the winter. They were for more than just pies!
Harvest your pumpkins before the first frost, leaving at least an inch or more of the stem intact. Pumpkins without a stem have a heightened risk of spoilage.
Cure at 80 to 85 degrees F for 10 days. Pumpkins require dry storage with temperatures around 40 to 50°F with humidity levels between 60 and 70%.. Use this process to store almost any squash.
Average Shelf Life – 5 to 6 Months
Another root crop that stores well in root cellars is rutabagas. They store just like carrots and parsnips.
Store rutabagas in cold temperatures, between 33 and 40°F with humidity levels between 90 and 95%.
Lay them in a box of damp sand. The sand must stay damp in order for them to last the longest possible. More people opt to store rutabagas outside because they do release an unpleasant odor.
Average Shelf Life – 2 to 4 months
7 Tips for Storing Root Cellar Vegetables
You spent months growing these vegetables in your garden, so you want to make sure you store your harvest well. Here are some tips to make storing in a root cellar the best experience!
- Stock the cellar late in the season, and consider chilling the fruits and vegetables in the fridge before putting them into the cellar.
- Several vegetables, such as potatoes, winter squash, onions, and pumpkins, need to be cured before placing in a root cellar. Curing takes place in warm temperatures.
- Don’t wash off the loose dirt; shake it off! You don’t want to expose the root cellar vegetables and fruits to too much moisture, or it will encourage rot.
- Make sure to handle your veggies with care; bruising leads to decomposition.
- Some fruits breathe, releasing ethylene gas, such as apples and pears. These fruits need to be wrapped in paper to slow the spoilage.
- Try to space the veggies out on the shelves. If they’re too close to each other, they generate heat, causing spoilage.
- Check your root cellar vegetables regularly and remove immediately at any sign of rot. The gasses will cause the other veggies and fruits to rotten faster.
Does a Root Cellar Need Ventilation?
Yes, root cellars need ventilation. Lack of proper ventilation is one of the biggest mistakes people make when designing a root cellar, and without it, the food you store will spoil.
Many vegetables produce and release ethylene gas, which speeds up the ripening process and affects nearby produce. Ventilation allows some of these gasses to escape, and the humidity needs to have a way to be release. Otherwise, mold and mildew develop!
Try a Root Cellar
Many people have no idea that root cellars can be used to store so many items. Whether you have a root cellar attached to your house or build one separately, they can be a great way to store fruits and veggies long-term.