Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Root Cellar

No one wants second best. A slimy cabbage from a dingy corner of the basement will never compete with the crisp specimens on the vegetable shelf of the supermarket. Wilted, dried-out carrots look unappealing next to the crunchy, plastic-wrapped beauties in the refrigerator. When home storage is unsuccessful, a case can be made for artificial refrigeration. But the cabbage need not be slimy nor the carrots wilted. A properly constructed root cellar does not take a backseat to any other method of food storage. It is no great feat to manage a simple underground root cellar so that the produce will be equal or superior in quality to anything stored in an artificially refrigerated unit, even after long periods of storage.
A successful root cellar should be properly located, structurally sound, weather tight, convenient to fill and empty, easy to check on and clean, and secure against rodents. Proper location means underground at a sufficient depth so frost won’t penetrate. The cellar should be structurally sound so it won’t collapse on you. It needs to be weather tight so cold winds can’t blow in and freeze the produce. You need to have easy access to fill it, to use the produce, and to clean it at the end of the winter. And it should be rodent-proof so all the food you have stored away won’t be nibbled by rats and mice.
Provision must be made for drainage as with any other cellar, and the cellar should be insulated so that it can maintain a low temperature for as long as possible and provide properly humid storage conditions. Finally, microclimates within the cellar (colder near the floor, warmer near the ceiling) should allow you to meet different temperature and moisture requirements for different crops. The cellar will be most successful if it incorporates your underground food storage needs into one efficient, compact unit. It’s surprising how easily a hole in the ground meets all those conditions.

Any house with a basement already has a potential root cellar. You just need to open a vent so cold air can flow in on fall nights, and sprinkle water on the floor for moisture. The temperature control in the root cellar is almost automatic because cold air, which is heavier than warm air, will flow down, displacing the warmer air, which rises and exits. This lowers the temperature in the cellar incrementally as fall progresses and the nights get cooler. By the time outdoor conditions are cold enough to require moving root crops to the cellar (around October 21 to November 7 here in Maine), conditions in the underground garden are just right-cool and moist. With minimal attention, they will stay that way until late the next spring.
No wood or other material that might suffer from being wet should be used in root cellar construction. The ideal root cellar is made of concrete or stone with rigid insulation around the outside. Any permanent wood in a root cellar soon becomes damp and moldy. Wood will not only rot but also will serve as a home for bacteria and spoilage organisms and is subject to the gnawing entry of rodents. The stone or concrete cellar is impregnable. It won’t rot or decompose, and the thick walls hold the cool of the earth.
The easiest way to make a root cellar is to wall off one corner of the basement as a separate room. The best material is concrete block. There is no problem even if the rest of the basement is heated. You simply need to insulate one temperature zone from the other. Leave enough space between the top of the walls and the joists of the floor above so you can install a cement-board ceiling with rigid insulation above it. Also attach rigid insulation to the heated side of the cellar walls you build. The insulation can be protected with a concrete-like covering such as Block Bond. Install an insulated metal door for access, and the structure is complete.
There are several simpler options, especially for storing small quantities of vegetables. If your house has an old-fashioned cellar with a dirt floor and there is enough drainage below floor level, you can dig a pit in the floor 18 to 24 inches deep, line it with concrete blocks, and add an insulated cover. You will want to open the cover every few days to encourage air exchange in the pit. The pit won’t be as easy to use as a room you can walk into, but like any hole in the ground, it should keep root crops cool and moist. In warmer climates, you can use similar pits or buried barrels for storage either outdoors or in an unheated shed.
One of the simplest techniques we ever used, before we had a root cellar, was to dig pits in one section of the winter greenhouse. In that case we used metal garbage cans and buried them to their edge in the soil under the inner layer. To make sure they stayed cool we insulated their lids. We filled those cans with all the traditional root crops after their late fall harvest. Our whole winter food supply that year was in one central spot and when we went out to harvest fresh spinach and scallions for dinner we would bring back stored potatoes and cabbage at the same time.

This article was taken from this source, which was adapted from Eliot Coleman's "Four Season Harvest"

Another link...

Risky business...

Maybe it was early onset Spring Fever...  but i did it.  In early February, i tempted fate and granted the mail-order plant company with one of the worst reputations about $39 of my own money in exchange for some miniature citrus plants. 
According to my account, the plants will begin being shipped within a few days:

I don't like to be skeptical, cause being skeptical insinuates that i should have known better. But i feel i need to plead some sort of insanity...  of course i am also holding out that this company, despite all the evidence against it, will man up and send me something alive and in generally decent health.
I'm not expecting the Rutaceaen version of a mighty sequoia to be shipped to me in a box with fruit ready to be harvested...  but i would like to get more than a scale covered stick that dies within 2 weeks.

I have ordered from them before, with so-so results. I admit, at the time i ordered from them, i was even more a novice then than i am now. Some of he items came bare root and looked like something i fished out of a clogged sink...  but other things looked fine.
If i remember correctly i got some Japanese Toad Lilies, some English daisies, Ranunculus and i ordered some Manchurian Apricots.

The toad lilies did well enough and bloomed the year i got them. I think the bare root daisy may have had a better shot had i known what i was doing.  But it was a bust.

The ranunculus grew but never flowered.

The apricots never arrived. I was told they were backordered, and when it was shipped, i was sent a really nice looking forsythia by mistake.  I was told i could keep it, so i gave it to my parents- but they never planted it. That really bugged me because it was actually pretty nice.

They ended up sending me a store credit for the price of the apricots (about $7) that i never used, because the following spring they had filed for reorganisation bankruptcy or sale - and were shutting down during that time. So i kept the voucher but never used it.  I had planned on buying their multi packs of old fashioned lilacs with that voucher, but in a way i'm glad i did not because when we bought the new yard, i ended up with more lilacs than i could give away!

But i will try to be optimistic that i get the correct items, that  they arrive healthy, if probably smaller than i'd like, and they ship quickly because our weather is a bit odd in this "El Nino" year.

I am eagerly awaiting my Richters order. I want to get some of those seeds started. A number of them are hardy types that can be sown now. I got the ship notification on the 9th, so it should only be a few more days.

I think everything in the greenhouses did ok overnight. Before it got too cold, i put a heavy blanket over each one just to keep in whatever heat the containers had absorbed.

I need to write a list of what has sprouted already, just so i won't forget next year.  Many things have been up for a number of days, but i have been too busy to write down small details like that.

The Buttercrunch lettuce looks like it will be edible quite soon....

I cannot believe that these Tomatillo seeds as old as they are, are sprouted and look pretty good!

  A bit fuzzy, but i think these are the Polfast. The stick is facing the wrong way for me to read the name and i forgot already.

Pruden's Purple tomatoes

Yellow Pear tomatoes

Gypsy broccoli

Welsh onions and Mirage shallots

Collards...  i should have had faith and sown one seed per pellet. Now i have to thin them. Glad i only sowed two seeds each. I have had great luck storing seeds, so i tend to think of every thinned seedling as a whole plant wasted since i can keep my seeds in high germination ratios for many years.

Pak Choi...  I can't wait to grill up a few of these!  I need to do successive sowings of this!

Mixed flat of the front on the left is Burdock, on the right is Kolrabi
in the back i can see the tag for the Oregano, but no sprouts...  on the right, i can't remember what that is and i can't see the tag, but its obviously some sort of cole crop.
See why i need to write everything down? lol

Some brave little  tomatoes are sprouting in there...  both from seed that is over 7 years old.

Mixed flat...  the Swiss Chard and Point One cabbage are waking up.

Finally, the Rosemary...  it has been cold, but they have made it very well.  Now that i have the light setup, i might bring them inside.  I will need to pot them up soon or i will damage them too much if their roots get tangled.

The Electric Fence kit i bought from Tractor Supply has come in, i just need to go pick it up. Maybe later today. There is no real rush since i can't install it yet- nothing to guard.... and i don't want to have it too long before installing in case the warrantee is too short.  I have at least 30 days before i will need it and most return policies are "within 30 days".  So i won't get it until we can test it some weekend.  Lay it out and make sure it is sturdy and complete.

I saw my first cabbage butterfly yesterday...  i felt kind of bad giving it the stink eye as it merrily fluttered across the yard.  I covet my future broccoli and cabbage plants, if the electric fence keeps the woodchucks out, i don't want to lose everything else to caterpillars! Even with the row covers, i don't want to have to use a bunch of bug killers to fend off a plague.

Soon i have to clean out the Worm Farm.  The red wigglers have been happily munching away at kitchen scraps all winter. The topmost bin is looking quite full. I am not sure i know how to remove all that black gold without losing half my worms.  Its too cold for them to live up here through winter, so if i lose any to the garden they won't last. I know they are just worms, but they do such a good job :0)

Well i have cleaning to do and if i get it done before nap time is over, i might get to read a little too! Yay.