Live Food Storage
Of course, food that is fresh is best, but our Minnesota winters challenge that approach. The next best thing to harvesting just before your meal is to have food that is "live stored" - food that keeps itself. All you have to do is provide the right micro-climate for the veggies and fruits that have a hibernation factor built into their biological cycle. The concept of root-cellaring is for more than just roots though and we would include dry staples like grains and legumes and fermentations like sauerkraut into the stored live food definition. We rely heavily on insulated picnic coolers as mini cellars (owned by most folks but unused in the winter months). They are filled as crops are harvested, placed on the north side of the house or in open shed to take advantage of the cool nights, then moved to our sauna (not in use in the early fall) when hard freezes threaten, and eventually to an insulated "cellar" below our sun porch when really severe winter weather sets in. We recommend reading "Root Cellaring" by Nancy Bubel for inspiration on building and using a root cellar. Our handout from our Midwest Renewable Energy Fair workshop shows temperature and humidity conditions for a variety of vegetables/fruits. You can find a free Adobe PDF file download of this hand-out here.
Root-Cellaring - Low-Tech Food Preservation
How to eat fresh in the cold months with low $ inputs
In the fall, before these coolers full of food go down into the actual root-cellar, they usually sit on the north side (the shady side, here in the northern hemisphere) of our house or in open shed. When nighttime temperatures are above freezing they are closed during daytime and opened a bit at night to allow them to cool down as much as possible. Later, as temperatures at night get below freezing, they are open during daytime and closed at night to keep them cool but prevent nighttime freezing. When daytime temperatures start to get down to freezing they go into a more protected environment, our sauna or ultimately a root-cellar.
If you can find a partner to help dig a large hole under your porch, a traditional root cellar becomes more possible. Here we see Larisa carving out a four by seven foot pit, about five feet deep, while Bob uses the 5-gallon plastic bucket to move the subsoil to another spot.
And here is Bob in a further stage of the construction process. 1.5-inch thick concrete patio blocks were tamped into place over a bed of about 2 inches of coarse crushed rock. Treated wood 2-by-6-inch frames were assembled with stainless steel screws and the assembled sections were dropped into the hole. The hole has been lined with water-permeable landscaping fabric. The space between the fabric and the treated wood was then back-filled with more crushed rock.
And here you can see the final framing of the upper edge. Extruded polyethylene foam has been around the edges and under the lip of the horizontal treated wood near the top. Braces have been added at the bottom to resist soil pressure that might bend the boards, and bracing has been put on top to suspend a heavily insulated floor and hinged hatch. Foam insulation was also laid flat 2 feet wide around the perimeter, since every foot of horizontal insulation corresponds to 2 feet of vertical insulation. Our average winter frost depth is around 6 feet, meaning that freezing temperatures could only be found at the bottom of the uninsulated floor, assuming there was no mass of food in the cellar to stabilize the internal temperature.
This is the insulated lid, shown inverted, with its treated 2-by-6-inch flooring installed over treated 1-by-6 sides. The insulation consists of 2 layers of 2-inch extruded polystyrene and 3 layers of "Reflectix", an aluminized mylar bubble-wrap. The right side is angled to allow such a thick door to easily clear the adjoining floor edge and swing down into place.
And here is the lid in place, with its large strap hinges and flush-mounted pull rings, propped open slightly so you can see it in relation to the rest of the floor. You can still see some of the foam and Reflectix insulation going into place.
Here is the beginning of the 3-season porch framing that covers the root cellar, including a clear polycarbonate roof and double-hung glass windows.
And finally, here is the porch, looking south, with young plants in clay planters, soaking up the last solar rays of the day. Beneath them, a few of next year's root crops are sleeping, waiting to generate their crop of seeds. The remaining roots will be eaten and greatly enjoyed over the winter.
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