You’ve spent all summer eating from your garden, eating what is in season and, as a result, eating healthfully. But just because your vegetable-garden year has come to an end with the recent freeze does not mean you have to stop eating that good food. With a bit of work, you can store the produce you have grown – or bought at bargain prices at the end of the season – in your own home.

I’m not talking about frozen or canned vegetables, or jams, but about the low-energy storage used before refrigerators were placed in every kitchen – root cellars.

Despite the name, you don’t need a cellar, although having one makes it easier. All you need is a dark, unheated space in your home. It can be a closet, an unused bedroom, a porch or part of a garage.

Here are some rules to get you started.

First, never store fruits and vegetables in the same space. Fruit, such as apples, gives off ethylene gas, which makes vegetables ripen faster – and with a root cellar, the idea is to slow ripening.

Second, use top-quality fruit, with no insect damage or bruising. The phrase “one rotten apple spoils the barrel” may be metaphorical, but its origins are literal. One rotten apple (or vegetable) really can spoil the rest.


Third, understand that different vegetables have different storage requirements. Some require cold – as close to 32 degrees as possible – moist conditions. Some want cool, about 40 degrees, moist conditions. Onions and garlic want cool, dry conditions. A few want warm, dry conditions.

Cornell University has a useful sheet that describes which vegetables fit into which category. (Find it at, search for “Storage Guidelines for Fruits & Vegetables.”)

Most modern basements, where a furnace burner is likely to operate, are too warm for storing cool or cold vegetables.

For my own root cellar, I combine both cool and cold types in the same space. I can’t control temperature that well, so I just keep them as cool as possible without letting them freeze.

To create a root cellar, build a separate room in a corner of the cellar, insulating it well, providing a door for access and some ventilation. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Cheap and used material works fine. When company comes calling, they will probably never see it.

I use a bulkhead for my root cellar. It has foam insulation on top of the concrete on which the steel bulkhead structure sits and wooden doors separating the bulkhead from the rest of the basement. This is where we store potatoes, carrots and leeks and could store cabbage, Brussels sprouts, beets, parsnips, rutabagas and winter radishes if we grew enough of them or found bargains and bought in bulk at the farmers market at the end of the growing season.


We also keep a 5-gallon bucket of water there as protection to keep the vegetables from freezing. The moisture in vegetables has a lower freezing temperature than fresh water, just as saltwater freezes at a lower temperature. The 5-gallon bucket of water not only adds moisture to the space, it serves as a warning system. When the water freezes, the vegetables are getting close to freezing.

When I took a class on root cellars about five years ago from Richard Brzozowski, a cooperative extension educator for Cumberland County, he said the act of the water freezing helps hold the air temperature above the vegetables’ freezing point. Don’t ask me to explain the science behind that.

When the water in the pail begins to freeze, usually when it’s 10 degrees outside, I crack open the wooden doors a bit to let in warmth from the basement.

An unheated room or closet would be easy to use. Just block the light and keep the area above, but close to, 32 degrees.

If you choose an unheated porch or garage, you should add the pail of water and insulate well to keep the vegetables from freezing.

All fruits, according to the Cornell list, require cold or cool and moist conditions. Apples and pears, the two fruits you are most likely to see in a Maine root cellar, want temperatures as close to 32 degrees as possible. If you are going to store them and vegetables, you will need two separate areas – one for fruit, the other for vegetables.


For a cool, dry space for onions, I use the basement, not the bulkhead. I hang them in a mesh bag in a corner as far away from the furnace as possible. It’s not as cool as the 32 degrees Cornell recommends, but it is dry and the onions are usually good until March or April.

Winter squash prefers temperatures of about 55 degrees, and dryness, so the basement stairway is perfect. Sweet potatoes like about the same temperature, but a bit more humid.

This year our potatoes did very well, so we should have some in our root cellar until early May – when I again start using the bulkhead to haul equipment outside. When our own crop was smaller, I used to buy 50-pound bags of potatoes at a fraction of supermarket prices to store. You can do that with other vegetables as well.

It’s a way to save money and eat local – both outstanding goals.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

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