Long before the age of mechanical refrigeration, people needed a way to keep food safely stored over the non-growing months of winter.
Among the oldest of those storage methods is the root cellar, an underground room that acts like a natural refrigerator maintaining temperatures in the mid-30 degrees Farenheit during the winter and mid-50s in the summer.
Fast forward to the present, and despite the never ending wave of new food storage appliances on the market, there are many small farms and home gardeners who prefer to do things the old fashioned way.
And whether it’s the harvest from a rural homestead or urban rooftop garden, there’s a root cellar-type storage system to match.
“I would say that most people think of a root cellar as a thing you need to dig out or that has to be an external building dug into the side of a hill,” Jason Lilley, sustainable agricultural professional with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said. “That is really not the case for most crops.”
What makes a good root cellar?
Root cellar type storage can be as elaborate as a separate, subterranean structure or as simple as a collection of rubber totes filled with peat moss, according to Lilley.
“When I teach about root cellaring storage, I put up a diagram of a house,” he said. “I have people look and think about their own homes.”
Lilley said he then has them identify places in their homes that are warm and dry, warm and moist, cool and dry and cool and moist — what he calls residential microclimates.
“Those four different microclimates fit the storage requirements for most fruits and vegetables,” he said.
Basements, he said, are a perfect example of those indoor microclimate variations.
“If you have a dug foundation it will likely be cool and moist down there,” Lilley said. “If your furnace is in the basement, it will likely be drier. You can use those microclimates around the house.”
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension service has an online fact sheet and guide that gives the recommended temperature and humidity storage conditions for just about every fruit or vegetable that grows in the state.
Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.
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