Here’s a ‘green’ gardening tip to make a root cellar to store our garden produce over winter without electricity or a cellar. Textbooks tell us to keep hard fruit and vegetables in ‘a dry dark cool place just above freezing’. Problem is, cellars and cool places rarely exist in today’s urban centrally-heated homes.
So one year I stored a glut of potatoes in my unheated greenhouse – in a disused chest freezer. Didn’t the freezer condense the humidity from the potatoes and rot them? No, because I’d layered the potatoes and lined the freezer with thick wads of newspaper. We were still eating (near) perfect potatoes nine months later.
You can create your own root cellar in any outdoor area, even in the city, using a discarded freezer or refrigerator. And if you don’t have garage space, perhaps you can press your unheated greenhouse into a new use?
I suspect that most gardeners use their unheated greenhouse just half of the year. In temperate climes, it comes into its own only from spring onward when it doubles as a cold frame to harden off plants or grow on the delicate seedlings we’ve germinated under our bed.
By June, it’s full and by August our cucumbers are growing out of the roof. After October, it becomes a sanctuary for old grow bags, empty flowerpots and a child’s bicycle.
Textbook authors tell us that we could grow lettuces and Chinese leaves, and a lot more, throughout winter in an unheated greenhouse. We could force rhubarb, strawberries and new potatoes for Christmas, just by putting in a little ceramic heater to keep out the frost. But do we do it?
Meanwhile, if we’ve been diligent elsewhere in the garden we have several bagfuls of potatoes, carrots, onions and other embarrassing gluts to store safely through the winter.
Solution? Turn your greenhouse – at least, part of it – into a vegetable storage area, a root cellar.
Take a large discarded freezer or tall refrigerator. You’ll find them at city recycling yards, either free or for a few dollars to the site attendant. Put one in the center aisle of your greenhouse, laid on its back.
Remove and retain any interior trays or shelves. They make excellent pots or trellises for next season. Put back the lid and prop it open one inch for ventilation. Be sure to disable the lock, of course, if there’s any risk that children or old people may play hide and seek in there. You now have the perfect insulated winter storage box for tubers, hard fruits and anything else you’d keep in a root cellar.
Pack tubers in dry compost, ancient leaves, straw, wood shavings or sand. Apples and pears do well in dried marestail fronds or bracken, in my experience. And check the contents regularly to remove anything that’s starting to rot.
It Doubles as a Cold Frame
If your freezer ‘root cellar’ is in a greenhouse and you’ve eaten the contents by early spring, the freezer can do extra service as a cold frame. Remove the lid, put pots of compost inside and grow extra-early peppers and tomatoes. Their roots gain the benefit of the wall insulation and the freezer’s white interior will reflect light back onto the plants.
Indeed, you could take the white lid off and lean it along the darkest side of your greenhouse in spring to throw welcome light back onto the plants.
What an asset is a dead freezer, when re-used as a root cellar! And how useful a cold greenhouse becomes, when it is equipped with a freezer!
Dr John Yeoman, MA Oxon, MRes, MPhil, PhD, lectures in creative writing at a UK university. He is the founder of Writers’ Village – the premium site for short fiction contests and coaching programs.