How to Store Root Vegetables in Boxes in a Cellar

Big Fella, Yes?

Here is the first turnip I got out of my garden this summer. One week, nothing...the next, I had a bunch pushing their shoulders through the soil, and begging to be pulled.
Here is the first turnip I got out of my garden this summer. One week, nothing...the next, I had a bunch pushing their shoulders through the soil, and begging to be pulled.

The Main Idea

Keeping root vegetables in a cellar or in piles of straw used to be a common way of looking ahead and providing fresh produce for one's family throughout the winter. Though the practice is no longer common, it is simple, and I'll show you how to keep various kinds of vegetables and tubers fresh for several weeks or months.

The principle of the thing is simple: Cover the vegetables with something that will stay damp (not wet), and make them feel like they are resting in the ground, waiting to be used.

This requires only a few things:

  • A cellar, or cool basment
  • Cardboard boxes of any appropriate size for the vegetables you have
  • Root vegetables or potatoes
  • Filler. Most things besides potatoes do well with peat moss, sand, or wood chips (be careful, certain types of chips can be toxic, so check first). Potatoes do best with newspaper.
  • A spray bottle or squirt bottle with plain¬†water in it

You will want to rub the dirt off potatoes before storing them, but most other things, such as beets or carrots, can be left dirty, and in most cases, should be. I usually pack my vegetables in their boxes straight out of the garden, supposing I'm not using them for dinner that evening. Vegetables should have two or three inches of top left on them, as this keeps them from drying out and deteriorating quickly. If you accidentally remove all but a stub of stalks and leaves, you should eat the vegetable soon, rather than storing it.

Examples From My Cellar

This is a very nice root cellar. It was designed with the total needs of the farm in mind, so has lots of room for canned goods, as well as fresh. The boxes in the center all contain beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes.
This is a very nice root cellar. It was designed with the total needs of the farm in mind, so has lots of room for canned goods, as well as fresh. The boxes in the center all contain beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes.
This box has turnips and rutabagas. It is normal for the plants to continue to grow a bit during warm weather, but they should not grow out of the boxes and use all the roots' energy. I used wood chips from a planer to cover them.
This box has turnips and rutabagas. It is normal for the plants to continue to grow a bit during warm weather, but they should not grow out of the boxes and use all the roots' energy. I used wood chips from a planer to cover them.
This box contains beets, and is filled with peat moss. Like the sawdust, it is kept damp. If your filler dries up, your root vegetables will too. The boxes are normally kept closed, and the cellar is usually quite dark.
This box contains beets, and is filled with peat moss. Like the sawdust, it is kept damp. If your filler dries up, your root vegetables will too. The boxes are normally kept closed, and the cellar is usually quite dark.

Instructions for Root Vegetables (not Potatoes)

Prepare the boxes by spreading a thin layer of filler in the bottom. Add a layer of vegetables. I lay them in according to their shape - carrots lie prone, turnips stand up. Cover this first layer of vegetables with more filler, then add another layer of vegetables, and so on, to the top of the box. Be sure you have moistened the filler as necessary (think of it like a humidifier, not a bath), then close up the box, and you're done!

You will want to check your vegetables periodically for softening, drying out, or other signs of deterioration. Beets are the most notorious in my cellar for shriveling after a few months, but they can still be used. You can revive them somewhat by putting them in simmering water, skins and all, but they are often too soft to allow the skins to slip properly. Surprisingly, it doesn't seem to matter much, and my family has never complained about late winter beets, provided they have been scrubbed well.

Unless the vegetables were frozen at some point before being put in the cellar, you should not experience problems with outright spoilage.

The box filler(s) can usually be used for many seasons.

Instructions for Potatoes

Prepare boxes by spreading a few sheets of newspaper in the bottom.
Prepare boxes by spreading a few sheets of newspaper in the bottom.
Rub the dirt off the potatoes.
Rub the dirt off the potatoes.
Even children can help with this, and more hands make the work lighter.
Even children can help with this, and more hands make the work lighter.
Organize potatoes according to size or type, if you wish. We had three varieties and three size divisions. Add paper between layers.
Organize potatoes according to size or type, if you wish. We had three varieties and three size divisions. Add paper between layers.
We put only the largest and middle sized potatoes in boxes, and kept the smallest handy for eating whole. Some of these will go into the ground next spring.
We put only the largest and middle sized potatoes in boxes, and kept the smallest handy for eating whole. Some of these will go into the ground next spring.

What Happens to Neglected Cellar Residents

No, this is not a tentacled creature spontaneously developed in the depths of the cellar. It is a potato.
No, this is not a tentacled creature spontaneously developed in the depths of the cellar. It is a potato.
See? There are actually 19 small potatoes in this box, left from last fall.
See? There are actually 19 small potatoes in this box, left from last fall.
These potatoes did not heed our plans to conserve our crop until this fall's should be grown. Apparently, they are restless, and can't dream of resting.
These potatoes did not heed our plans to conserve our crop until this fall's should be grown. Apparently, they are restless, and can't dream of resting.
Here is a specimen showing off his beautiful rosy tail of a root. He's quite spectacular, wouldn't you say? Surprisingly, most of the potato flesh remained firm and edible.
Here is a specimen showing off his beautiful rosy tail of a root. He's quite spectacular, wouldn't you say? Surprisingly, most of the potato flesh remained firm and edible.

Preparing Potatoes for Storage

© 2009 ButterflyWings

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Comments 13 comments

Michele in NH 5 years ago

Thanks for the information and including pictures. My dad always layers his vegetables too. I just couldn't remember what he put in sand and what he layered with newspapers. I will be storing turnip and carrots. Next year I an adding potatoes to the mix. Thanks so much!


EK 5 years ago

I liked the article and photos a lot. One thing that seemed missing is a description of how to deal with other things that might want to eat the veggies and/or nest in the boxes. I am pretty sure that any cardboard box I fill with nice nesting material and lovely food will be attractive to mice. What are good ways to address this?


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ButterflyWings 5 years ago Author

Michele, you're welcome, and happy root cellaring! I have had good success with both turnips and carrots, for up to six or seven months.

I hope your potato crop of next year is spectacular! :)


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ButterflyWings 5 years ago Author

EK, you're right, a description of how to deal with mice and other critters is missing. This is because I have never had any particular trouble with them in this cellar. However, I am now using a second one in which I am experiencing difficulties. I have had fairly large quantities of summer squash, set on a shelf, be quietly nibbled away.

I have read in root cellaring literature how to rodent-proof your cellar with a tight-sealing door, etc., but sufficient preventive measures are not always possible. If you don't wish to share with the mice, you'd better set out a table just for them. That is, invest in some Blue Death or a similar mouse poison, and sprinkle it generously where they will be sure to find and sample it. In this way, I have been able to save most of the produce for us, and have also cut down on the messes the little beasties leave, as they weren't content just to go for things in the open, but insisted on eating paper labels, knocking empty jars off the shelves, and generally creating havoc.

Good luck, and if you find another satisfactory method of dealing with unwanted guests, please share it here.


timothy seeley 5 years ago

i have a home made root cellar on the side of the house gets to colsd in winter and to hot in summer block laid 10 by 12 6 inches foam insulation in ceiling outside backfulled 6inch vent in and out any suggestions thjanks tim


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ButterflyWings 5 years ago Author

Timothy, I am not really a builder, but I may pass the question on to the man who made the cellar used in the photos.

I actually have a similar cellar to yours, and it stays too warm during most of the year for some of the uses I had planned, but it works well for many aging cheeses (a hobby), and excellent for winter squashes, so I hesitate to modify it much.


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ButterflyWings 5 years ago Author

This is BW's builder friend -

Not exactly sure what too cold or too hot means.

I would suggest to cut down on the ventilation, (just enough to keep the moisture down, (your pulling in to much out side temps via vents),for the earth to keep up with,

second, question is how far down does your foam insulation on the side of the cellar walls go? I would only go down to frost line, as your trying to use the earth heat/cooling to keep the cellar at working temps, if you have the insulation all the way to the bottom of the wall, all you have is the floor to use the earth heat/cool,

On my cellar I have no insulation, and only earth back fill, on a 4" foot block wall, and the roof is 12 foot Diameter. 1/4 thick steel tank cut in half, and I do have a 6" vent in and a 4" with a wind powered ventilator on it, and have not had it freeze or get past about 55 in the summer (maybe 60 in the very hot of the summer, (above 100 temps), about 16" of dirt on the top at the most, more of course on the sides of the curved roof,

mine is 12' by about 20',

getting back to temperatures Mine ranges from just above freezing from below zero out side air temps to 60 maybe 60+ on days that are over 100+ out side temps,

on the cold side a little heater could be thermostatic controlled to turn on in the cold of winter, if the vents were adjusted down some most likely would not cost much, and if all else fails a small AC, for the hot of summer with the insulation you have it should not take much,


Denise 4 years ago

couldn't dark colored plastic totes be used to keep out the mice?


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ButterflyWings 3 years ago Author

Not for storing vegetables in...not enough air circulation. These boxes would have a tendency to rot the vegetables.


momiostar 3 years ago

deter mice from coming in with moth balls. They don't like the smell, and will avoid the area. Place near door opening or where ever they come in.


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ButterflyWings 3 years ago Author

Momiostar, this would certainly work if the mice are only coming in in a few known locations. Herbs like peppermint and rosemary also typically work well, but must be replaced periodically.


marie 2 years ago

This is a great article. I am wondering what kind of wood you use from your planer. We plane pine, spruce, ash, birch and cedar.


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ButterflyWings 2 years ago Author

Mostly pine, with possibly a bit of oak here and there.

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