Goodness, goodness, it happens every year: As things seem to be humming along, after summertime rolls through with its warm gusts, green gussy, and sunny sashay, and we’ve come to take it for granted, the leaves start dropping. Autumn is upon us, and within mere weeks, it’ll be full-on sweater weather, tempting us all to get out the coats, gather around the radiator, and pass around stories about the good old days when our gardens were vibrant and full of food. Just dripping with produce, someone will probably recall.

Okay, perhaps that is a bit fantastical, a smidge hopeful on the grow-your-own-food front, but it doesn’t fail to grasp the reality that, with winter, for those of us above the frost line, comes a time of productive dormancy. Vegetable harvests just won’t come like they used to, and so, as we seek to buy locally, reduce our food miles and eat real food, we should revisit the days of the past when people shrewdly stocked up for the winter, making the most of their harvest. Primarily focusing on root vegetables.

None of It Matters Without Getting in Touch With Your Roots

If you’re looking to incorporate more root vegetables into your diet in keeping with the season, here are a few things to put on the shopping list: beets, carrots, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, parsnips, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips. All of these can keep for months. Look in fall farmer’s markets, or better to even visit nearby farms to get them in bulk for good deals.

To store root vegetables, there are a few rules of preparation. It’s good form not to wash them first and to remove the greens and stems. This will prevent them from rotting. If possible, harvest them (or buy them) after a few rainless days and leave them out in the sun for a few hours to subdue the root hairs, making the vegetables dormant. Don’t include anything with an apparent bug or rot damage (and check for this when visiting the storage bin as well). Lastly, more mature roots tend to have tougher skin, which will help them keep longer.

The Right Condition for Root Vegetables

Once you’ve prepped your vegetables, the question of how best to preserve them arises. Most vegetables take well to pickling, canning, dehydrating, and freezing. This can work for roots as well; however, under the right conditions, the resistant root vegetable can be kept as-is for several months without rotting or sprouting, or turning to mush. It’s all about giving them a little space in which to chill.

Firstly, it’s fixing the temperature. When stored just above freezing, that 32-40-degree range, root vegetables will simply wait patiently for us, keeping their crispness and resisting rot. The fridge has just the right conditions for this, but realistically, we don’t have enough space to store a winter’s worth of root vegetables in there. We’ll address that issue in a moment.

The second big concern is water. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean we have to continue some sort of water regiments, but roots do like to rest in moist environments, with humidity levels approaching the ninety-fifth percentile.  Again, we all know fridges as being fairly full of condensation, but seriously, who has a walk-in fridge in their house?

The Right Space for Root Vegetables

So, where exactly are these cold, damp places in the average root-storers home? Other than appropriately named root cellars, which we’ll assume readers of this article do not have, other viable storage spots include basements (in colder climates), garages and under decks, possibly porches or balconies in a pinch, anywhere that isn’t heated but also doesn’t experience deep freezes. Experiment with thermometers to find the best spot available.

Since we are dealing with this in the simplest way possible, not trying to regulate temperature and moisture via machine, this is what we need: A box. That’s right. Find a crate, an ice chest, a plastic bin, or even a cardboard jobbie in some cases. Classically, adding peat moss as an insulator helps to regulate the temperature, but sustainably speaking, it’s better to try out alternatives like PittMoss, coconut coir, or even sand. Cover the veg in whatever and leave the lid off the box so that everything can breathe.

For those with yards, a quick-and-easy root cellar can be created by digging a hole that reaches below the frost line (about a foot down, but varies depending on the region – you can find yours in a quick Google search). Then, insert plastic or watertight, rodent-proof bins full of root veggies. Fill the rest of the hole with an insulator before capping the hole with a piece of plywood or a repurposed wooden pallet. Grab a few pounds of stuff at a time to keep in your DIY fridge.

So buying and preserving root vegetables for the season – why not, right? It’s a cheap experiment that might help with the ecological and economic efforts of conscious shoppers looking to do their part. This may just add to us all lessening our footprint.

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