Alternative food storage in Ashfield
Tom Leue of Ashfield helps Jonathan Jannery of Westfield bury a trash can at the Bullitt Reservation in Ashfield on Sunday for a root cellars and crop storage workshop. Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »
Bullitt Reservation property steward Emmett Van Driesche drops carrots into the new root cellar on Sunday at the end of the workshop with community members. Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »
Tom Leue of Ashfield helps dig a hole in the Bullitt Reservation garden on Sunday for the Root Cellar and crop storage workshop. Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »
ASHFIELD — If you have a garden of any size, now might be the time you’re thinking of what to do with excess produce. Burying it in a trash can in the backyard might be an option.
“What I want to encourage you to think about is ‘What’s the least I could do and still have good results?’” Bullitt Reservation steward Emmet Van Driesche told the large group turned out Sunday to learn about root cellars.
Root cellars are a pre-refrigeration solution to preserving a harvest into the winter, and therefore not starving. Potatoes, carrots, squash and other hardy plant foods can be kept until spring if insulated from the damaging cycle of freezing and thawing.
Problems storing carrots and beets from gardens and farm shares, nostalgic interest and a desire to leave the refrigerator unplugged were among the motives cited by the 25 people who gathered in the Bullitt Reservation garden despite the threat of rain.
Regulation of temperature, humidity and air circulation are the three basic precepts of root cellar storage, Van Driesche said, and careful use of a basement or even covering a dent in the ground with sacks of leaves could be a more efficient solution than constructing a root cellar.
Temperature should be kept between freezing and cold, 32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. “Thirty-two to 40 degrees is sort of that magic range where everything stays nice and crisp and juicy,” Van Driesche said. A minimum/maximum thermometer, a device that records temperature range, is helpful in this regard. Humidity should be kept relatively high, between 70 and 90 percent, with or without the aid of a hygrometer. Without the moisture measuring instrument, Van Driesche recommended sprinkling things with water if they started to look wrinkly. Air circulation keeps harmful gases from building up and regulates temperature, and can be as simple as opening the door every few days.
Sunday’s demonstration was of a simple but low-volume solution: a 10-gallon galvanized steel trash can with a fitted lid that Van Driesche said happened to be what he had on hand.
“Compare this amount that we’re storing and what your hopes and dreams are versus the expense of building a walk-in root cellar,” he said. The mini root cellar went under the footpath of what is, in winter, a greenhouse. Van Driesche recommended building at least a small structure over such a root cellar for insulation and easier access in the winter. On the other hand, he said his landlord keeps a stack of cabbage in a natural depression in his backyard, under feed bags full of leaves.
Two volunteers buried the can in a hole about eight inches deeper than the lid. Van Driesche wedged a circle of foam insulation traced and cut from a board of the stuff into the lid, and the small garden’s potatoes went in between layers of peat moss. The moss was, again, what Van Driesche said he had lying around, and damp but not sopping sand or sawdust or freshly fallen leaves could serve as well.
The potatoes should be only the healthiest, should be placed lightly and spaced loosely between insulating layers a half-inch thick. The vegetables should also be cured, he said. In the case of the potatoes, this meant being left out in the open for a morning after they were unearthed, hardening the skin. The lid goes on, bales of hay, sacks of leaves or similar are piled on top as further insulation and the owner opens the lid occasionally to check on the contents and take some for dinner. If the contents are beginning to wrinkle, add water. If it’s too warm, leave the lid open in the cold. Soil below the frost line stays around 52 degrees, he said, above the ideal temperature, so regulation is needed.
There are many other considerations. Not all vegetables keep well; apples can sour other vegetables they are kept next to; soil characteristics can weaken vegetables for storage. For those who wish to take a deeper look, Van Driesche recommends “Root Cellaring” by Mike and Nancy Bubel, “Your New Root Cellar” by Julie Fryer and “Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning” by the Gardeners of Terre Vivant.
Sunday’s talk was the last of the Bullitt Reservation gardening series for the year. Located at 332 Bullitt Road, the property is owned and managed for public use by the Trustees of Reservations.
You can reach Chris Curtis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 257