When the starry fall nights begin to dust the garden in a light frost, its time to begin closely monitoring the weather. If you live in a climate that produces light frosts for at least several weeks, most of your root vegetables will benefit from being left in the ground. A bit of winter chill sweetens most of ’em! If leaving out for this sweetening, I highly recommend banking your vegetables as extra insurance and a protection. Unless you took time to do this early in the garden year, most of your root vegetables will be at least partially showing above ground (parsnips are often the exception).
As as precautionary measure, I recommending covering those tops with soil! Fill a 5 gallon bucket with dirt and dump the contents directly on top of your root vegetables. Repeat until the vegetables are covered by 2 inches of soil. The greens may be smashed down; that is ok! Fluff them back up and through the dirt if concerned or if leaving in the garden for several more weeks. This technique won’t save the roots if a hard frost comes, but should be adequate for just-below freezing temperatures and ensures that your vegetables will be good for indoor storage.
You can also cover them with a thick layer of loose straw or with whole bales. Be aware with the cold coming and a good supply of food in the thawed earth, mice may take up residence in your vegetable row! And yes, they do and will eat your vegetables!
I recommend banking most of your root vegetables, but the is one exception: your beets. Beets ought to be the first to go into cold storage. Don’t bother banking them. When the cold comes, get ’em out of the garden because they don’t like the cold weather at all! Their greens will quickly decay. If rot travels down the stem and into the roots, you suddenly have blemished produce whose storage life is significantly shortened. Plus, those spots must be cut away and it takes so much more work!
Beets that are dry on the outside (without moist soil clinging to ’em) can be kept in plastic bags on a cold floor. They are one of the few vegetables that can be successfully kept in this manner. Be certain to use beets free from stem rot or decay. Or, as with the other vegetables, they can be layered with soil in a bucket or container.
When your first, long cold snap is in the weather forecast, the race is on! If you have had a noticeably wet fall, you will want to have previously set soil aside in buckets for drying. Soil should be damp and cold, but not wet or clumpy. Filling bins and 5 gallon buckets, set the soil aside 1-2 weeks in advance. Be sure to keep it cold and in a covered area, free of rain or moisture.
You’ll also need boxes or bins of your choosing to store the vegetables in. Make certain they are sturdy and strong, can handle the weight of soil and vegetables. We use rubbermaid totes for this! They work well.
Dig up vegetables and trim the tops as outlined in this post. When through, pour a layer of soil into the bottom of your storage container. Make it at least 1 inch thick. Place down a single layer of vegetables, with space between each so that they aren’t touching. Cover with soil until the thickest vegetable is covered by 1 inch of dirt. Put down another layer of the same vegetable. I recommend keeping only 2-3 layers of vegetables in each bin. Finish off with a good, thick layer of soil.
Move your storage containers to the cold room, or, if you layered ’em in it, move them to the coldest location in the room. Store on the opposite side of your produce that needs dry storage for a long life. Depending on your temperatures and moisture levels, vegetables will keep anywhere from 2-8 months. In truth, the cold room isn’t necessarily ideal for root vegetables as they do best in very high humidity. In real root cellars, folks most often spread a wet substance on the floor to keep the room at 85%-90% humidity. Most of us don’t have the idea situation and are doing the best we can. Even if you get 4 months of eating from your cold room, I’d say its a worthwhile endeavor!