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How to Store Root Vegetables in Boxes in a Cellar: Illustrated Guide

Joilene has been gardening and preserving food of all kinds for many years, and she thrives on the creativity involved in these processes.

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

Stockpiles of Vegetables in Straw and Cellars

Keeping root vegetables in a cellar or piles of straw has once again become a homesteader's way of looking ahead and providing fresh produce for one's family throughout the winter. This practice is simple, and I'll show you how to keep various kinds of vegetables and tubers fresh for several weeks or months.

How to Store Root Vegetables in a Cellar or Basement

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 or grown. This requires only a few things:

  • A cellar or cool basement
  • Cardboard boxes of any appropriate size for the vegetables you have on hand
  • 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 filled with plain water

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 the 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 cellar. It was designed with the total needs of the farm in mind, so it has lots of room for canned and fresh goods. The boxes in the center contain beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes.

This is a very nice cellar. It was designed with the total needs of the farm in mind, so it has lots of room for canned and fresh goods. The boxes in the center 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 out, 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 out, 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 and 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. In the end, 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, being careful of delicate skins.

Rub the dirt off the potatoes, being careful of delicate skins.

Children can help with the cleaning stage, and more hands make the work lighter.

Children can help with the cleaning stage, 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 keep the smallest handy for eating whole. Some of these shown here will go into the ground next spring.

We put only the largest and middle-sized potatoes in boxes and keep the smallest handy for eating whole. Some of these shown here will go into the ground next spring.

What Happens to Neglected Potatoes

The photo gallery below shows the effects of time on potatoes that have been stored and then neglected.

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 season's should be grown. Apparently, they are restless and decided to try to reproduce without soil or sunlight.

These potatoes did not heed our plans to conserve our crop until this season's should be grown. Apparently, they are restless and decided to try to reproduce without soil or sunlight.

The tubers barely show amidst all this mess of shoots.

The tubers barely show amidst all this mess of shoots.

Here is a specimen showing off his beautiful rosy tail of a shoot. 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 shoot. He's quite spectacular, wouldn't you say? Surprisingly, most of the potato flesh remained firm and edible.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you use cedar shavings to pack carrots and beets for storage in a cellar, or is it toxic?

Answer: I've used pine shavings without any noticeable problems, but this may not be the same difference. I'd play it safe and use something else if you can.

Question: My cucumbers have a lot of all-female flowers, but only one in 15 provided fruit. Do you know why?

Answer: I imagine the flowers were poorly pollinated. Also, cucumbers can be temperamental, with one variety going crazy and another doing virtually nothing, a few feet apart. Sometimes there doesn't seem to be a good explanation. I've had excellent luck with Marketmore 76, and variable luck with many other varieties, but this could be incredibly subjective. If I think of anything else, I'll let you know.

Question: Can I use a pop crate lined with paper, then a layer of pine shavings, then the potatoes, then more pine shavings to cover, along with alternate stacking?

Answer: This method is probably okay to do, as long as your storage area is not very dry. Otherwise your produce may get dried out too quickly.

© 2009 Joilene Rasmussen