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Food Storage: Grandma's Way!

Green Lifestyle  (tags: conservation, eco-friendly, Sustainabililty, energy, environment, food )

- 3752 days ago -
The space itself is nothing special: Whitewashed granite walls run the width and depth of the room, five metres by 18 metres. A forgotten owner tried to put in a cement floor, but the dirt, which takes a long-term view of things, is stubbornly coming back


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Janet S (231)
Tuesday November 11, 2008, 11:07 am
"Backyard gardeners are discovering the benefit of root cellars"

NEW YORK — In a strictly technical sense, Cynthia Worley is not transforming her basement into a time machine. Yet what’s going on this harvest season beneath her Harlem brownstone on 122nd Street, at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, is surely something out of the past — or perhaps the future.

The space itself is nothing special: Whitewashed granite walls run the width and depth of the room, five metres by 18 metres. A forgotten owner tried to put in a cement floor, but the dirt, which takes a long-term view of things, is stubbornly coming back. "It’s basically a sod floor," Worley said.

What’s important is that the shelves are sturdy, because Cynthia Worley and her husband, Haja Worley, will soon load them with nine kilograms of potatoes, nine kilograms of onions, 14 kilograms of butternut and acorn squash, 10 heads of cabbage, 60-odd pints of home-canned tomatoes and preserves, nine gallons of berry and fruit wines, and another gallon or two of mulberry vinegar.

The goodies in the pint jars and the carboys come from the Joseph Daniel Wilson Memorial Garden, which the Worleys founded across the street. The fresh produce is a huge final delivery from a Community Supported Agriculture farm in Orange County, which they used all summer. Packed in sand and stored at 55 degrees, the potatoes should keep at least until the New Year. The squash could still be palatable on Groundhog Day, and the onions should survive till spring. Cynthia Worley, who counsels and teaches adults for the New York City Department of Education, and Haja Worley, a neighbourhood organizer and radio engineer, will let their basement-deprived friends store vegetables too.

The Worleys, like a number of other North Americans, have made the seemingly anachronistic choice to turn their basement into a root cellar. While Cynthia Worley’s brownstone basement stash won’t feed the couple through the winter, she said, "I think it’s a healthy way to go and an economical way."

According to a September survey on consumer anxieties over higher fuel and food prices from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, 34 per cent of respondents said that they were likely to raise more of their own vegetables. Another 37 per cent said they were likely to can or freeze more of their food. The cousin to canning and freezing is the root cellar.

"I’ve been doing local food work for a long time," said Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center, who conducted the study. "And I’m seeing an increase in articles in various sustainable ag newsletters about root cellaring."

According to Bruce Butterfield, the research director for the National Gardening Association, a trade group, home food preservation typically increases in a rotten economy. In 2002, the close of the last mild recession, 29 million households bought supplies for freezing, drying, processing and canning. Last year that number stood at only 22 million — a figure Butterfield said he expects to rise rapidly.

Root cellars have long been the province of Midwestern grandmothers, back-to-the-landers and committed survivalists. But given the nation’s budding romance with locally produced food, they also appeal to the backyard gardener, who may have a fruit tree that drops a bigger bounty every year while the refrigerator remains the same size.

While horticulture may be a science, home food storage definitely can carry the stench of an imperfect art. According to the essential 1979 book, Root Cellaring, by Mike and Nancy Bubel, some items like cabbage and pears do best in a moist environment below 40 degrees (though above freezing). To achieve this, a cellar probably needs to be vented, or have windows that open. Winter squash and sweet potatoes should be kept dry and closer to 50 degrees — perhaps closer to the furnace.

Other rules of root cellaring sound more like molecular gastronomy. For example, the ethylene gas that apples give off will make carrots bitter. As a general principle, keeping produce in a cool chamber that is beneath the frost line — the depth, roughly 1.2 metres down, below which the soil doesn’t freeze — can slow both the normal process of ripening and the creeping spread of bacterial and fungal rot. These are the forces that will turn a lost tomato in the back of the cupboard into a little lagoon of noxious goo.

Harriet Fasenfest, 55, who lives in Portland, Ore., has been playing with her food for a long time. A semiretired restaurateur, she started "hacking up" her small city lot in the Alberta Art District to grow food. (Her husband asked, "Where will we play Frisbee?" and Fasenfest replied, "The park.") She also teaches classes on canning and created the Web site

There is no digging a dry refuge from the seep and suck of a Portland winter. So in lieu of a traditional cellar, she applies the scientific method. "Last year I tried an experiment with four different varieties of apples," she said, "to see how long it took them to rot. So I put them in a box in my shed and then they rotted. It worked!"

When she’s not filling her three-metre-by-three-metre shed, she experiments in the cubbyholes that sit alongside the outdoor cellar stairs. Copra onions, Fasenfest has found, store better than Walla Wallas. An indoor heating vent can cure butternut squash so effectively that it can probably last in cold storage until the economy turns around (whenever that is). Nevertheless, even those who rhapsodize about the pleasures of eating locally grown food year-round have to admit that the effort doesn’t always seem worthwhile. Fasenfest has been forced to conclude that the labour that went into growing and storing the 14 kilograms of russet potatoes now beneath the stairwell was not really adequate to the reward. "If we had to survive off of those," she said, "we’d be dead."

Isn't this a GREAT idea? see--alll those Krazee people building bomb shelters and stocking them with food managed to pay off in the long run...hehe

Laurie W (189)
Tuesday November 11, 2008, 12:13 pm
Excellant article..thanks Janet. Although I do alot of the same since moving I do not have the right setup..and I remember well the covered small grass covered hill to the sides of relatives homes.behind the wooden drop doors they stored away root crops, and in the summer it was this shelter that was utilized when torando season hit.Also a nother tidbit I picked up while living in northern michigan..digging a hole in the ground, drop down a plastic clean garbage the carrots etc in this. once the lid is on the produce will not freeze if buried below the frost line.

Past Member (0)
Tuesday November 11, 2008, 12:29 pm
Awesome article. Thanks for this submission Janet.

Marion Y (322)
Tuesday November 11, 2008, 1:02 pm
"Packed in sand and stored at 55 degrees, the potatoes should keep at least until the New Year."

Excellent tips!! Thank you Janet!

Michael O (1647)
Tuesday November 11, 2008, 1:41 pm
Janet thanks I have a under ground cellar we store our can foods and potatoes and it really helps out for winter. Michael

David G (155)
Tuesday November 11, 2008, 5:37 pm
We have an old fashioned larder or walk in pantry with sandstone shelves built into the North Side of the never gets the sun and stays cool all year round...we bottle, preserve, dry and store produce from the garden and it feeds us all crunch...not here. the land feeds us as we look after it with the help of local cows who donate their offerings every second year with home grown compost in the in-between-year.

Nothing old fashioned about was how we all lived before supermarkets arrived...wish they would go away again too.

Rachel Markel (27)
Tuesday November 11, 2008, 9:59 pm
Great article, as an urban farmer I am revisiting my grandmothers practices of living off the land. I also belong to the Yahoo Homesteaders Group, I am amazed at just how many people are going back to the basics or in some cases never strayed. I have learned so much and the group boasts several experts who graciously answer everyones questions. What's even better is that we have more research now then ever before on organic methods and composting and plant based herbicides.

Phyllis Meadows (2)
Wednesday November 12, 2008, 12:59 pm
we are moving to FL. Anyone have any suggestions for there since a root cellar I don't think is possible. Thanks
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