By Katie Gilman
Last week was our first experience with season extension via the root cellar at the Allegheny Mountain Farm. It was only appropriate that our first storage crop put into sandboxes was the beet, as it seems to have become part of the official new AMI logo. Our small but strong 2015 AMI cohort has endearingly adopted the beet as our mascot. We often find ourselves at the end of morning meetings shouting out “GO BEETS”, raising our morale and encouraging us to work hard and stay focused.
This year, our garden manager Emily decided on planting several different varieties of beets that are bred to be well adapted at storing over several months. Although we had quite a few set backs with beet germination, seedlings getting chomped by rabbits and groundhogs eating the roots later in development, we still managed to produce an impressive amount of beets to put up for next year’s cohort. In total we stored 30 pounds of beets and have consumed at least 30 pounds already in the kitchen. As an added bonus from the beets, we either cook up or freeze the hearty beet green leaves. Tastes like spinach!
WHAT IS A ROOT CELLAR?
Think COOL, DARK and MOIST. The original refrigerator.
Our root cellar is dug into a hill, providing insulation underground on all sides but one (where the entrance is located). Ideally this room will have even, cold temperatures. Variations up or down of even 5 degrees can cause new sprouting or rotting (which you don’t want to happen).
WHEN TO PULL ROOT CROPS OUT OF THE GROUND
The longer you wait to pull your root crops from the ground the sweeter they become.
Wait to pull until roots are fully mature and have developed a thick protective skin.
It’s best to pull crops from the ground after 2-3 days of dry weather.
Ideal storage temperature in your root cellar is 35 degrees Fahrenheit with 85 % humidity.
STORAGE PROCESS OF A BEET
Pull beet from dry ground.
Let all beets sunbathe for 2 hours. This will kill their root hairs making them go dormant. Soil on beets will then fall off easier.
Do not wash beets. This can be done just prior to eating. It’s also not necessary to thoroughly brush dirt off of beats. Dirt will serve as another layer of protection and insulation.
Cut beet green stems off 1 inch about the root. Save beet greens to sauté in your dinner!
Select only the best beets to store. Beets that have holes from pests or are heavily bruised should not be stored. They will rot easily and spread rot to other roots in your sandbox.
SANDBOX= large wooden box with no lid.
We fill a 1 inch layer or sand on the bottom of the sandbox. Add a layer of beets. Beets can be touching but not packed in tightly. Add another layer of sand, just enough so you can no longer see the previous layer of beets. Repeat process until the box is almost full. Ensure that there is another 1-2 inch layer of sand on the very top of the sandbox.
You can improvise if you can’t obtain wooden sandboxes- cardboard, trashcans and trash bags will all accomplish the same thing.
Sawdust and peat moss can also take the place of sand. Whichever substance you choose, you want it to be slightly moist.
Place beets that may not keep as well on top so they are easier to access. It is best to pull/cull the beets that store least well first and eat. This will lessen the probability of them rotting and spreading rot to other beets.
INTERESTED IN CREATED YOUR OWN ROOT CELLAR?
1-Two are Keeping the Harvest, by Nancy Chioffi and Gretchen Mead
2- Root Cellaring, by Mike and Nancy Bubel
3- The United States Department of Agriculture publishes a series of free home-building booklets.
Nick Wittkofski reenacting a scene from Raiders of the Lost Arc.