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As you prepare for another Alaska winter, here’s how to make a root cellar

The signs of winter are upon us. The World Series is happening. The Nelchina caribou season is open. And yes, there is snow on the ground. Some areas even have enough for snowmachines.

But are you ready for winter?

Do you have a root cellar? Root cellars are older than refrigeration. Wine cellars may be the vogue, but root cellars are a necessity.

What happens when the electricity goes down for an extended period? Or you might get a good buy on 50 pounds of potatoes or a 10-pound sack of carrots. Who has a refrigerator that big? Even if you did, your carrots would turn to rubber without the proper humidity.

Root cellars are normally dug underground below the frost line where the temperature stays low — 32-45 degrees F — and humid — 80-90% humidity. The temperature stops the growth of microorganisms and the humidity level prevents moisture loss.

The flavor of vegetables changes very little in a root cellar, and they retain their nutritional value. Squash, beets, potatoes, onions and apples all store well in a cellar.

You need not necessarily dig. You can turn a corner of the basement into a decent root cellar. Choose the dampest corner against an outside wall and insulate it from the rest of the room. Test the temperature with a thermometer to see if you can get it right, or at least close — 34 to 38 degrees with 85%-90% humidity is perfect. However, temperatures in the 40s are workable, though your vegetables may not last quite as long.

A number of folks have a garage corner that will work quite well as a makeshift storage area for vegetables. Another alternative method of root storage is a crate with a burlap liner. Put down a layer of damp sawdust, a layer of carrots, more sawdust, more carrots, etc. This method also works for beets, turnips and potatoes.

Some of the farmers in Trapper Creek near Talkeetna are able to leave their potatoes in the ground for much of the winter, provided the snow gets on the ground before the frost gets too deep.

The key is cool and moist.

When I was growing up in Anchorage — this was about the time dirt was invented — Dad grew potatoes on our homestead. We had a root cellar filled with several hundred tons of potatoes.

The cellar was dug into the ground on the southeast corner of O’Malley Road and the Old Seward Highway. It was a big, underground cellar with concrete walls and a couple of big insulated wood doors. The unsold portion of the potato crop was stored there. If you were to dig there, the cellar would still exist. The doors and roof were pulled but the walls remained and the hole was filled with gravel.

Unlike household refrigerators, the temperature in a cellar does not remain constant throughout the cellar. It will naturally be warmer at the top. Garlics and onions keep well at warmer temperatures; apples, carrots and potatoes like it cooler.

When you are designing your cellar, remember to add a couple of vents. Some fruits and vegetables release ethylene gas. Ethylene gas will damage some vegetables, including potatoes, carrots and cabbage to name a few.

Our house has a hole under the kitchen floor. The original purpose was to provide access to some water pipes. There was a little propane heater down there, and we took that out to make more room. And, Bob’s your uncle, a root cellar!

Our cellar is only about six feet deep and maybe four feet square, but that’s plenty of room for potatoes, carrots and turnips. Apples keep well also. The trap door has enough of a crack around it to suffice as a vent. The floor is dirt so we get the right amount of moisture. The winter temperature varies from the mid-30s to just more than 40 degrees.

You can go online and find some fairly grandiose plans for root cellars. However, most homes have a cool location quite suitable for long-term fruit and vegetable storage.

Remember the four basic requirements: Cool, humid, dark and ventilated. Achieve that and even though you may not have the classic cellar design, you will still be quite ready for the unpredictable winter to come.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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