Your Small Kitchen Garden catches up with a series of posts about what went on in the garden this season while the kitchen gardener (Daniel) was busy writing his book Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry it, Too.
Perhaps one of the coolest places I’ve ever toured, this commercial potato storage facility holds a temperature of 40 degrees from autumn through late spring—without modern refrigeration. A heap of potatoes actually generates heat, so large ventilation pipes run through the potato bin to carry in cold air at night (in the fall and spring), or whenever needed during the winter.
While I manage a small kitchen garden, I convince it to grow way more food than we can possibly eat during the growing season. To handle the extra, I can some, freeze some more, and leave even more to look after itself on my dining room floor. What I don’t do well is put up root vegetables in a cold store.
Cold Store Technology
Many home cold storage facilities are brilliant applications of super-low tech. These are basement rooms or separately-dug pits that homeowners can load with potatoes, carrots, turnips, and cabbages to keep for many months after harvest. The trick for such cold storage is that a window or vent of some sort is available to let in cold air; from mid fall to early spring, occasional venting on cold nights can maintain the temperature below 40F degrees.
Why put a cold store underground? So surrounding soil provides insulation. This simple strategy requires no artificial refrigeration, no circulating fans, no special plumbing… no additional load of any type on the environment. And, it’s amazingly effective.
Cold Store Central
While planning my book about preserving food, I expected to have no problem finding local root cellars and other cold storage facilities to photograph. The high population of Amish and Mennonite families in central PA suggests there must be hundreds of active root cellars within a few miles of my house.
You don’t have to wander far in central Pennsylvania to find springhouses. A springhouse is a small structure built over a stream, a well, or a spring. Before mechanized refrigeration, people extended the life of meat, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables by storing them in springhouses where the enclosed water and natural evaporation helped to maintain low temperatures. This particular springhouse had vinyl siding, so either someone has a twisted preservationist bent, or they still use the structure to keep foods cool.
I wasn’t disappointed. At the local farmers’ market, I explained my book project to a vendor, and received an invitation to visit his farm. There, I toured a commercial cold-storage facility that held tons of food potatoes even as farm hands prepared to plant this year’s seed potatoes.
This farm’s only business is to sell produce at local farmers’ markets. Three days every week, the hands load produce onto a truck, drive it to a market, and set it out for patrons to pick through. They’ve been at it for years and they do it very well.
My Own Cold Store
I enjoyed my tour of this cold storage facility, and I poked around several others. What impressed me the most is that this commercial food-growing operation uses old-fashioned cold-storage: they mound potatoes in a well-insulated building and let cold air in to keep the temperature low; they use no artificial refrigeration! The strategy keeps potatoes “fresh” until new potatoes come ready in late spring of the next year.
Unfortunately, there’s no appropriate place in my house for a cold store. When days are cold enough, the mudroom off my garage will hold root vegetables for weeks or even months. But I’ve no way to keep things cold enough from harvest until days are cold, so I can’t manage a root cellar any time soon.