Thursday, December 5, 2013

Eating Well from the Root Cellar

USDAScottBauerSweetPotatok9231-1(1)Late November is the time of year I generally like to write about two things: winter storage crops and eating locally for the holidays. This year is no exception because I love the root vegetables we’re able to grow and store here in the North Country. Hopefully you were able to visit the farmers’ markets and stock up before the markets closed. It’s not too late – some markets are open through the holiday season or even through the winter.

So, what’s available now for root vegetables?

We’ve got winter squash from acorn to butternut to Delicata (although the latter won’t last long in your root cellar so use it up soon!) Don’t forget that the pumpkin is also a squash – I just made a large batch of creamy curried pumpkin soup to freeze for mid-winter comfort meals.

Potatoes grow well locally and there are so many varieties to choose from including those with skins and flesh of red, white, blue and yellow.

Carrots and beets are delicious additions to the root cellar, although on our farm they store much better in a spare refrigerator. We harvest these sweet treats directly into plastic grocery bags, clinging soil and all. The bags are loosely tied at the top to provide some air circulation but still keep the veggies from drying out. Our carrots and beets last for at least seven months in this way.

The alliums are an essential component of the well-stocked root cellar. If onions and shallots have been properly cured you can enjoy them right into the late winter (except for the super sweet varieties). We layer ours on old bread trays and stack them in a cool corner of our basement. Leeks are harvested, cleaned and stored in the spare ‘fridge. Garlic is the only commercial crop we still produce on our farm, about 8,000 heads each year. We sell most of it as seed garlic to other local farms, but still end up with pounds of it to enjoy for many months.

My favorite root vegetable is the sweet potato. Did you know that we can grow them up here in northern New York? Traditionally these starchy tuberous roots come to our supermarkets after being grown in the south. But several years ago our farm decided to experiment with planting them here. Well, the catalog said it was possible, so why not give it a try?

We tried our best to simulate southern growing conditions using raised beds covered in black plastic mulch to warm the soil early. We planted the “slips” (small bare-root sweet potato plants) into holes in the plastic and waited. It was kind of a gardening miracle. The plants vined out beautifully, covering the beds and smothering competing weeds. They had no pests that we could detect, probably because they haven’t found their way to northern climes yet, and the deer did not venture into the center of our garden. Our nice light sandy loam and irrigation system played their parts as well.

In late September we dug around under the plastic and were amazed at the treasures beneath. The sweet potatoes were monstrously huge. A particularly memorable one weighed 8 pounds and fed us for a week, still deliciously sweet in its giant size. We’ve never looked back and now enjoy sweet potatoes for several months each year (though they don’t store for nearly as long as regular potatoes).

Visit for an up-to-date listing of regional farmers’ markets and to find local farmers growing sweet potatoes.

Photo: Sweet potato, courtesy USDA/Scott Bauer.

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Laurie Davis is an Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County and is the Coordinator for Adirondack Harvest.

For more information on agriculture in Northern New York, visit the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Northern New York website at and or call 518-962-4810.

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