Garden Notes

Mitchell Posin
Mitchell Posin couldn't be any happier now that his new root cellar at the Allen Farm is operational. Photo by Ralph Stewart

The root of the matter

By Abigail Higgins - December 21, 2006

Here we are once again at the Winter Solstice, the beginning of winter, this time in the dark of the moon and in mild conditions. For me, another busy pre-holiday day baking cookies, making sauerkraut, wrapping, and writing cards (and columns). How strange, imagining the apprehension that our great-grandparents might have felt at this point in the year, compared to our cheery reality that winter just keeps getting easier and warmer. Warmer? Hmmm. (I think I just sensed a freckle of apprehension of a different sort.)

How did people in the pre-electric, pre-convenience era store enough food to get through to the next growing season? Were they sickly and malnourished, or did they have knowledge we lack? Some of both, actually: the available evidence suggests that many old-time techniques exist for the storage of the harvest, but that it takes hard work, know-how, and discipline for success.

In the winters of the 1940s and the 50s on the Island, we often had skating by Thanksgiving and white Christmases. What to do with the results of industrious vegetable gardening was something of a problem. We had only a small square root cellar under part of our house, and it contained a bulky pressure tank and other components of running water that were never envisioned by Desire Luce.

I remember wooden boxes of beets and other vegetables slowly wilting in our barn and in those of neighbors. Some mothers did quite a lot of canning and the locker plant held our butchered cows on its frosty shelves. Although there was home brewing and pickling, no one I knew made traditional sauerkraut or cheese. Beautiful examples of root cellars exist all over up-Island, but no one I knew utilized one. In the post-war era they must have been reminiscent of the Depression years: far too funky and old-fashioned. Much know-how was already being abandoned.

Forward to the past

Mitchell Posin of the Allen Farm is a familiar Island figure with an innovative kind of mind. So it is not surprising that nowadays the Allen farmhouse sports a brand-new, low-tech root cellar for the 21st century, conceptualized and constructed by Mr. Posin. (It happens to be adjacent to the original root cellar of the farmhouse, a low-ceilinged Chez Flintstone of massive rocks and boulders housing for the time-being outgrown sports equipment and a jumble of cartons - just like any basement.)

The farmhouse where Mr. Posin and his wife Clarissa Allen live showcases environmentally aware features and design, while the farm produces grass-fed meat, poultry, and eggs, and sells wool products, organic fertilizers, and soil amendments. Much of this has recently become a nationally accepted paradigm, but Mr. Posin took the Island lead in this direction years ago. Many of his ideas show a well-developed pattern of looking to the past for good ways of doing things that in our day have become complicated. Mr. Posin's goal is year-round vegetable production and consumption on the farm and for sale, with the new facility providing storage for potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions, beets, cabbage, and more, and the original cave-like one providing storage for wine and cheese.

The new root cellar is a plastered, pristine white space lined with metal industrial shelving. Centered on the wall opposite the entrance is a run of metal ductwork extending from ceiling to floor that brings in fresh air from outdoors and exhausts stale, warmer air from within the room. When the insulated cellar door is closed, no light enters the space. There is a drain in the floor. Simple temperature and humidity gauges, along with pans of water, sit on the shelving. The aim of a root cellar is to provide cool, above-freezing temperatures and good circulation of moderately humid air.

Considering a retrofit

Having just gone to our cellar for cabbage to shred for sauerkraut and thinking of all the possibilities, of course I want a root cellar like Mitchell Posin's and am assessing the possibilities our cellar holds, with appraising eyes. According to "Root Cellaring," the classic by Mike and Nancy Bubel (Garden Way Publishing, Storey Communications, Inc., Pownal, VT 05261, 1994, 297 ppg.), old houses with wood heat and dirt-floored cellars are ideal, and the northeast or northwest corner of the cellar is best because these are usually the coldest.

There are probably many more gardeners who have furnace heat and finished basements. In this case the Bubels advise partitioning off a corner of the basement, enclosing if possible a window for ventilation. If no cellar window exists, sometimes a screened vent block can be inserted through the foundation, or a vent pipe or duct like Mitchell Posin's.

The minimum for a room you can enter is about three and a half by seven feet, but even this can hold 28 half-bushel baskets, if floor to ceiling shelves are installed. More spacious, custom-made facilities like Mitchell's will naturally hold a great deal more.

If the basement is utterly lacking in the potential to hold a root cellar, stand-alone outdoor root cellars can be constructed underground by a determined, handy home-owner. The Storey Country Wisdom Bulletin series includes "Build Your Own Underground Root Cellar," a slim booklet by Phyllis Hobson (Storey Communications, Inc., 1981, 32 ppg.) and has this to say: "a well-built root cellar can be a good investment. It will save you money for years to come, yet if you build the cellar yourself, the cost of materials is less than you would spend in one winter buying food at supermarket prices."

The booklet goes on to describe how to make the tools needed to build the root cellar and contains a section entitled "Cutting Costs," which would help the crafty recycler to have a low-budget set-up. Once the root cellar is established, far more can be done with it than mere vegetable storage. Earth boxes can be used to grow greens, mushrooms, and forced crops like Belgian endive or rhubarb.

But that is another column. For now, let me wish my readers and all Islanders blessings of the season and personal contentment. May 2007 be auspicious and "May all our Christmases be white!"