Many people don’t know how to store carrots and other root vegetables properly. It’s easy enough to grow a splendid glut twice a year, but if you sort your storage conditions out you can have fresh root vegetables throughout the winter – and even into the spring. This article deals with room temperature storage because it gives you the best quality of vegetables for the least effort, is best for the environment, and costs less than other options. Alternatives include freezing and refrigerating, drying and pickling.
All root vegetables including beetroot, carrots, celeriac, parsnips, salsify, scorzonera, swedes, turnips and winter radishes (but excluding potatoes) can be stored in the ground. What seed merchants don’t always tell you is that some varieties are hardier than others, so read around before you make your choice.
Frosts can damage roots, so unless you’re in a frost-free area you’ll need to give them some protection. Covering the roots with a layer of straw or bracken helps to protect them, and also stops the ground from freezing hard, making them easier to lift. If you find the covering tends to blow away, hold it down with netting or horticultural fleece. The more exposed your area is, the thicker the covering needs to be: in the south 7cm (3″) of straw is usually enough, but in the scottish highlands a much more serious covering of 30cm (12″) is necessary, and indoor storage is more reliable.
For most root vegetables, you should put the protection in place before the first frosts, but parsnips are best left exposed to a few early frosts to help sweeten them up.
An easy alternative for small-to-medium quantities of root vegetables is to lift them before the first frosts (except for parsnips, as mentioned above) and store them in boxes under controlled conditions. To do this you’ll need a cool (but not freezing), dark shed or cellar and a supply of suitable boxes or tubs. Strong, lidded plastic ones are best because they are rodent-proof and will last indefinitely: wooden boxes or crates look great, but only last for a few seasons and are quickly targeted by mice and rats. You’ll also need a packing material such as moist peat-free compost or horticultural (sharp) sand, to keep the roots separate (which helps to prevent rot spreading) and prevent moisture loss.
Clamps are a traditional way to store larger quantities of root vegetables, including potatoes. They can work very well, but rodents are sometimes a problem and if rot starts in the middle of the clamp it can spoil a lot of produce before you know it’s there.
Choose a sheltered and well-drained spot where the soil is free-draining, and dig a trench around it to make sure that water can drain away. Use the backfill from the trench to build the middle up by 15cm (6″) or so, and then cover this area with 7cm (3″) of straw, leaving 30cm (12″) clear on all sides.
Put your root veg on top of the straw, after sorting and trimming it (as described in the root boxes section, above). You can either pile the whole lot up in a pyramid, or to reduce the potential damage from mould you can layer it with straw: either way, when finished it should be cone or pyramid shaped.
Cover the pile with a 15cm (6″) layer of straw, and then top the whole thing with a 15cm (6″) layer of soil, leaving a tuft of straw sticking out right at the top (for ventilation). Pat the soil smooth with the back of a spade to help water run off, or in exposed locations cover it with a weighted tarpaulin.
If you still have root vegetables left when the weather starts to warm up in spring, they will begin to sprout and form hundreds of tiny rootlets all along the length. As soon as you see this happen, take them out of store and gently brush off the roots. Provided they are still sound, cut the crown and ½cm (¼ inch) of flesh off with a sharp knife and dip the cut end in some wood ash (note, not coal ash or similar). Put the roots back into storage as before and they should keep in good conditions for several more weeks, by which time the first early carrots grown under cover should be ready.