Sunday, August 21, 2011

Storing Potatoes without a root cellar

I hear from folks all the time who want to store potatoes for the winter, but do not have an acceptable spot in a basement, in a crawl space or the luxury of an old root cellar. Do not despair, here's one way that's cheap and easy to do, and time to plan in most of the country! (I also have some posts on root cellaring tips coming up after Labor Day.)

There might be a name for this, but my step-father just called them a potato storage "hill" (not to be confused with the hills people make around potatoes for growing). It is actually very simple, inexpensive, and effective. All you need is straw, potatoes and some dirt.

After you have dug the potatoes, allow them to dry in the open air a couple of hours to toughen the skins. Do NOT wash them! On a spot where the potatoes grew (or some convenient spot), put down a circular layer of straw about 8" deep. Make sure the soil underneath is tamped down firmly if you dug potatoes from there. The size of the circle depends on how many potatoes to store. If there are lots, you might want to make two or more circles of straw, and have manageable amounts per hill.

Place a layer of your dry potatoes (carefully) in a circle, but be sure there is about 8-10" of straw outside the circle of potatoes. Now start to build up a cone of potatoes on the circle layer, until you are as tall as the cone will go without the potatoes tumbling down. Place a section of plastic pipe, like 1" PVC plumbing pipe down into the stack of potatoes a few inches, and extending above the stack height about 2 feet. This will bring some fresh air into the potatoes over the winter to keep them healthy.

Starting at the bottom, cover the cone of potatoes with straw at least 8-10" thick, until the entire stack is fully covered with 8" or more of straw, even the top.  Next, dig some dirt from around the cone (dig far enough away from the cone so you don't disturb the cone and straw covering, but close enough to act as a drainage ditch for winter rains or melting snow). Cover the cone of straw with dirt as thick as will hold up, the thicker the better. Pack the dirt tightly around the plastic pipe and tamp all the dirt firmly with the back of your shovel. If your soil has a lot of clay, it will form a better protective barrier against washing away in rain.

One advantage of making several smaller hills is that you can dig out several pounds of potatoes from a small hill without disturbing (and having to re-build) the other hills.

This method above is not the best in some parts of the US, where it is just too cold in the winter. If your winters are really severe, or you don't want to build a hill, you could accomplish the same thing with several bales of straw stacked to form a well in the center. Fill it with potatoes and other winter vegetables like squash, pumpkins and turnips, then cover with more bales to form a thick insulated storage area, and cover the whole thing with a tarp. Access is easy by merely removing a few bales, retrieving what foods you want, and re-stacking and re-covering the bales.


  1. Do you know how this would work in my warm So California climate? In the winter our temps usually go to the 40's (nights) and 50-60's (days). I'd be interested in the straw bale enclosure. I wonder if it would help deter mildew if the squashes were surrounded with crumpled newspaper to absorb dampness. Thanks for any info you may have. Martha

  2. Martha, I would think it is iffy but possible if you use a very shaded spot. My potatoes will usually start to sprout in my root cellar when Spring temps reach your typical winter temps.

    My suggestion would be to try it with a few potatoes and maybe a squash or two and see how well they keep. At the very least, you'll have some straw for mulch the next summer!

  3. Can also bury a barrel or large container. They used to do that when a root cellar wasn't an option. They'd bury a large barrel tipped on it's side and had a lid. As it stays in place, you could even plant around/ on it. It has to be buried deep enough so the soil acts as insulation. There is a book called "Back to the Basics" (by Reader's Digest).. they have alternate storage options there and show how to build the hilled root cellar.

  4. Thanks, Anne. Good tip to pass on... and one I intended to include in my "root cellaring" posts coming up over the next 2 weeks.


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