Gardeners cover ways to save bountiful harvests over winter

Posted: Tuesday, September 02, 2008

For some folks the term root cellar may dig up memories of reading Little House on the Prairie, but to others a root cellar is one of the best ways to keep the fruits and vegetables they've worked hard to grow safe from the winter chill.

"We had encountered several root cellars in the course of our garden tours this summer," said Marion Nelson, the club's program chair. "They're such a great asset in taking care of what you've spent so much time and energy growing."

A panel of local gardeners will discuss the various methods of constructing root cellars today at this month's meeting of the Central Peninsula Gardening Club. They will discuss wall thickness, dimensions, temperatures and how people go about constructing them.

The panel also will discuss how to store summer vegetables, fruit and flower bulbs for the winter. Finally, the panel will look at tree and yard care for the winter. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Building.

The 50-cent word to describe this summer, Nelson said, is challenging. Most everything in the garden plot and the greenhouses has been late and gardeners are trying see how long they can wait before they start harvesting their apples, carrots and tomatoes. In some places, since there are so many microclimates, the crops have been so diminished as to be worthless, she said.

"I know the apple trees in my yard have reasonable size apples, but they are not as big as in past years," Nelson said. "We're hoping for a nice surge at the end." In addition to talking about using root cellars to store this summer's crop, Nelson said the panel will probably discuss canning and what they use to store apples. There also will be literature from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service on how to go about constructing root cellars.

Kay Gardener is by no means a professional, she says, she's just the baby sitter. Having married into the Gardener family and lived on a multigenerational family ranch since 2001, Gardener says everyone uses the root cellar her father-in-law built.

"We store everything here," she said. "All the families come over here. It's above ground, it's just like a walk-in little shed."

Gardener's family has a big box of potatoes in their root cellar and they put their carrots in plastic garbage cans filled with dry wood chips. The potatoes and vegetables keep all winter long and are distributed to the different family members.

"They just tell me what to do and that's what I do," she said, adding that it's her job and her husband's job to keep the temperature between 42 and 45 degrees. "We have big dinners every other Sunday and we provide the potatoes and carrots."

Gardener will talk about how the crop is stored on the ranch. She said she'll bring pictures and drawings of the cellar's construction.

"It's the best storage we found and it's worked for years," she said.

Curtis Stigall, owner of An Arboristic View, also will be on the panel to discuss yard care for the winter. This includes proper fertilization and cutting height as well as tree and shrub maintenance, he said.

"I'll basically go over winter care," he said, adding that fall is a good time to check out the health of trees and shrubs, especially when leaves fall off. "And preparing a lawn so that when it comes out in the spring it'll actually green up a little faster and be a healthier lawn come springtime."

Although some of the information available at the meeting can be found in books, Stigall said it's good for people to come and get their questions answered straight from the horse's mouth.

"You can get an in-depth explanation on why some things are done versus others," he said. "You have a lot of experts in one room and you get all your questions answered."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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