A critter raids the outdoor winter vegetable 'bin'

A hungry vole turned up in our garden last winter. The molelike creature took up residence under the piles of bagged leaves and other mulching materials that covered one of our carrot beds. Not only did he stay warm and snug no cost -- while I was paying through the nose for similar comfort above ground -- but he dined extremely well at my expense.

When I finally discovered him around the middle of February, he was a vole of remarkable girth, as well he should be. The interloper had consumed more than half the carrots. By my wife's calculations he alone had deprived us of two bushels of the snapping-crisp vegetables.

While I can't be certain, the evidence suggests that our overfed vole subsequently became a meal for a somewhat underfed neighborhood cat. And, for the first time in these matters, I was on the cat's side.

All this, however, has made me rethink my winter storage plans. There is evidence that some of our vole's relatives have now moved in, so th simple system of piling mulch thickly over the growing carrots and parnips is no longer feasible.

Fortunately, there are some moderately simple alternatives short of constructing an expensive root cellar:

* The soil trench. If you can store vegetables in the ground under a heavy mulch, as I previously did with my carrots, then this method will work well. Select a well-drained site (preferably on a slope) and dig a trench 2 to 3 feet wide, 2 feet deep, and as long as you need it. Line the pit with hardware cloth to keep out the voles, mice, and other freeloaders.

Cover the bottom of the trench with clean builder's sand or sawdust from wood that has not been chemically treated in any way (about 1 inch will do). Now place a layer of root vegetables so that they do not touch one another in the bottom of the trench and cover with sand or sawdust. Repeat until the trench is full. Cover the top of the trench with sturdy sheets of wood. Don't make it one solid sheet of wood or you will have to uncover the whole trench every time you want to get a few vegetables for the evening dinner.

Top off with two or more feet of mulch (leaves or straw, preferably bagged for easy removal) and cover all this with a plastic tarp thoroughly weighted down at the edges with stones or soil.

* The earth mound. This is an above- ground version of the trench method. Place a circle of hardware cloth on the ground and a ring or fence of hardware cloth about 12 inches high on top of that if you think rodents might be a problem. Fill this pan-shaped enclosure with straw or leaves and place the first layer of vegetables on top of this.

Cover with more hay, etc., and add the next layer of vegetables, covering with more hay. You can store fruit in earth mounds, too, but do not mix fruit with vegetables.

Finally, cover the entire mound with 12 to 18 inches of mulch and about 6 inches of soil. This shape tends to shed most rain or melting snow. But to be on the safe side, you might cover with a plastic sheet. Leaf-or straw-filled plastic bags on top of this will further protect the stored vegetables when deep winter seiges threaten.

* The barrell pit. Sink a plastic garbage can or a watertight wooden barrel into the ground to within 6 inches of the rim. Line the bottom of the barrel with straw or leaves and add fruit or vegetables.

Continue layering in this fashion until vegetables or fruits are within 8 inches of the top of the can. Fill with more straw, etc., and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Surround the protruding section of the can with a collar of earth. Cover this with more mulch, preferably in plastic bags for easy removable. Again, a plastic tarp covering is optional. In this method no additional moisture will get into the can. So, if the vegetables are dry, lightly sprinkle them with water before they go into storage.

* Cellar steps. Finally, remember the steps leading down into your cellar from outside. You will need a door on your cellar to prevent too much heat from escaping into the stairwell. In this situation the steps below the bulkhead door remain between 33 and 40 degrees F. which are standard refrigerator temperatures.

The idea is to pack vegetables in bushel baskets and stack them on the steps.

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