The first frost that cuts down the most vulnerable plants pulls like pulsing tides the unabating freezes who crash on to the ground until most growth is finally silenced. Carrots and parsnips generally survive and so long as the ground isn’t too frozen can be dug up as needed. But the moment- just before the ground freezes- many of the other root characters are gathered up, the leaves cut off about an inch from their growing point, and brought inside to join us- and the mice- to be saved from these conditions too extreme.
Different vegetables have different temperatures ideal for keeping them in dormant long-haul storage. In looking for a place in your abode or other to act as a “root cellar”, you can keep an eye out for cold protected spaces- an unheated closet, an attic, an odd nook under the staircase, or beneath your porch. The best option I have is under the cellar door which gets some insulation laid on top and is not perfect but tends to be good enough. For a good root cellar cool temperatures (~45 degrees is great, but you can get by with warmer for a while, just not as long), moderately high humidity (which can be assisted by storing veg in a moist medium like sand or sawdust or leaves in bags, boxes, and crates), and a certain degree of air flow in the room to clear out any off gassing from the vegetables and spoilage organisms. All of that mostly pertains to most root veg, potats, etc. Some others such as onions, and garlic store best with dryer conditions closer to 50 degrees, while squash and sweet potatoes can do lukewarm temps so second as a living room decoration well, and that only gets better if let’s say in late winter a squash starts to rot and then you can put it on the tv stand and watch it decompose together with your family and friends until the flies come home.
If those stored roots are given too much moisture or heat they can sprout, which is likely to happen because a good system is an imperfect system. A tradition likely discovered through that thinking is the “forcing” of plants. Chicories with strong taproots like radicchio, endive, and dandelion, are favorite candidates, but other well-rooted folks like rhubarb, beets, and asparagus also can be intentionally tricked into sprouting new growth indoors. There are lots of different ways to do it but generally the roots are dug up in the fall, topped, and stored in the cellar just as if you were keeping them. When you choose it’s time for forcing, the roots are transplanted into containers of soil, this time watered well enough with around 50-60 degree temps ideally. Often times these second sprouts can be tough or bitter so forcing is done in the absence of light for sweet, delicate leaves. The forcing can be staggered for a continuous supply of fresh greens in the winter, and in some cases getting multiple cuttings is possible, after which the roots, at least of the chicories, can be roasted and ground into coffee. Keep an eye out for the possibilities, like if you store onions you’ll probably notice a few sprout uninvitedly. Why not place these in a shallow dish of water by a window for fresh winter scallions?
Now let’s not stop there. Let’s say we continued allowing those sprouted roots to grow, well they will eventually shoot flowers right? Many of the aforementioned veg are biennial which means they flower in their second year. Where we live in Western Pennsylvania our winter temperatures can kill some biennial plants begging the question: how do we collect seeds from them? By bringing those plants inside like beets and radishes and storing them our cool nook or root cellar, we are inadvertently also enroute to saving them for seed. When the weather breaks in the spring they can be planted back into the earth outside to complete their reproduction cycle. This transplanting also provides enough placement control if someone were trying to avoid cross-pollination to boot. Other non-root-centric biennials, like let’s say you were afraid of your cauliflower dying overwinter for instance, are entirely dug up, cleaned of leaves for a naked stem, and stored in a bucket of lightly moist soil at a spot in the cellar to protect them from killing freezes and devoid of sunlight to keep their dormancy until it’s safe again to transplant outside.