Root Cellars in the 21st Century

Keeping produce fresh is a matter of planning and a bit of effort.

Root Cellar

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Nancy Curtis of Price, Texas, is a life-long country woman and mother, who vividly recalls her grandparents’ root cellar.

"I remember Grandma Davis having russet potatoes and new potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, heads of cabbage, apples, eggs and crocks of sausage packed in fresh lard," Curtis says. "All of the vegetables were from Grandma and Granddad Davis’ garden."

Curtis’ grandparents lived when root cellars were common. The ice boxes of the time didn’t have much room in them, and most small towns and rural areas didn’t get refrigeration until the 1920s or later. A root cellar wasn’t just a convenience, it was a necessity.

Today, with the cost of everything on the rise and growing food-security concerns, ever more folks are growing their own food. Storing some of that bounty in a root cellar will make your family less vulnerable to energy shortages, and you get to control the food’s quality.

Root cellars can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make them. If your house has an especially cool crawlspace or basement, you are all set. For a fast and dirty cellar, bury a 55-gallon drum or other suitable container in the yard. If you have sufficient space, you can build a proper root cellar, complete with shelves, drain and ventilation.

Keeping it cool

Temperature is your first big concern for food storage. Ideally, you want to choose a site or depth that will make it easy to maintain optimal temperatures between about 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter.

If you are inclined to dig your cellar into a slope or bank, selecting the right location can make a good root cellar great. For example, in warmer climes, situating your cellar so that the entrance faces north will minimize exposure to the winter sun and offers an opportunity to make use of prevailing (and cool) north winds. If it gets too warm inside, you can open the door or vent to take in some cool evening air. Where winter temperatures are typically below freezing and stay there, you might orient your cellar’s entrance to the southeast to help keep temperatures above freezing.

Humidity is good

A relative humidity of 90 to 95 percent is ideal to keep your fruits and vegetables from dehydrating. A cellar with a floor composed of a layer of sand or gravel over earth is ideal. If it gets too dry, just sprinkle water on the floor. If the cellar is made of stone or concrete, regularly wetting the walls will keep the humidity up.

Let it breathe

Ventilation is the final key to creating a successful root cellar. No matter where or how you install the cellar, there needs to be some means to allow cool air in to chill it and excess humidity out to keep it from getting wet. If yours is a bank cellar, a vent or window, low on the outward-facing wall, will allow cool air in if the cellar also has a vent pipe in the ceiling that allows warmer air to escape. If your cellar is completely underground, you will need two vent pipes – one that extends from outside to the cellar floor and one that extends from the ceiling to the outside. You can adjust air flow (and therefore temperature and humidity) by opening and closing the vents.

Plan ahead

With a root cellar, gardeners can plant with the entire year in mind. Planning ahead gives the option of having root vegetables in late winter and early spring, lettuce with your Christmas dinner and crisp apples in January.

Nongardeners interested in keeping fresh foods through the winter can stock their root cellar with high-quality locally grown produce in season. All you need to do is visit your local farmers’ market to find the freshest fare for eating and for storing.

Worth the effort

Just like most other good things in life, root cellaring takes some effort and planning to work well. There are storage containers to collect, shelves to make, vegetables to can and records to keep. You will need to monitor each crop’s health routinely and cull fruits and vegetables that are getting close to spoiling. Some spoilage is bound to occur, even in the best planned cellar. Expect it, toss it and grab something else for dinner.

MaryAnna Clemons writes and root cellars vegetables at her farm near Colorado Springs, Colorado.  

john sealander
2/19/2012 8:41:10 AM

Bob-the reason depth in the ground is important is that at some point 20"-40" (in the continental US) below the surface, the soil is at a constant 55-57 degrees. Necessary depth is a function of latitude (how far north or south you are from the equator).This is why basements are always cooler-they function like a root cellar. They are a root cellar. They are using the earth's thermal mass to assist in stablizing the temp.(cooling or warming). Clearly you don't want to dig into bedrock, but you could take advantage of that thermal mass! If you visualized a horzontal line thru the sub-soil at that 55 degree line, if you build a WELL CONSTRUCTED structure on the bedrock it would actually 'pull' that 55 degree line up in a curve thru your cellar. That's what a root cellar or basement does and why it's cooler. If I were in your shoes I would build a walk-in cooler (same thing) right on that bed rock and use studs, ceiling joists and plates and modern insulation, skin and vapor barrier materials-all of which are relatively cheap- instead of the huge labor and heavy supports you will probably need for any type root cellar structure, regardless of the sub soil structure. They did it that way because they didn't have any better options. Don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of 18th century technology-sometimes it's the most appropriate application in our age. I use Iron frying pans and Dutch Ovens because nothing else does the same work in the same way, however while I use kerosene lamps and lanterns when the power goes out, I go back to electric lights as soon as the power returns! I love old wood barrels but as I look around the property all I see are 55 gallon steel drums and plastic barrels. They're cheaper and work better. The only down side to walk-in coolers is that they are electrical. It costs money and they can fail. The advantage to root cellars are they aren't electrical, but will be more irratic and less stable in some are dependant on the weather being consistenly cool (ideally below freezing) at night. They will also require more supervision and maintainence of the contents because of that fact. last year we were freezing and buried in snow much of the winter and I wished for a root cellar. This winter we have had daytime highs of 45-60 degrees and far fewer sub-freezing nights- and I am glad I don't have one! Much of your decision depends on where you live. On high mountain ranges and the northern parts of North America cool isn't the problem in the winter-keeping your stuff from freezing is. Root cellars are a good solution (if you have the equipment and tools to dig) to protect your supplies from freezing. I am going to build a walk-in cooler on a exisiting concrete slab in an old cinder block building with a north wall against the soil and if my electricity fails ( a 2-5 times a decade occurance) I'll open the vents at night and close them in the morning. It's all about the thermal mass. In other words, by merely adding a couple of vents (one low and one high) my walk-in cooler is effectively a root cellar when the power goes out. Not as romantic as an old fashioned root cellar but I think that's smart. Around here few folks had root cellars, but most had a 'Spring house' where the mountain spring water would flow thru the house and keep things cooler. Same principle. Also a great place for the kids to play on hot summer days. You thought your bedrock was a big problem and actually you have a huge advantage in terms of thermal mass. Funny eh?

robert j. hanford sr.
9/15/2008 6:06:44 AM