The best thing about raising a bountiful garden is being able to enjoy all the fresh produce. The second best thing is being able to preserve some of that produce for the winter months. For years, folks have made use of root cellars for this very reason.
A root cellar is any storage location that uses the natural cooling, insulating and humidifying properties of the earth. They keep food from freezing during the winter and cool in the summer. Before refrigeration, root cellars were essential for storing root crops and keeping them fresh through the winter months. If you live where there are snowy, wintry conditions, this time-tested storage method still makes sense today.
Most of these structures are either totally or partially underground and must maintain temperatures between 32* and 40*F and have humidity between 85% and 95%. Cool temperatures slow the release of ethylene gas and stop the growth of microorganisms that cause decomposition. High humidity levels prevent the loss of moisture through evaporation and the withering look that accompanies it. Root vegetables, jars of pickled vegetables, and bulbs and rhizomes of perennial flowers do well in a root cellar.
There are three basic types of root cellars. The most common is the basement variety. They are often attached to houses for easy access or created in a corner of a basement. It takes very little work to create one. It is best to use the foundation walls in the northeast corner of the basement for two sides of the root cellar. Build the other two sides with studs and boards, making sure to insulate the interior walls, ceiling, door, and all ducts and pipes to keep the heat out. Be sure to have a ventilation system that allows cool, fresh air from outside to be brought in and stale air to be exhausted outside. This helps prevent mold and mildew.
The next type is the hole-in-the-ground type, which entails digging a hole in the ground or horizontally into a hillside. This type requires good drainage, so sandy soil works great. The elevated slope is good because water will run away from the pit as it moves downward. If winter temperatures go below -25*F, dig a pit deep enough so all crops are under the soil’s surface. Flare the sides to prevent cave-ins and line the hole with straw and dry leaves. It should be covered with a thick, wooden lid, and the lid should have a layer of soil on top.
The third kind is the garbage can type. Using a metal garbage can or barrel in your hole-in-the-ground cellar helps keep water out. To start, dig a hole slightly larger than the diameter of the garbage can and deep enough so that the can’s lid will sit 4 inches below the soil level. Place straw inside with the vegetables, then heap dirt around the circumference. Cover the lid with straw or mulch and a sheet of plastic to keep everything dry.
Root vegetables will store well over the coldest weather. The biggest factor is keeping the right temperature, and the best temperature stability is reached at 10 feet. Wooden shelving, which is more adaptable to indoor root cellars, helps organize the produce and allows for rotation. Shelves or platforms should be one to three feet away from outside walls. Wood is usually the best material for the shelving, as it does not conduct heat and cold as rapidly as metal does. Air circulation is crucial to help minimize airborne mold and shelving aids in this function.
For outdoor root cellars, packed earth is the preferred flooring. Concrete works well and is practical for indoor storage.
The two things that every root cellar needs are a thermometer and a hygrometer to measure the temperature and humidity, respectively. These should be checked daily if possible. Heat is usually regulated using ventilation to the outside or an exhaust pipe. These allow cold air to enter, often in the fall, to get the temperature down.
Here are a few tips to help your root vegetables last as long as possible in your root cellar:
- Some crops like potatoes, winter squash, pumpkins, and onions need to be “cured” for a few days in warm temperatures before going into storage. Shake off the loose dirt and allow to dry for a few days. Do not wet them or you will risk them rotting, even if they appear to be dry. Many vegetables need this transition period.
- Handle vegetables with care, because even slight bruising can start them to spoil.
- Cabbage and turnips are best stored in a separate place, like in a smaller detached root cellar if possible, so that their odor does not permeate other vegetables.
- Remember that the warmest and driest air is near the ceiling while the more humid air is lower and furthest from the door. Know which vegetables prefer which and store accordingly.
- Making a root cellar in the garage or using pressure treated wood is not advisable.
- Vegetables piled together generate heat which leads to spoiling. If at all possible, spread them out on shelves close to the floor and rotate occasionally.
- Check the produce regularly and dispose of any that shows signs of rot or mold. This is where the saying “One rotten apple can spoil the bunch” comes from.
- If you do not have a root cellar, you can use a closet on an outside wall, section of the coolest corner of the cellar or attic, or use part of a mudroom.
- Most fruit “breathes” and for some, like apples that give off ethylene gas, it is best to wrap them in paper because the gas can cause the other vegetables to spoil.
I have space under my front porch that is sectioned off from the rest of the basement. It is all cemented, and I have put shelves in there where I keep my root vegetables and apples. The temperature is right, and normally my vegetables will keep until late March. This is also an excellent place for my canned goods.
Root cellars are an inexpensive and versatile way to preserve the bounty of the garden and let you eat what you raised all year long. Like anything else, they can be fashioned as elaborate or as plain as you desire. However you go, they make an indispensable addition to any home.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.