Country MoonThe 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.

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