In this modern world, many people’s only recollection of a root cellar is from television. However, prior to modern refrigeration, root cellars were one of the ways that families could store food for the winter. Root cellars are underground structures that use the earth to provide a means to naturally cool, insulate and maintain proper moisture levels of foods to prevent spoilage. As Philip and I build our off-grid homestead, a traditional root cellar is a means to provide long-term storage of produce and other food storage that won’t drain our off-grid resources.
History of Root Cellars
Root cellars date back to the 18th century.. While they are not ideal in warm climates, areas that maintain the ideal ground temperatures had root cellars on every farm. Not only did root cellars provide long-term food storage for the family, but it also provided food storage in the winter months for the farm. Farms relied on homegrown fodder to sustain farm animals throughout the winter and early spring when grazing was sparse.
Root cellars also provided a safe haven in inclement weather such as a tornado. Prior to early warning systems, easy access to a root cellar, close to the house, could mean life or death for the family.
Since the invention of modern refrigeration root cellars have virtually disappeared. However, as the homesteading movement increases and more people seek a sustainable living, root cellars and, other cold room storage options are on the rise.
Ideal Conditions of a Homestead Root Cellar
An underground root cellar not only creates natural cold storage for fruits and root vegetables, it also maintains the proper temperature in the winter to prevent the food from freezing.
For root cellaring to function properly, the ideal root cellar conditions need to:
- Maintain a temperature range of 32° to 40° Fahrenheit
- Humidity levels of 85 to 90%
- Proper Ventilation
- Devoid of light
The temperature of a root cellar should be cool enough to keep foods fresh, but not freeze. Cooling foods slow down the production of enzymes that cause foods to begin to spoil. It also reduces the release of ethylene gas which promotes food ripening. Cool temperatures reduce the growth of microorganisms that can destroy food stores.
Optimal humidity levels prevent food from drying out. Many root cellars have dirt floors which help regulate the humidity levels naturally. Additionally, root cellars should contain a ventilation system. Proper air circulation vents stale air and excess ethylene gas. Cool air is drawn into the root cellar through air vents. While warmer air and excess moisture are vented out to prevent the growth of mold. Finally, the storage area should be dark, as light promotes new plant growth.
While root cellars are a great option for food storage. Different areas of the country can not meet the specific requirements. Therefore, root cellars are not appropriate for all climates.
Types of Modern Root Cellars
Depending on your food storage needs, your construction abilities, and your financial resources may determine the root cellar design you choose.
In-Ground Root Cellar
In-ground cellars are a traditional root cellar design. A traditional root cellar design involves constructing a structure in a large hole dug into the ground and covering it with dirt. People often dig root cellars into the hillside to utilize land unsuitable for farming. Other root cellars have even been built at ground level and were mounded with dirt following construction. Cinder blocks are commonly used for wall construction.
Typically root cellars are accessible from an outside entrance rather than direct entry from the farmhouse. However, some are built below the home with an entrance from inside.
When building a root cellar underground, be mindful the water table level in your area, the location of the sewer, and excess ground water that might make an in-ground root cellar disastrous!
Basement Root Cellar
A basement root cellar is a good option for families whose home already has a basement room. Many times families divide a large basement to create a designated cold room. A corner design where the room has two exterior walls that make contact with the soil outside. Inside, insulated walls will increase temperature control of the designated cellar storage. Some type of ventilation system should be added as well to properly vent the ethylene gases and excess humidity.
One benefit of a basement setup is that the cold room is inside the home for easy access to food when needed. However, it will necessitate frequent trips through the house during harvest time when it’s time to store different crops.
Barrel Root Cellar
The simplest form of a root cellar is a barrel. This is extremely cost-efficient but is very limited in space. Simply dig a hole in the ground a bit larger than the barrel and bury it in the ground. These are useful if you only need a small amount of storage or it’s a great way for creating food caches. To add insulation, you can layer your vegetables in dry straw or other dry filler materials such as sawdust.
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Best Types of Food to Store
While root cellars get their name from the root vegetables they typically store, there are many other types of fruits and vegetables that can be stored. While some will have a much longer shelf life than others, it’s still a great way to preserve foods longer to have access to vegetables year-round.
Best Choices for Storage in a Root Cellar
Tips to Root Cellar Storage
To extend the life of produce stored in a root cellar, it’s vital to practice proper food storage.
- Some vegetables require “curing”. This allows the skins to harden slightly to best protect the fruit. Potatoes, winter squash, and onions all require curing.
- Handle vegetables with care! Rough handling can bruise the fruit, causing foods to begin to rot.
- Be mindful of the temperature and moisture conditions in your root cellar. Unlike modern refrigeration, the root cellar won’t have even temperature control. Areas near the door, may not be as optimal for certain vegetables. Likewise temperatures nearer the ceiling may not be as cool as temperatures near the floor. A thermometer and a hygrometer are the best ways to check these vital conditions daily.
- Give the veggies what they like! Some vegetables prefer cold and moist, while others prefer cold and dry. The Farmers Almanac is a great resource to know which vegetables prefer which conditions (even if you don’t have a root cellar).
- Some vegetables need to be packed in sawdust or straw to help best preserve them.
- Don’t wash your produce. It’s best to brush any dirt off the best you can.
- Spread your produce out. Philip has purchased used bread trays that stack. We will use these to spread vegetables out in single layers.
- One bad apple spoils the barrel. This phrase is really about apples! Check your produce regularly looking for food that is going bad, remove immediately before it contaminates the surrounding food.
Building a Root Cellar at Kowalski Mountain
At Kowalski Mountain we are just starting this project. We contracted with Clinton Cockriel from Ed Cockriel & Son Dozer and Backhoe Services to dig the hole we need for this project. It’s HUGE! Clifton made quick work using a backhoe to dig the enormous hole. We are targeting a 12′ by 25′ finished structure. Not only we will be using this for food storage for ourselves, we plan to grow fodder on the farm to feed our animals. As with all projects at the homestead, we built infrastructure in short workcations. Each trip, we tackle just a little bit more. Keep watching us on YouTube to see our latest project come together.
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About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.