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Root cellar check-in

Checking on the storage veggies

This is going quite well! Mainly, the idea is to do the regular tending, and see how things hold up. Although I’m calling it root cellaring, it’s really quite a limited experiment this first time round. The veggies weren’t too carefully sorted for long-term storage to start with, and I’d pay more attention to getting everything into cool conditions quickly. And really, I’d make sure the space was proper root cellar material! Here, the temperature didn’t drop from 60°F until the last week or so, and it’s only at 50°F now and around 45% humidity. Not exactly ideal. Still, not bad so far. I’ve culled about half a dozen onions from a bushel, lots of the smallest squash (there’s LOTS left), a couple of apples. The pic shows about half of what’s there. If I were holed up in the wilderness and this was my food cache for the next four months, I’d be worried. But I’m not, and we’ll be eating storage veggies for a while… It’ll be interesting to see what’s up in another month. I wonder, how many ways are there to prepare winter squash?!

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38 Comments

  1. Hello!

    Just wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed stumbling upon your site and reading through all the posts. It makes me wish I could do something similar, the urge to get my hands dirty and just ‘grow’ things has been getting steadily stronger the last couple of years. A small plot at home and a place in allotment waiting list hell is all I’ve been able to come up with so far but your story has given me hope!

    Well done! :)

  2. A root cellar is something I really wish we had. I have been storing vegetables on the porch, since we turned the heat on in the house. My stuff does not stay very cool. There is no basement to our house just a crawl space. Most of our stuff gets frozen. I got an extra freezer for that and it sits on the front porch. Once the weather warms up, we figured we wouldn’t be using it, so the porch seemed like the best place to put it. Soemthing else we do, is to dry things that can be dried for storage such as mushrooms and tomatoes. If anyone has any ideas about how we could “make” a root cellar space without the expense of digging one, I am all ears.

  3. Thanks, Paul. Growing veggies can certainly get ahold of you! :)

    Anne, I have a great root cellaring book that I just looked at again for the first time in a few months. It has so many methods for all kinds of situations: Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables (Mike & Nancy Bubel; Storey Publishing). It’s worth getting, for immediate ideas and future plans. LOTS of photos and simple diagrams, and a great section of people’s stories, how they built root cellars in different situations. One idea is to bury an old fridge on its back (after taking out the guts and removing the lock, of course). A bit…landfill chic (I find old fridges kinda depressing :), but it’s a fitting re-use. I have a fridge just waiting for disposal in the barnyard, if I’d thought of it, I’d’ve buried it this fall. (Damn.) And there are all kinds of small burying methods, like digging a hole, lining it with scrap wood and then hardware cloth to keep out rodents, then layering in veggies with hay, straw, leaves, whatever. Minimum recommended size: 2′ deep and 3-4′ square. There’s burying barrels, trenches, using square hay bales, tents, plus regular big, dug-in cellars. Man, I shoulda looked at this book again earlier in the fall, but I was expecting at least another 4-6 weeks of workable weather when the snow hit. Oh well!

  4. I’ve got two good squash recipes if you want. One is an oven-baked risotto, another is pizza (sounds really weird, but good). Both are standards at our house, as we’ve still got bushels of gold nugget squash downstairs. Not the ideal temp. down there, either! Email me if you’re interested.

  5. Ryan

    Hey Mike, Santa brought us a digital thermometer to measure temp and humidity so we can track the temp this winter to see how the root cellar planned for next year will fare. We need to find a way to store some of those great veggies we are expecting next season. What sort of temp and humidity ranges are you finding?

  6. Hey Ryan, it sounds like you may have a basement and are planning to build a root cellar in it. If you do and you aren’t, you should! It’s relatively inexpensive, and fairly simple, just a little walled off storage room, preferably with its own outside window or vent so that you can regulate temperature and let in some cold. Search for something like “basement root cellar”, there are lots of articles and plans online. A good book is the one I mentioned in the comments above. For most storage veggies, anywhere under 5°C to just around freezing is best, with high humidity, 90%+. Our basement here isn’t ideal, it used to have a dirt floor, and even earlier, there was no furnace, and it was filled with potatoes and other veggies for an entire big family’s winter eating. Now, with the furnace, the temperature probably won’t go below 8-10°C. For the farming, the plan is to build a root cellar out in the field (dig a BIG hole,…), so I haven’t bothered fixing up the basement.

  7. Ryan

    I actually ordered that book today. Looking forward to reading a bit more on it. I started constructing some wooden bushel crates modelled after an apple crate I found online. Some shelving and such should be next on the list. The temp right now in the cellar is hovering around 7 degrees so its a tad warm but the door to the boiler room is open currently so I’m sure that’s throwing a couple degrees worth of heat in there as well. I think when I get the remaining concrete floor torn up and back to the bare earth that should help as well. I guess harvest season is a long time away still but it will save rushing come late summer/fall.

  8. That sounds great! 7°F is getting there. In the past, I’ve stored beets, carrots, potatoes for a couple of months in the Milkhouse in warmer conditions than that! If they’re in good shape to start with, veggies can can be surprisingly forgiving!

    I started a post in Tiny Farm Forum, Building a basement root cellar, that sums up the basics. I’ll add anything I come up with or think of or learn, and you could add your discoveries, ideas, questions, whatever, whenever you like!

  9. Ryan

    Perfect. I’ll post some pics on my blog as the root cellar progresses..

  10. Anonymous

    I’m curios what other people have found about the quality of the veggies they’ve stored. My neighbor loves to give me carrots that she has stored for several months, but I usually can’t use them for anything other than soup (or soup stock!)

    I’ve stored garlic, potatoes, squash in my unheated basement for years, with mixed results. I just cooked a pumpkin yesterday and the flavor was pretty bland. My temps are high, I think, about 50F, although they do go lower in colder weather. Also, the humidity is nowhere near 90%. Do you really think it should be that high? It seems like you would encourage mold.

    I’d really like to improve my winter storage, so I’m thinking about how to isolate a storage area against an exterior wall, and maybe use the water coming in from the well to keep it cool. My major problem is air circulation.

  11. Hey, Anonymous, that’s interesting, I wonder what results people are getting from cold storage, what’s ideal and what is being used but isn’t that great. I’ll start a topic in the forum, and sooner or later we may find out!

  12. Lee

    Wondering how you’ve made out by now, end of April?   No doubt you’ve learned onions are NOT for rootcellaring and neither are punkins and squash.  Certain apples are better than others as well as potatoes.  When temp is right, and humidity too, rootcrops keep well.  You shouldn’t keep apples and potatoes together.  We’ve had a cellar with dirt floor for years.  Russets and Yukon potatoes are still as good as the day I put them in.   Greening apples are still not bad.  Carrots, beets, parsnips and winter radishes are still holding up well.  They can now be reset in the garden to get seed from.   You can build a nice “cold room’ in the corner of a basement relatively cheap and it will function nearly as well as a root cellar.  We have a dry cold room in our basement since we also have the cellar.  Onions, sweet potates, punkins, hams, and squash are kept there along with all our home canned things.  Root cellar is too damp for all of the above.  It will rust the lids on your fruit jars unless you use zinc lids or glass lids that don’t require a bale handle as the wire bail rusts too in a root cellar.   If the cellar doesn’t rust the lids, it’s not high enough humidity to do a good job of keeping your root crops.

  13. Lee: Yeah, your assessment is about right. When I saw that it wasn’t getting very cold, and it certainly wasn’t very humid, I knew it wasn’t gonna be great. Trying it out was a kind of afterthought, and I didn’t really check out or prep the basement. The winter squash actually did OK, there are still some good acorn squash. The onions were largely OK as well till about a month ago, except lots of them started to sprout. There weren’t many apples and potatoes, so we used most of ’em, but they last ones started shriveling and decomposing one way or another. There wasn’t enough humidity for carrots and beets, so I put them in plastic bags with a bunch of holes punched in as an emergency measure, which increased the humidity and kept most of ’em edible till we ran out. Anyhow, I’ll be cleaning it out soon and post a…report. :) This year, I’ll hopefully be able to work on a real, two-room root cellar.

  14. Tom

    Re:  Root Cellar Construction Questions.

    Any input appreciated.  Planning a 8′ x 10′ below-flat-ground root cellar on a prairie farm site.

    1.  I want to use pressure treated lumber for walls and roof – are there any problems with chemical out-gassing of such lumber into the cellar? 
    2.  Are there any problems insulating walls and roof with fiberglass batts?  If so, what alternatives do you recommend?
    3.  Would it be wise to line interior with a shower-liner type of material (for condensation, for ease of cleaning, to naturally “brighten” the room, to seal against out-gassing if this is a problem with treated lumber, etc.)?
    4.  What stops this room from filling up with water due to snow melt, heavy rains?  The roof will overhang the walls 2′.  Roof will have 1′ to 2′ of earth covering it.  Walls and roof will have tar and plastic over plywood so will be waterproof.  Water would thus enter only from below walls or through door seams.  Floor will be 4″ of rock with a rock-sump centered in floor and a rock-sump outside of door.  Are these methods good enough to prevent flooding?  Am I too overly concerned about this issue?
    5.  Is it best to locate cellar in a shady area or does this not matter because it is used primarily in winter?  

    This is a very nice site.  Thanks in advance for any input.  I do have books on the subject but am having trouble with these project-specific issues.  If this query should be posted in a better subject locale please let me know.

    Good day!
    Tom

  15. Reb

    Tom, I built a 10x 12 inground root cellar in summer of 07, I built it out of treated lumber. I used 2×4 every foot ( 2×6 would be better) sheeted with 1/2 inch treated plywood on the sides, the roof is treated 2×10 on 12″ centers covered with 3/4 inch treated plywood. I treated the outside with old motor oil and tar mix several times letting it dry each time before appliing more, I then covered it completely with about 6 layers of 4 and 6 mill plastic most of it black, I also put  layers of 1/4 in fan polystyrene scraps ( I would not use fiber batts as they will absorb water and make a mess)I had accumulated up to about an inch I reckon then covered it with peagravel about 6″ the styrene is on top the plastic and protects it from the gravel,I also covered the gravel with a poly tarp several layers thick to keep the dirt from washing down into it it is covered by about 2′ of heavy yellow clay that is what we have for dirt here,its heavy and I see no signs of sag or shifting,( if I build another I plan to put sand on top a couple feet deep rather than the clay)the walls sit on hardpan and I used scraps of treated boards crossways to the walls base as “feet” to give more support, I then drilled hols and drove foot long pieces of rebar in every other studspace into the hardpan to secure the walls from slideing in, I built a laminated beam out of treated 2x 6 and ran it the long way with a steel post with adjustment in the middle in case I neet to push it up a bit,so far nothing has budged,I keep a close eye on it. It has been a terribly wet year since then and not a drip of water,the floor is pea gravel and I was blessed to have an old french drain lower than the floor is to let any excess water drain out,all moisture stays in the gravel floor except the humitity,but no drips even when it reaches 85% plus, I have no oil smells inside the unit from the outside treatment,and does it ever keep taters nice! I have two small fans that are 12v that I can use to push/pull air in and out . The coldest it got in there last winter with below zero outside was abour 38F the warmest this summer with 80s was about 64F
    You may want a pump in the sump,just in case,but other than that it can be done. Also be sure to use stainless nails ,screws and hardware or very good galvanized,anything less is to invite a disaster as the metal corrodes under the stress and treated lumber,which now is heavily copper based. I was planning a stone one but I hurt my back last spring and had to take it easy so to speak, lumber was esier to work with but it cost more than the stone method would have,it can be done, and it works well,just be sure to use top notch materials and take care to do a safe job(I would not use anything lighter than what I did in this one and in fact will go heavier next time,even though I had an engineer friend say I was safe with what I did),keeping food in this thing has been great,but getting hurt wouldn’t be worth it,I hope you do it and good luck!

  16. cathy

       My question is would it be okay to bury an old fridge in the ground to use to store some potatoes, onions, and apples. and what would be the best thing to cover over the lid? I know when I was a kid people used to do this, but I just wasn’t quite sure because I was just a kid.
                                                                                 thank you,
                                                                                                  cathy

  17. Garden Dreamer

    Does anybody have plans/ideas for a root cellar built directly under a house with a crawl space. I am getting ready to build a new home on 1.2 acres and want to build the cellar into the home. Thanks, Garden Dreamer

  18. Reb

    Cathy, I have used that method over the years and it will work but there are several things I would mention from experience.
    #1 Never put your potatoes in with apples onions or other fruits,theres not enough breathing space even with a vent for the two to co-exist because of the ethylene gas given off by fruits will rot the potatoes.

    It is best to have a couple fridges or freezers and seperate these items.

    #2 Ventilation: you will need it,otherwise the fridge will trap moisture which will harm the produce,vents can be made from 3or4 inch pvc pipe fittings installed through the lid straight up as most of the time the unit will be on its back in the ground,I bury mine up to the top of the main body with the lid slightly out of the ground and then cover it with hay or straw or battens followed by plastic or some such thing to keep it dry, this is an outdoor installation,one can delete the plastic if the unit can be buried in a sheltered area or hidden under a haypile in the barn which will insulate it quite well.
    I used several types of these setups over the years with decent results,I now have a nice inground rootcellar and really dont need to use this method anymore but as I say it will work, I dont know how cold your area gets(or hot?) here in nothern Pa it gets cold,below zero lots of the winters so you will have to tweak yours to get the best performance,dont be shy about trying other ways,like just a lined hole in the ground or a 55 gal drum,the possibilities are many and the results are worth it,good eatin’, hope that helps.

  19. Reb

    Garden Dreamer,
    If you are building a new house with a crawlspace you can use either the crawlspace closed off to your specs or you can dig it deeper in a certain spot; say under the kitchen as was done by many folks years ago, ever think about having a trap door under the kitchen island? one that the island could be pushed aside to access the door? Itd be a cool hiding spot if you wanted it to be kinda hidden,you know, from the noisy neighbor or  brother in law,of course in new construction you can do it any way you can dream up,just remember the ventilation; the space has to breath and the airflow needs to be manipliable with a vent in and out of some kind this is where I have seen most folks have problems,hope this helps some.

  20. Thanks a lot for the root cellar topic. We’ve been talking about this for some time, but have not come up with a good solution yet. Never mind time to build one. We also thought a project like that would require a building permit. But we do have a freezer waiting for pick up. Not anymore… Many thanks for the great ideas and information.

  21. One question though, if this topic is still open – when the ground is frozen, that would freeze the vegetables as well, if they’re only a few feet under ground?

  22. Reb

     Stefan, Where I live temps often drop well below zero, I suppose if you lived high in the mountains or way up north and the ground froze really deep it could cause a problem, that is why I always tried to put a layer of protected hay/straw over mine,never had any trouble at 20 below for a short time, as far as building a cellar and a “permit ” go ,I never have nor would I get one, I dont want a bunch of govt people knowing I have a store of food that they could confistcate if they felt it was in their intersts to do so(and after all its really just a glorified refridgerator, so far at least here they dont tax my fridge),you do what you want to but part of this whole idea is to be independent and able to function outside the scope of things as things in this nation get even tighter and more people get hungrier and desperate,you may not want anyone much to know or think you have what they need,just my thoughtsIMHO, give building something a try,the results are worth it !

  23. Baptiste

    I’m searching for an above ground, not in a basement option for an urban root cellar.  In a climate that definitely goes below zero in the winter, but is also very wet.  I was thinking about an insulated (from the house and the outside) box on the side of the house.

  24. Reb

    Bapiste, I see no reason why not, A well insulated add on box type room should work. However I recommend a dirt/gravel floor(for humidity) and generous controllable venting both to the outside and to the inside of the heated area; it is inperitive to have sufficent ability to vent the space,to let new air in and old out; and to be able to regulate the heat/cold air into and out of the space during very cold weather.
    You probably dont need a very big space unless you have alot of produce to store,keeping it small will help you control the temps and humidity easier,I just finished putting the apples into the cellar(4-5hundred pounds) I have 4-5 hundred lbs of potatoes,many squash,carrotts onions,sunchokes and other things in there and I have alot of extra space left to fill in mine,so most people I think could get by with alot less room and still have lots of good food in theirs.

    Aside from that it should work,one can only try! Good luck!

  25. Reb

    Oh, and be sure to use a polystyrene type insulation as fiberglass will soak up moisture and eventually become useless.

  26. Nicole

    Thanks for the great site. We are just beginning our homesteading adventure and sites like yours are really making the job easier.

  27. Viola A.

    We just built a large rootcellar with cedar post walls and a gravel floor with a cement slab ceiling and an outer staircase with an insulated door.  I have two lower intake pipes and two outlets on the ceiling, made of 2″ pvc pipe.

    The temperature inside is 42 degrees, even now that the outside temperature is going to minus 19 Celsuis at night.  The humidity is condensing heavily on the ceiling, and is too high for my potatoes. I don’t know if I should risk lowering the temperature further by letting more air in;  I did leave the outside and lower stairwell doors open on Saturday when the temperatue outside in the sun was minus 2 C.  That lowered the inside temperatue to 40C but didn’t change the humidity perceptibly. 

    What would be the best way to decrease the humidity, which I suspect is around 95%. 

  28. Zach

    Hi All
     
    I am a small-scale farmer and am building a coldroom/root cellar.  Originally I intended to refrigerate the space in the summer, and use it as root cellar in winter.  it is to be built into the side of a hill.  But now i am considering cooling it with ice.  A chunk of ice (2’x3′) in a pit in the ground covered with sawdust.  I know this was used before, ice houses were popular ways of storing lake ice for summer use.  But i haven’t found description of ice block used to cool a produce cold room.  Any insights into the idea.

  29. How nice that this terrific subject is still open and being posted to.  I have a suggestion that’s worked very well for us here in Northern Indiana for several years.   We live on sand, and have a small place in the country.  We get extreme weather this close to Lake Michigan with lots of heavy snow.   We bought new and buried metal garbage cans in the ground out in the back.  We left just about an inch and a half of the edge of the can sticking out of the ground.   We fill one with apples, and another with potatoes and beets.   We then bought a smaller one and filled it with onions and cabbages.
    We rake about 4″ of leaves over the top, lay a tarp over that and lay some 3″ tree limb sections over that to hold it down.
    When we open that can with the apples in it in the middle of the winter, that spicy delicious apple smell comes flooding out and just amazes me, every time.    The kind of apples to store is very important, and I know Fuji and Golden Delicious are great, but always have to ask at the orchard when we get them to make sure we get the right kinds.   We always pick them ourselves at the orchard, carry them home very gently, then wrap each in newspaper and put them back in bags with the name of the kind written on the outside.   I can go out, turn back the tarp, lift the lid, and reach down inside with the hook end of a fireplace poker to lift out my apples as we need them.    Our granddaughter thinks its just the best ever.
    Each spring, when store potatoes are soft and withered, ours are crisp and fresh out of our barrels.   What a low cost, low work alternative we’ve found and it works very well for us.
    The only problem we’ve ever had was this spring when we got so much heavy rain that the ground was totally saturated and everyone’s crawl spaces flooded.   The water forced the cans up out of the ground.   I went out to get some potatoes one day and found them floating almost completely out of their holes, but the food inside was still chilled and delicious.
     
     

  30. Chris S.

    We live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where it gets below freezing, but not severely so.  After reading a recent article in Mother Earth News about a “Dirt Bag House” (built of stacked sandbags full of soil into a dome-roofed structure), we are going to try to build a small root cellar structure on the sloping area of the backyard.  The walls will be about 12″ thick and covered with loose soil and planted with something to hold the soil and make it more attractive.
    If it works out well, I will be happy to share the photos and experience with anyone interested (if it is an abysmal failure, I will just push the dirt back into the hole and try to forget the entire experience!)

  31. Shawn

    I just read the posts from the last couple years here and it seems that nobody has responded to the question a installing a root cellar under an existing home that has a crawl space. I am working on such a project now with some good sucess so far. I have gone thru the crawl space hatch door in our walk in closet and started digging out the dirt with a short handled shovel, removing the dirt in 5 gallon buckets; hauling it outside to the backyard to make raised garden beds. I now have a 6′ x 9′ x 7′ deep cellar that keeps a nice, cool, even temperature. I was hoping to keep it all dirt walls but the engineering requires it to be poured cement or cinder block walls so I will now pour a foundation (running a trough thru the foundation vent hole) and put up the block walls. The floor will be gravel, the ceiling will be spanned with wood beams OVER an exterior grade plywood which will have stryrofoam insulation sandwiched between that and an out-layer of the plywood – that being covered with plastic and some remaining dirt. All of this will make the cellar completely under-ground for a longer temperate environ inside the cellar which equates to longer storage life for the foods. As mentioned in earlier posts, there will also be an inlet and outlet for good air circulation.
    This is just one way it can be done……

  32. “Excellent farming blog! I, too, used to run a farm (just a small hobby farm), but that was too much trouble time-wise since I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time there. And, by the way, I can’t imagine myself having enough time for farming AND blogging. Not sure how you do that. :) Do you live at your farm location throughout the year?

    Oh, and as far as our farm, I decided to sell it last year. It’s still listed for sale at Horse Clicks in their farms for sale category. Just in case anyone interested, contact Rick Schaufer, our listing agent. =)
    Report violation

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  34. claire

    We live in Eastern BC and have a wood stove fueling the furnace in our basement. As a result, there is no spot in the house that stays cool through the winter, and no space outside that doesn’t freeze and get covered with lots of snow. Does anyone have ideas on how to work around this issue for storing potatoes?
    Thanks!

  35. John

    I’m a contractor/hobby farmer in Chapel Hill, NC and have read all the posts to this forum with great interest (since I’m getting ready to dig a root cellar). There are some basic building issues that have come up that I thought I would address. 1) For gods sake DO NOT USE FIBERGLASS INSULATION in below ground applications.  Once it gets wet (which it will) it is useless – more than useless – it becomes a health hazard breeding mold. 2) treated lumber is OK below ground –  but why wouldn’t you use concrete or cinder block on walls? 3) Excessive moisture in your concrete tomb is because your ceiling is impervious and moisture simply condenses on the cold surface – better dig up gravel on floor and lay heavy mil reinforced plastic down as a moisture barrier then cover back with gravel.  This will stop moisture so easily coming into that space, but will not prevent ALL moisture from getting in. 4) It’s best not to have a root cellar under your house (unless contained and separately vented)-  a root cellar has to have a high relative humidity and that is the last thing you want directly connected to your living space. Your house acts as a chimney pulling moist air up into your house where your HVAC system has to deal with that moisture. You are adding significantly more to your electric bill to keep your house comfortable.  There are some great (and not so great) ideas out there and I enjoy reading them all … keep up the good work on this blog!

  36. Retired from teaching and now living in the beautiful mountains of western NC.  This is my first attempt at gardening in clay soil.  When I lived at home with my parents in MA, they were able to store so many vegetables in the cellar.  We have a large crawl space under our cabin so I’m reading lots of literature on what I need to know about  humidity, temperature, moles, mice and successful winter storage.  It is so empowering to be able to feed ourselves throughout the cold snowy winter when we can’t get down the mountain after a blizzard closes all roads for days.  Enjoying your blog.

  37. rosewy

    Hi All,
     I’m in the process of digging a root cellar on my property here in northern Wyoming.  I have a two chamber design.  I have one as dry storage for canning goods and lots of other things and the “wet” storage is for the root veggies.  As far as I can see the main concern is the ventalation, its different for both.
     My next project is a ice house or may be a spring house over the creek.
     Thank you for the time to share.
     Rose  

  38. Tracy

    Hello,
    Hopefully i.m not too late to the root cellar party. My wife and i recently purchased a 200+ year old stone farmhouse in rural pennsylvania, with detached stone summer kitchen. The root cellar, under the summer kitchen, is in amazing shape, and only had one problem keeping us from utilizing it. The visible exit vent at the back of the root cellars roof does not seem to have a clear exit to the outside. After dark, i used a flashlight, shined up the shaft of the vent and there is no visible light to the outside. I.m assuming its very important to have an unobstructed exit vent. Does anyone have any experience with this? The stone structure is itself about 200 years old. My suspicion is that the vent had been covered by dirt and time on the outside, and that to dig down along the outside wall is the solution or that it may have been covered by stonework through the years, as there are several areas on the wall of the above summer kitchen where repairs are obvious. Does anyone know of it was the norm to have the “chimney” of the vent be built within the wall above the vent? Any advice is helpful.

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