Today, more people than ever are planning to be food self-sufficient. Many others have spare garden areas that they want to grow crops on and hence avoid buying expensive store produce.
Growing seasonal produce makes it difficult to maintain supplies throughout the year. I have a patch of potatoes that are growing at the moment that will be ready for harvest in February. This patch will produce, I hope a 250-pound crop.
I want to be able to keep some of these potatoes to enjoy a few months later. The only way I can achieve this aim is by creating a root cellar.
So, what is a root cellar? A root cellar is a non-electric storage facility that uses the earth’s natural properties of temperature, moisture, and humidity. A root cellar will maintain the ideal temperature constant between 32 and 40 Fahrenheit (0 to 4.5 Celsius), and a humidity between 85% and 95%, regardless of the outside temperature or season.
The ideal location for a root cellar is normally below ground since the conditions there are ideal. An 8 square ft (0.7 square meters) root cellar is perfect for most people, and can be built using an existing structure, or from any rock or wood that happens to be at hand.
Many homes have refrigerators that us electricity to maintain a steady temperature 32 ºF to 40 ºF (0 °C to 4.5 °C). This is the temperature range that is perfect for storing food and will ensure that it is edible for a much longer time.
Generating sufficient electricity to power refrigerators through the winter months can be a challenge for some. Solar power can prove expensive and can be temperamental, especially when you need it the most.
It is also doubtful whether a refrigerator would be large enough to accommodate the amount of produce that a family would require.
A root cellar uses the natural properties of the earth to create a natural refrigerator that does not require electricity and can be constructed to virtually any size. Therefore, a root cellar should provide plenty of space for everything that needs to be kept in chilled conditions.
Root Cellar History
I am always surprised that so many people have never heard of a root cellar. People have been using the earth’s natural properties for cooling and storing food for 40,000 years.
Native Australians and Americans have been using this food storage device. However, it was not until the 17th century that the concept of using a separate room for food storage became popular in the United Kingdom.
The early settlers from the United Kingdom that arrived in eastern areas of Canada and the United States introduced the concept of creating a structure to store their food. This was essential for their survival.
Many of the pioneers constructed sod dugout houses that were often built into banks or hills. Being at least partly underground it was easy for them to isolate a room for food storage.
There are thousands of root cellars dating back to the pioneer times in the eastern regions. There is a town in Newfoundland called Elliston that has more than 135 root cellars, and is proclaimed to be “The Root Cellar Capital of the World”.
During the Great Depression, when food was desperately short, people were encouraged to minimize food waste by building and using root cellars.
What Can Be Stored in a Root Cellar?
It might sound a bit like hard work to dig a hole to store a few potatoes. However, the root cellar can be used to store many things, not just potatoes – and keep in mind it doesn’t require any electricity to function – so 0 maintenance cost!
- Root Vegetables. Carrots, potatoes, beets, etc.
- Other Vegetables. Cabbage, Broccoli, Parsnip, etc.
- Fruit. Apples, Pears, etc.
- Beans. Snap beans, Pinto beans
- Canned Food. Any cans whether home-produced or shop-bought.
- Storage Jars. Any jelly or pickles etc.
- Homebrews. Wines and beer
- Nuts. Almonds, hazelnuts.
- Meat. Any meat that has been dried or cured.
- Seeds. Flower bulbs and rhizomes
A root cellar is a time-tested method of storing any home produced or store-bought foods. Most of these items if stored correctly will last for many months, although I do normally struggle with keeping the homebrews in the store for that long.
Temperature and Humidity
An ideal root cellar should be capable of maintaining a constant temperature between 32 and 40 Fahrenheit (0 to 4.5 Celsius). The cellar should also have a humidity level between 85% and 95%.
Similar to a refrigerator a temperature lower than 4.5 deg Celsius slows down the microorganism growth and the release of ethylene gas. These both make crops ripen and decompose, consequently slowing this process helps them to last longer.
Humidity levels of 85 to 95 percent will prevent crops from losing moisture through evaporation. When crops lose moisture, they start to wither and look unappealing.
Are Root Cellars for Everyone?
It might sound silly for someone in Alaska to have a root cellar, surely it is cold enough already. However, we are looking for a particular temperature range that will keep food as fresh as possible for as long as possible.
In Alaska where temperatures are below freezing levels most of the year, a root cellar is not required to protect against heat. Instead, it is required to protect against the cold.
Whilst high temperatures create the correct environment for crops to rot, freezing temperatures will also render crops inedible.
Therefore, a root cellar can still be useful in very cold environments. That is providing it is in such a location that it can maintain the required levels of humidity and temperature.
There are however some warmer climatic areas that will prove difficult to find a suitable location. The requirements of temperature and humidity that make a root cellar effective may not be available.
The idea of a root cellar is that it should be constructed in such a way that the temperature inside is not affected by the temperature outside. In places such as Arizona, it is necessary to protect it from the heat generated by the sun.
Soil can be a very effective insulating material, and is a cheaper more natural product than commercial materials.
With only one foot of earth above, a root cellar that has been dug into the flat ground a temperature difference of 20 degrees F between the interior and outside can be achieved.
Consequently, the depth of a root cellar will be different in the cold climate. Here it is necessary to be at least partially below the permafrost level, whilst in a warmer climate, it is necessary to reach the level where the temperature levels are stable and can protect crops from the heat.
Some countries such as Spain have used the earth’s natural zones for controlling temperature for many years. The hottest regions have houses that are built into caves or are built of stone with walls that are two feet thick.
These houses are protected from the influence of the sun and maintain even temperature throughout the year with little external help.
Why Not Use a Refrigerator?
A normal refrigerator is far too small to store a food supply that could last for 6 months. It is possible to buy walk-in refrigerators that are an insulated box the size of a room that can be refrigerated.
Why go to the expense of buying and running such a device when nature is capable of providing the correct environment at no cost.
How Can We Create a Root Cellar?
For most the best option is to find a sturdy spade and dig a hole in the ground close to the house. A storage area can be created in this hole. It doesn’t need to be elaborated, and can be built from any materials that are to hand.
This task is not for the faint-hearted as the hole will need to be approximately 10 feet deep to find suitable conditions.
There are easier options to consider before you start on that huge hole as it is possible to create an above-ground root cellar.
Some houses may well have an area that could be suitable for creating a root cellar. For houses that have an existing cellar the northeast corner of the foundation walls can be perfect. A few DIY tasks are all that is required to make a perfect storage area.
An old shed or outbuilding can be insulated by piling earth around and over the structure. This may work well, however, be prepared to help control the environment.
A simple ducting or ventilation system can help with this. Venting or fans help lower nighttime temperatures in the cellar and remove any harmful gases that can be generated by certain products.
Where is The Best Location for a Root Cellar?
Consider first of all where the root cellar should be located. Digging deep next to a house could potentially damage the footings of the house. However, locating it too far from the house might create an unwanted chore when visiting it in the winter months.
Avoid any location that is close to trees. The roots of trees and some vegetation can make it difficult to dig. The roots could regrow in the future, causing significant damage to the storeroom.
Most cellars are positioned by digging into a north-facing hill, or are located on the side of the house that is the coolest. For most this will be on the north side.
These locations will prevent the sun from having too much effect on the temperature within the cellars.
As we have already said the U. S. encompasses many different climatic zones. Consequently, there are locations where the north side is not the best position.
In some of the northern states, temperatures drop well below zero, and maintain that temperature in the winter months.
In these locations, it is best to position the cellar on the southern side of the property. This way, we are using the sun to prevent the temperature in the root cellar from dropping too low.
Storing Things in the Cellar
Unfortunately using a root cellar is not just a question of throwing everything in that needs storing. Paying attention to what and how produce is being stored will help minimize waste.
Some crops have certain varieties that are better suited for storage than others. Late maturing crops will normally last longer in a root cellar.
Any fruit and vegetables should be carefully checked for any damage or signs of decay. One bad item can affect others in the store. Poor quality produce stored in any facility will normally become unusable.
Clean all crops carefully before storing. It is always best to wipe them rather than washing them. However, produce that is particularly dirty can be washed, providing it has been thoroughly dried afterward.
While humidity is essential to maintain freshness, wet crops especially vegetables will start to rot very quickly.
Not every type of crop requires the same storage conditions. Some vegetables benefit from being stored in slightly damp leaves or straw.
It is unlikely that the whole root cellar will be an even temperature. A little effort in storing produce in the best temperature zone will pay dividends. A simple investigation will show where the different areas are located.
Ensure that any fruits that emit ethylene gas are stored away from any more delicate items or wrap them in a newspaper. The newspaper will help to absorb the gas.
Some vegetables have a strong odor that can easily be absorbed by other fruits and vegetables. Try to keep these in a separate area.
Keep an eye on the temperature and humidity and be careful not to open the door unless necessary. The same as you would with a refrigerator. Heat or cold dry air entering the cellar will harm the stored produce.
We saw that a root cellar is a way of using earth’s insulating properties to create a simple storage area. This area can help extend the life of fruit, vegetables, and many other items As such, a root cellar is an essential facility for anyone aiming to become food self-sufficient.
We have seen that it works similar to a refrigerator but without the purchase or operating costs. This has to be a bargain.
Root cellars can be created in most geographical areas. However, some warmer climates in the south of the United States might struggle to find a location where the natural cooling properties are available.
Often, a root cellar will need to be 10 feet (3 meters) deep to have the correct conditions that will make storage effective.
On some occasions, root cellars can be created within a home, or by using an existing outbuilding. Many areas can be adapted for use with some simple DIY work.
To obtain maximum benefit from a root cellar a little thought is required as to how it is used. As with refrigerators, care is required as to what, how, and where things are stored.
Three years ago, I bought an off-grid Cortijo in a small valley in the Andalucian mountains. This move was not really a planned decision to live of-grid, I just fell in love with the tranquil location. Although, perhaps the lifestyle is in my genes as my grandfather and his four brothers were Homesteaders in Alberta Canada in the 1900s. The mountains of Spain are a difficult place to grow many of the flowers that I was used to in the UK. However, veg grows well all year around peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, cucumber, melons and chard all fare well in the Mediterranean climate. Almond trees provide me with a cash crop of around 1 ton whilst still retaining some to make almond milk and flour.