Wouldn’t it be great if you could grow enough food to sustain you throughout the entire year?
If you live in a climate where you can grow food year-round, this shouldn’t be too challenging.
You can store a lot of your harvest in the basement or even employ preservation methods to extend their shelf life like canning or freezing. But some types of produce just don’t lend themselves well to this kind of processing.
The solution? Root cellars. Root cellars allow you to store large amounts of food without having to worry about them going bad on you – and without electricity.
But what exactly is a root cellar, and how do you make your own? Let’s take a closer look.
What is 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 to keeps the temperature constant between 32 and 40 Fahrenheit (0 and 4.5 Celsius), and the 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 use 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.
Having a refrigerator to store your food works fine – in theory…
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. It 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
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 facility, 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 made it 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”.
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 Crops. Carrots, garlic, turnips, potatoes, beets, onions, parsnips, etc.
- Other Non- Root Vegetables. cabbage, broccoli, pumpkins, winter squash, etc, 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
- .. and more.
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 degrees Celsius slows down the microorganism growth and the release of ethylene gas.
It also limits the decomposition of the food and the growth of mold. These both make crops ripen and spoil., 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 to keep the food cool.
However, we are looking for a particular temperature range that will keep food as fresh as possible for as long as possible.
That temperature range does not include freezing temperatures. After all, some types of food just aren’t well-suited to being frozen.
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.
While 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 as long as 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 scorching heat.
Soil can be a very effective insulating material, and is a cheaper, more natural product than commercial materials.
Do Root Cellars Work in the Desert?
Root cellars work by using the natural temperature of the ground to keep food cool. In hot climates, the ground can be up to 20 degrees cooler than the air above it.
By digging a hole and lining it with insulating materials, you can create a space that stays cool even in the heat of summer.
This makes root cellars an ideal storage solution for desert climates. In addition, root cellars help to minimize evaporation, which is another major problem in hot, dry climates. By keeping food underground, you can reduce the amount of water that is lost to evaporation.
Can You Use a Root Cellar in the Summer?
While it may seem counterintuitive, a root cellar can actually be used to keep vegetables cool during hot weather. The key is to choose a location that is shady and well-ventilated.
The reason for this is that root cells need to maintain a consistent temperature in order to prevent spoilage. A shady spot will help to keep the root cellar cool, while good ventilation will ensure that the air circulates properly.
How Much Dirt Goes on Top of a Root Cellar?
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 colder climates.
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 fridge 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 Do You Make One?
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. 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 suitable to be re-purposed into 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.
What is the Best Floor for a Root Cellar?
While there are a variety of materials that can be used for the floor of a root cellar, concrete is often considered the best option.
Concrete is durable and easy to clean, and it helps to regulate temperature by absorbing and releasing heat. In addition, concrete is not susceptible to rot or other types of damage, making it an ideal material for storing food.
One alternative to concrete is dirt. Dirt floors are often used in traditional root cellars, and they can help to regulate humidity levels naturally. However, dirt floors can be difficult to keep clean, and they may not be ideal if you’re planning on storing delicate items.
Another option is gravel. Gravel floors are easy to install and maintain, and they offer good drainage. However, gravel can be difficult to sweep, and it may not provide enough insulation for delicate items.
The cool, dark, and slightly damp conditions in a root cellar are ideal for preserving food. However, if the cellar is too damp, it can cause the produce to rot. Likewise, if the air is too dry, it can cause the fruits and vegetables to shrivel.
For these reasons, it is important to maintain a consistent level of humidity in a root cellar. The ideal humidity level for a root cellar is between 85 and 95%. This level of humidity helps to keep vegetables from drying out and prevents the growth of mold and other fungi.
To avoid the problem of too much moisture, mold, and mildew in your root cellar, it is important to take steps to keep the root cellar dry. One way to do this is to ventilate the space. This can be done by opening a window or door, or by installing a fan.
Another way to reduce moisture is to store fruits and vegetables in containers that allow air to circulate. Finally, it is important to check the root cellar regularly for signs of mold or rot, and to remove any affected produce immediately.
The answer is yes, but the amount of ventilation needed will vary depending on the location and climate. For example, a root cellar in a warm, humid climate will need more ventilation than one in a cool, dry climate.
The reason for this is that warm, humid air can cause mold and mildew to form on stored food, making it unsafe to eat.
Proper ventilation helps to circulate air and keep the temperature and humidity levels in the root cellar at a safe level. In most cases, a few small vents should be enough to provide adequate ventilation.
The cost of making a root cellar will vary depending on the size and location of the cellar. The most important factor is the soil type. If you have clay or sandy soil, you will need to dig a deeper hole.
Root cellars can be located underground or above ground, and they can be as simple as a hole in the ground lined with straw or as complex as a climate-controlled room.
The cost of building a root cellar depends on several factors, including the size and location of the cellar and the type of materials used. For example, an above-ground root cellar might cost as little as $200 to build, while an underground root cellar could cost upwards of $2000.
Choosing A Location
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.
Some do best in sawdust, sand, or moss – make sure you pay attention to these individual requirements before storing anything in your root cellar.
It is unlikely that the whole root cellar will be at an even temperature. A little effort in storing produce in the best temperature zone will pay dividends.
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 could harm the stored produce.
How Long Does Food Keep in a Root Cellar?
The answer depends on several factors, including the type of food, the temperature, and the humidity. Most vegetables will keep for several months in a root cellar, as long as the temperature remains between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Potatoes and onions can last even longer, up to nine months or more. Fruits such as apples and pears will also keep for several months, although they may start to lose their flavor after a few weeks.
Curing meat is a process of preserving it by applying salt, which inhibits the growth of bacteria that cause spoilage. For centuries, people have used a variety of methods to cure meats, including smoking, drying, and storing them in a cool, dark place.
One popular method is to store the meat in a root cellar. Root cellars are underground rooms that stay cool year-round, making them ideal for curing meat. The cool temperature slows down the growth of bacteria, and the darkness prevents the meat from spoiling.
In addition, the lack of oxygen in a root cellar helps to prevent oxidation, which can cause meat to spoil. As long as the temperature remains consistent and the air is free of moisture, cured meats can be stored in a root cellar for several months. This might be another great reason to consider building a root cellar if you haven’t already!
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.
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.
The cost of constructing a root cellar will vary depending on the materials used and the size of the space.
However, many homesteaders believe that the benefits of having a root cellar far outweigh the cost.
Not only does it allow you to store food for long periods of time, but it also protects your food from power outages and pests. If you are thinking about adding a root cellar to your home, consider the information above before making your final decision.
Otherwise, know that in most cases, it’s a great option for storing your harvest throughout the year – and keeping it fresh while you do!
Three years ago, I bought an off-grid Cortijo in a small valley in the Andalucian mountains. 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, veggies grow well year-round. 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 while still retaining some to make almond milk and flour.