Many people are growing their own fruits and vegetables, producing bounteous crops. Even if you’re not tending a garden, storage for seasonal items stockpiled from local farmers markets and backyard crops becomes a challenge. Enter the old-fashioned root cellar.
Before refrigeration and well into the last century, root cellars provided relatively reliable storage for vegetables, fruits and some cured meat. Even with the introduction of electric refrigerators, limited storage space kept root cellars in use in many rural homes. Now many urban and suburban homeowners are rethinking the root cellar as a sensible option for storage and safekeeping for extra emergency supplies.
The concept of root cellars is simple: cool dark and ventilated space, often below the frost line to maintain an even temperature and humidity. Some homeowners are designating a corner of the basement for a root cellar. It’s easy to design in the necessary features of ventilation and storage set up to accommodate the varieties of produce you’ll want to store. Others refer back to Midwestern homesteaders, who dug separate root cellars into hillsides or beneath the prairie sod, and often doubled as storm cellars when violent tornadoes rolled through the area.
Root cellars develop their own science by their very nature: the vegetables emit various gasses as they ripen and age. Certain produce like pears and cabbage store well in cooler (40 degrees) and moister environments indicating a lower storage level. Winter squash and sweet potatoes thrive under warmer (50 degrees) and dryer conditions and would fare better stored higher in the root cellar. Apples emit ethylene gas, which can make carrots bitter. Many root cellar enthusiasts develop techniques such as hanging entire vines of green tomatoes upside down from the ceiling of the root cellar to extend tomato season well into the holidays. Others knot winter squashes into pantyhose and hang them to avoid the pressure rot that occurs when sitting on a hard surface.
There are many ways to construct a root cellar, and much depends on the location and the produce that will be stored. Generally, either a concrete foundation or sand or gravel layered over a dirt floor can keep the temperature even below the frost line. One construction design article we found in Mother Earth News recommended using cedar logs for the walls and ceiling of an underground walk-in root cellar. The article’s author recommended notching and fitting the logs together in a similar fashion to a log home wall. This design could be replicated using #3 grade cedar logs from our mill at a relatively moderate cost.
Framing a root cellar in a corner in the basement requires a location that is removed from the furnace area and other heated spaces. The root cellar should be well insulated from the interior spaces, but not insulated on the exterior basement walls to enable the natural cooling. Two screened ventilation pipes using PVC piping should be placed at locations near the top of the cellar for exhaust and near the floor for inflow. Sometimes a small exhaust fan can be installed to enhance the passive airflow. To monitor temperature and humidity you may wish to install thermometers and hygrometers inside the cellar. The access door should have equal levels of insulation and good seals to keep cool air inside the cellar.
To hold the produce, straw baskets or slatted wooden bins allow air to circulate among the vegetables and fruits. Installing hooks along the ceiling to hold tomato vines, cured meats or squash in the aforementioned stockings. If you are a canner, you’ll want to include plenty of shelving for canned goods.
For more detailed information about building a root cellar, here are some resources: