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Build A Root Cellar To Store Vegetables

August 15, 2011 by  

Build A Root Cellar To Store Vegetables

I have found that for us to be self-sufficient we must be able to store vegetables and fruit in a cold storage or root cellar. The root cellar provides a safe, stable year-round storage facility for many different types of vegetables that we grow ourselves or would normally find at a farmers market in the fall. If you do not have a garden, then take advantage of the farmers markets and the inexpensive abundance available at harvest time.

Root CellaringWe have a huge garden with many different vegetables that can be kept for winter eating. Last year, my husband built a root cellar. He got the plans from a book called Root Cellaring, Natural Cold storage of Fruits and Vegetables, by Mike and Nancy Bubel. This book is amazing, and we found it most helpful. It is available on my website

I stock up on all kinds of winter squash to store in my root cellar. We store food that we grow on our property such as potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, onions, apples and squash. I also store everything to make my homemade salsa such as tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers and, of course, onions. We live in the mountains at about 5,500 feet. When it freezes in the fall, I always have tons of green tomatoes still on my vines. So I pick them green and place them in shallow boxes with newspaper on the bottom so if they do start to rot, the newspaper absorbs the moisture. I continually sort the tomatoes into rotten ones that might have gotten a little bit frozen and ripe red ones. As the green tomatoes ripen, I make canned salsa. My peppers stay fresh as well in the root cellar, because it stays cool just like a refrigerator. By Christmas time, all my tomatoes have ripened, and I have canned several large batches of salsa. It saves us a lot of money, and we don’t go to the grocery store as much in the winter.

I like the fact that I am not at the mercy of the produce that is shipped to us from Mexico and other places. I know that my food has been organically grown without pesticides or any chemical fertilizers. I believe that my family is healthier because we eat this way.

Building a Root Cellar

What kind of root cellar would be best for your family and property? There are several different types of root cellars. The size really doesn’t matter either. The location, depth of the cellar and its size totally depend upon your space and your needs. The underground cellar lends itself easily to the dirt and rocks that surround it.

When deciding on the size or type of root cellar, consider how much produce you want to store. Is it for your use only, or do you intend to share with other family members and friends? If times get tough, food will be more precious than gold. Since you can’t eat gold, you might consider selling or bartering some of your food.

A simple 5-by-8 cellar provides plenty of room for one person or two. An 8-by-8 cellar offers enough room for the average extended family, and a 10-by-10 cellar offers more than enough room for multiple families. Our root cellar is 6 feet by 12 feet.

The Pioneers Built Root Cellars

In the olden days, the pioneers had root cellars on every piece of property that was homesteaded. They were usually dug either into a hillside or as a deep pit, like an underground room. The pioneers either formed walls by stacking rocks and cementing them with natural clay that hardens as it dries or using just the dirt and sand to insulate them. A ceiling was put on top using cedar posts very close together and sealed with burlap, plastic or waterproof fabric, then covered with dirt on top. The cellars had a door or a hole on top with a ladder to get into the pit. The hole was covered with a large piece of wood to keep the snow out. This type of cellar keeps a constant cold temperature year-round. The pioneers were very innovative. They placed a large, flat slab of rock on other rocks that served as legs, which provided a table for the milk from the cow, eggs from the chickens and anything else that needed to stay cold like a refrigerator. The rock would get cold and stay cold year-round. The root cellars were always vented, so they had circulation to keep them dry inside and bring cool air into the cellar.

Root Cellar pitThe ideal temperature in a root cellar is about 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Our root cellar heats up to about 50 degrees in the summer. That is when most fresh produce has rotted or been thrown out to the chickens. As it cools down, it will keep produce very nicely.

In The Basement, Under The Porch, Surrounded By Cement

If you are building a new home, you can plan for a cold storage or cellar that is attached to your home or adjoining a basement. If you do not have a basement, you can take an outbuilding and insulate it really well to use as a cold storage. Some homes have a wine cellar. This type of room is ideal for keeping fresh produce because it is underground and stays cool. Just remember to vent it so you have air circulation. The photo below is a cement room under a porch that has a dirt floor in part of the room for a potato pit.

In The Ground, With A Food Storage Building On Top

This is the type of root cellar we built, and we really like it. The only drawback is that it cost a lot more money than we expected: about $6,000. The photo below is of our root cellar with a stairway that goes down to the cellar and a food storage room on top of the cellar.

Root Cellar pitIt attaches to the other shed that we keep all our camping and evacuation equipment in. It looks fairly normal, and no one would know it was a root cellar if we didn’t tell them. My husband decided to use cinder block for the walls. He backfilled behind the walls with sand to insulate the room even more. The ceiling is made of cement with a lot of rebar. It has worked out well and keeps everything cool and dry. The next project is to build shelves for the crates of potatoes, apples, carrots, beets, etc., to sit on. The shelves must be made of pretreated lumber so the wood doesn’t get moist, rot and fall apart.

Built Into The Side Of A Hill

A dugout is the cheapest type of root cellar to build; however, extra care must be taken to make sure it is well insulated. Your cellar is better protected during the winter months because the earth top and sides are great insulators. The snow in the winter is also a great insulator. The floor of the dugout should be graded on a slight downward slope, so rain or snowmelt will drain away if it seeps into the cellar. The floor of the dugout should have at least 4 inches of sand or rock to help with drainage and allow any water that might get into the cellar to seep into the sand and keep the cellar dry. The dirt that surrounds the cellar keeps the produce cool year-round.

Using leaves or grass clipping on top of root vegetables

I remember my grandparents telling stories about the Great Depression. They would take all the leaves and grass clippings from the yard and cover the carrots, beets and turnips with the mulch. When they wanted to harvest the root vegetables, they would just lift the leaves with a shovel and dig the carrots, beets and turnips. The root vegetables were just fine with a pile of leaves on top of them for insulation.

If you have access to bags of leaves or bags of mulch, put them directly over the carrots, beets and turnips. When you want to dig them up, just brush the snow away, lift the bag of mulch off the vegetables and dig. Put the bags back over the root vegetables and keep them there until you want to dig again. This makes it easier, because all you have to do is lift the bags. It keeps the ground insulated enough that it will not freeze the vegetables.

You can dig a big pit to keep potatoes or apples in. Line the pit with a tarp or heavy duty plastic. Lay the apples in the pit, being careful not to smash them. Cover the apples with another tarp, and pile all your fall leaves on top of the tarp for insulation. When you want apples, just lift the tarp and leaves and grab what you need. Cover it back up with the leaves for protection.

Another idea for a cold storage is an old refrigerator or freezer buried into the ground with the back of the refrigerator toward the bottom of the hole so the lid will lift up. This will insulate the crops enough to keep them from freezing in the winter.

I have seen people bury large metal garbage cans with lids on them in the ground. They put sand in the bottom of the cans. Carrots, beets and turnips keep well in sand. You can also pull up cabbage by the roots and stand them up in the sand with their roots down.

Building Materials: Wood

Always use pressure-treated lumber when building shelves, or the wood will eventually rot and fall apart. If you are going to go to all the work of building shelves, it is wise to spend the money needed to get the better wood.

The food storage room that we built on top of our root cellar is made of wood. Its well-insulated walls measure 2 inches by 6 inches. The floor, which is also a ceiling for the room below, is made of cement. It has a slanted roof that extends past the building so the snow and rain won’t seep into the walls. It has about 4 inches of gravel so the water will drain away from the building.

Building Materials: Dirt, Gravel, Sand Or Cement

Our root cellar has a dirt floor mixed with sand and gravel. It absorbs humidity and keeps potatoes from rotting. Just lay the potatoes in a dirt pit, and they will be fine. Potatoes love the dirt. I sort through my potatoes periodically and discard any that are rotting.

The walls of our root cellar are made of cinder block, which is similar to cement. The ceiling is made of cement with rebar in it. Cinder block, cement, stacked-rock or dirt walls all work well for the cellar. What you’re trying to achieve is a well-insulated room.

Tomatoes, peppers, onions, squash and apples need a dryer environment. Carrots, potatoes, beets, cabbage and turnips need a more humid environment. You might need two rooms that have different humidity levels. The room on top of our root cellar is well insulated and has a cement floor. It’s just right for onions, squash and apples. Keep apples and onions away from each other or on opposite sides of the room. Otherwise, they will spoil.

Tending Your Root Cellar

Root Cellar pitRoot cellars need vents to keep airflow going through the cellar. It helps keep the temperature constant and release any gasses that come from the food as it ripens. This allows fresh air to circulate throughout the cellar to keep the food fresh, dry and cool.

We are in process of building shelves along the sides of our cellar room where we will put crates full of fruits and vegetables. The crates we will use have slats on all sides and the bottom. That allows the air to circulate around the vegetables and fruit. Keeping the produce dry and cool will make it last longer. We plan to use stackable crates that are made to last, with screws to hold the sides together. The crates come in a kit with all four sides prebuilt. All you have to do is screw them together. To order the kits go to

We have a thermometer with a humidity gauge in our root cellar. We check it frequently each month throughout the year and it only fluctuates for 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit from summer to winter. That is the perfect temperature.

We have lights in our cellar. We leave the lights on during the coldest months of the winter to warm up the room just a bit during freezing weather. The dirt on the sides and top of the cellar keep the room insulated and protect it from freezing, too.

I like to check the produce every few days as I use the food in the cellar. If I see signs of spoilage or mold, I get rid of the food immediately. We have chickens, and they love the discarded food. We learned the hard way about mold on our winter harvest. We covered our squash with a wool blanket so it would not freeze, and it caused all the squash to mold. So remember: Produce must have airflow. Without it, you might lose your whole crop.

If your cellar gets too warm or too cold, you can open the vents or even stuff them with socks to cool down or warm up the room. Play around with leaving the door open at night to cool off the room, then shutting it during the day. Try to keep the temperature constant if you can regulate it.

Emergency Foor Storage & Survival HandbookFood Storage And Self-Sufficiency Products Available

If you are interested in any of the seven books I have written, such as Emergency Food Storage and Survival Handbook or Cookin’ with Home Storage Cookbook; root cellar storage box kits; 250-gallon water storage tanks, food-storage containers, ION water treatment, solar “Sun Ovens,” dehydrated food sealed in gallon-sized cans with a shelf life of 15 or more years, wheat grinders, sewage treatment, 72-hour packs or emergency medical supplies, click here.

Prepackaged food storage meals, with a 15 year shelf life

I have been storing packaged meals called eFoods. They are ideal for long-term food storage because they are packaged in Mylar® pouches that serve four people. Everything is in the pouch except water. Just add water and cook the food for 15 minutes, and it’s done. The meals are delicious, and the company will let you try samples of the meals before you buy. Just pay $9.95 for shipping, and you get three meals that serve four people. I find them very delicious and easy to make. That is what you need in a crisis situation. I don’t just save them for a rainy day; I make the eFoods for meals when I am in a hurry, in the mountains, camping, hiking or feeding a crowd. I have decided that premade meals are the best food storage you can buy. They are fast, easy and convenient. You don’t waste food that way. This company has a program through which you can get one box of food per month. They call it “auto-shipment,” and it’s great! All you need is 10 minutes to set it up, and your food storage will be on auto-ship. Each month, you get a box of food delivered to your home. Go to the website, click on take the Freedom Tour, sign up for the free food and enjoy. Check it out here.

–Peggy Layton

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for Peggy Layton on the upcoming TLC special “Livin’ For The Apocalypse,” which premieres on Sunday, Aug. 28 at 10 p.m. EDT.


Peggy Layton

a home economist and licensed nutritionist, holds a B.S. in Home Economics Education with a minor in Food Science and Nutrition from Brigham Young University. Peggy lives in Manti, Utah with her husband Scott. Together they have raised seven children. Peggy owns and operates two businesses: One called "The Therapy Center", where she is a licensed massage therapist and hypnotherapist, and the other an online cookbook and preparedness products business. She is nationally known for publishing a series of seven books on the subject of food storage and also lectures and teaches seminars about preparedness and using food storage products. Peggy practices what she preaches, has no debt, grows a huge garden, lives off the land, raises chickens, bottles and dehydrates food and has time left over to operate her businesses. To check out Peggy's cookbooks and self sufficiency products go to her website To get a free sample of three different storable meals that have a 15-year shelf life go here.

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  • Ray Mason

    Your information is very good. You totally negelected the problems around root cellars in low lying areas. If one lives on the coastal plain with water tables typically 2 or 3 feet, then you have a totally different problem with moisture and drainage. Ray

    • Sarah

      Hi Ray,
      If you’re not able to do a root cellar then dehydrating is the way to go. You don’t even have to garden. You can buy frozen veggies, dehydrate and store in canning jars with an oxygen packet, these packets can be found online real cheap. As you open a jar and use some of the food you then put the oxygen packet back in and it will again suck the oxygen out of the jar and you will hear the top pop. It’s a great way to preserve. I’ve also been teaching myself how to do canning and how to pressure cook and can meats and soups. Freezing something has a very short shelf life and preserving by canning can last for a few years. Dehydrating can last for years also. I’ve attached a link to a wonderful lady on youtube who has all kinds of video and information on dehydrating.
      God Bless America and keep always keep it Free!

    • http://?? Joe H.

      Yes, it is good info, but I don’t understand the need for four inches of gravel on a concrete floor that is slightly slanted? If it is concrete and slanted, it should drain to the slant without the gravel.
      Especially on a floor that is the roof of a room below.

  • Noal Johnson

    Live in the Houston Area, North, probably use for winter only?
    Is it possible to have one for all year.

  • Christin

    Thanks Peggy,

    Always love reading your articles… I would LOVE to build a root cellar to store food without the need for electricity, but it is costly. We are in a very hot climate in the hills with a lot of sand and clay… compacted it is hard… and don’t know if we could do it by ourselves. We would need heavy equipment to do the job. Also don’t know how to keep the cellar from leaking from rains. When I lived up north our basement leaked and we also had a ‘sumpump’ (?) to drain water out. How do you keep out bugs…

  • SJvet

    The pioneers used plastic?

  • Rennie

    Excellent article, I have been advocating root cellars for years, especially when people live in tornado prone areas where it could double as a storm shelter. If in a real survival struggle, a 55 gallon drum under at least a foot of earth would do, and I would suggest not altogether in case someone is raiding them. Don’t underestimate the mischief wild animals can do if you have anything from skunks to bears in the neighborhood. If you have a backwoods retreat, camping plot or cabin, I advise at least a 55 gal. drum for food/survival storage in case you got isolated there.

    • independant thinker

      Peggy mentioned using an old fridge to make a root cellar. If one choses to do this they need to be very careful about the door. Up until 1965? fridges had mechanical latches on them and a child who got into one could not get out. Now they are required to have magnetic type latches that can be pushed open from the inside but if the fridge is placed as Peggy suggests a child would not have the streignth to push it open. If one choses to use an old fridge they need to put a physical lock on it that requires a key to open and KEEP IT LOCKED.

  • independant thinker

    Mother Earth News also has books on building root cellars and on food atorage in general.

  • Vince Dunlap

    I built a root cellar in the side of a small hill here in 29 Palms ,CA. 92277 10x16x8. gravel floor with 2×4 grided floor on top of gravel. 8″ block walls . 6×8″ treated lumber ceiling/ roof 2-3ft sand/clay we call dirt on top of roof. 6″ vent cellar works well and our temps range from 22 winter to 120 summer but most years we are far from these extremes. Your article is very helpfull . Thank you very much


    • OmaLinda

      Can you give us the temperature ranges for your cellar? We live in the Texas panhandle, with outdoor seasonal temps similar to what you have, and we are in the planning process of digging a root cellar similar to the one shown here, with an upper structure. I am hoping that it will stay no warmer than 60-65 degrees in the summer. Do you think this is possible?

  • Kelly

    You have options in addition to using treated lumber:

    Setting posts on blocks or other things that keep them from direct ground contact will add years to their life.

    You can apply paint or oil to wood surfaces to greatly extend their life. However, don’t bother with latex paints. Stay with oil based paints. Latex breaths and doesn’t protect like oil, in spite of all the hype. Too, unless you’re using special latex, books and things can stick to it years after it’s applied.

    Oil paints can be bought at most big name paint stores for a fraction of their retail cost in the mismix section. For example, some of these stores sell mixmixed gallons for a dollar, rather than the usual thirty.

    You can thin oil paints with mineral spirits. Doing so allows the paint to penetrate wood more. After a thinned coat has dried, you can apply a finish coat for the best protection.

    You can also resort to old, but dependable technologies. In this case, hardening (e.g, boiled linseed oil or tung oil) and non-hardening oils (e.g., motor oil, mineral oil). It may be best to use hardening oil where things will come in contact with the oil. This can mean using non-hardening oil, letting it soak in, then applying a final coat of non-hardening oil.

    • http://?? Joe H.

      I’m not too sure about that info. I have Sherwin Williams stain on my house and when it started peeling after five years, I complained to the company as I had wanted oil stain and Sherwin Williams rep said they are getting away from oil and don’t even make an oil based stain anymore. they are trying to get away from the VOCs!

  • Elevenarrows

    Although Mother Earth News has always had good information about food storage, etc., their anti-family policies forced me to boycott them. I was disgusted at the editorials on saving “mother earth” by not having children because they drain our resources. This is an anti-life policy that places selfishness and misinformation above life. Connect the dots and this develops into the same disregard for life that promotes abortion and euthanasia. I’d much rather get my food storage tips from Peggy rather than Mother Earth News!

    • independant thinker

      I noticed the “anti-family” leanings in their earlier issues but in the last 15 years or so they have become much more balanced and family friendly in their views. While you will still find an article about zero or negative population growth they are very few and far between.

      • Elevenarrows

        It was last year’s articles, letters and editorials that sent me over the edge concerning Mother Earth News. Much as I like the rest of their stuff, I have drawn a line in the sand on this type of mentality. It does nothing to bring people together and does everything to promote conflict and negative views towards the very thing that builds society: families. If more Americans would promote values and boycott the trash, our society would not be in the mess we are in. That’s my two cents.

        • independant thinker

          I agree there are letters that promote ZPG but I do not see it in their articles at least as I noted above not very often.

    • gestutes

      If it isn’t for life its against it. And what isn’t for life is for death, evil and from Satan.

      You are so right. God bless.

  • http://PersonalLibertyWebsite Mrs. Bernier

    Dear Persoanl Liberty Website,
    Please offer a print the article option for your articles.
    Thank you,

    • independant thinker

      Look on the right hand side under the “Article Tools” heading there is a print option.

  • Old Henry

    Thanks Peggy. Useful information as usual.

    Did your husband put sheets of 2″ x 8′ styrophome on the outside of the cinder block walls before backfilling?

    Also, what do you think about making wire mesh shelving?

  • Peggy Layton

    Joe H. I am sorry if it wasn’t clear about the 4 inches of gravel. It is not on the floor, it is on the outside of the building where the water runs off the roof. The roof is on the top of the building and the run off from the slanted roof was making a puddle of water around the building which we thought might allow the water to seep into the root cellar, so my husband dug around the building and put gravel so this didn’t happen. You could also use rain gutters to divert the water away from the foundation of the building.

    Old Henry. My husband did not put Styrofoam on the outside of the building. He backfilled it with sand. We had a cement truck come and fill it just like you would if you were pouring cement, but it was fine sand with water in it. Sand is a great insulator. When we built the basement of our home, my husband did line the walls with blue styrofoam and poured the cement into the center. It has worked well.
    I believe wire mesh shelves would work great because it has holes for ventilation. That is what you are looking for is air flow around the veggies. We made the mistake of covering our squash with a wool blanket when we thought it might freeze and it all went moldy and we had to throw it out. Of coarse the chickens liked it, but I was sad because I love squash in the winter.

    OmaLinda. The temperature of our root cellar stayed constant at 42 degrees F. all winter. Now that it is summer it has jumped up to about 55. We don’t keep anything in the root cellar in the hottest part of summer, because it sprouts and rots. By this time of year (August) we just clean it out in preparation for the coming winter.

  • http://Stonebuster Nathan

    pioneers used plastic?


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