Build A Root Cellar To Store Vegetables
August 15, 2011 by Peggy Layton
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.
We 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 www.peggylayton.com.
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.
The 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.
It 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 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 www.peggylayton.com.
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.
Food 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.
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.