Root Cellar Basics

By on February 20, 2015

Root cellars are a great way to store a bountiful harvest

If you have a large garden or orchard, or if you buy extra farm fresh food in season to enjoy all year long, you know that storing all those delicious fruits and veggies can be time and space consuming. While some foods such as broccoli and cherries need to be canned, frozen or dehydrated to keep them from spoiling, there are many fruits and vegetables that can keep without any effort by sticking them in a cool, dark place that is free of rodents and other pests. Since most of us don’t have an industrial sized walk-in refrigerated cooler to keep these in (and wouldn’t want to pay the electric bill on one either!), the ideal solution is a root cellar.

In the days before supermarkets, the root cellar was an important part of the home to keep the family fed until the next year’s harvests. For the modern gardener and anyone with a goal of self-sufficiency, root cellars are again gaining importance as an energy-free, low-cost method for preserving the harvest to enjoy the flavors of the garden in the depth of winter, and for saving rootstock and bulbs for the next planting season.

Good for more than roots

Here is a list of produce that can be stored in a root cellar:

Storage Chart

Root cellars are also great for storing your canned produce, juices, home-brewed beer and wine, cured meats, and aged cheeses.

Designing your cellar

Before you begin to build, you’ll need to figure out what conditions each of your fruits and veggies need stored at. Take a look at that chart again… anything that is of similar temperature and humidity requirements can be stored together, so long as you don’t mix anything that produces an odor with anything else (such as by keeping the odor-producers near a vent or in a sealed container), and don’t mix ethylene producing foods with root vegetables.

Ethylene gas can cause the potatoes to sprout and the roots to spoil. If storing in the same room, put the ethylene-producer on a top shelf near to a vent, and the tubers and roots at ground level. You may want to keep the roots or the ethylene-producer in a sealed container to block the passage of the gas; however be careful of mold growth inside the container if using this storage option.

The basic principle of a root cellar is to keep the storage area cool and dark all year long, without freezing. If you have a suitably cool space in your basement, garage or other existing building, this can also function as a root cellar. If you live in an area with mild winters, you may not be able to build a sufficiently cool cellar for some items without artificial cooling. If you live in the tundra, you may need to provide extra insulation. There are many plans available in books and online; since each root cellar is unique in its location and use, it is a good idea to look at several designs to select the one that will work best for you.

But how can you design one root cellar with all those temperature and humidity levels in one room? When you are planning your cellar and tracking temperature and humidity in your storage space, don’t forget that heat rises! By building shelves on the walls, you can instantly create a range of temperatures to store your different veggies. There may also be natural variations in the room, especially near doors, windows and vents, or on the north side versus the south side of the room.

You can preserve moisture and create a naturally humid micro-climate by storing the veggies that need it inside a sealed or perforated plastic tub or individual bags (like the bags with little holes that as potatoes are sold in at the grocery store). Or if your room is already humid, you can make drier micro-climates by storing the veggies that need it in sealed containers with moisture absorbing materials such as a cup of white rice in a brown bag: the rice will readily absorb the moisture from the air, and the brown bag keeps it from getting mixed up with your produce.

harvesting for storage

Preparing your harvest for the cellar

If you will be storing your produce, the best time to begin planning is at planting season. Select the varieties that are recommended for long-term storage. Come summertime, don’t wash your harvest before storing, as the dirt contains natural disease fighting properties. Some veggies store better if cured or exposed to frost, so be sure to do your research before storage so you can maximize the shelf life of your harvest.

You know that expression about the bad apple? It comes from the days when people stored their apples for winter. One bad apple in the storage bin, and all the apples could spoil. Only store produce that is undamaged and disease free. Anything that had been cut or bruised at harvest or transporting it to your storage area should be separated out, stored in your kitchen and eaten first. Check on your stored produce every few weeks to make sure nothing has begun to rot. If you find anything is starting to take a turn for the worst, remove it before it affects the rest of the stored food.

Now that you have a plan, it’s the perfect time to get started in preparing for this year’s harvest!

Leave a Comment

3