Root Cellars: How to Keep It Cool

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Before refrigeration, the root cellar was an essential way to keep carrots, turnips, beets, parsnips, potatoes, and other root vegetables fresh through the winter months.

If you have snowy, wintery conditions, this time-tested storage method still makes sense today—whether you stock a root cellar with your own homegrown produce or the bounty from local farmers' markets.

What is a Root Cellar?

Technically, a root cellar is any storage location that uses natural cooling, insulating, and humidifying properties of the earth.

  • To work properly, a root cellar must be able to hold a temperature of 32º to  40º F and a humidity level of 85 to 95 percent.
  • The cool temperature slows the release of ethylene gas and stops the grow of microorganisms that cause decomposition.
  • The humidity level prevents loss of moisture through evaporation—and the withering looks that go along with it.

Basement Root Cellars

Today, root cellars are often attached to houses for easy access, though it can take some effort to create a cold basement corner.

  • The best method is to use the foundation walls on the northeast corner for two sides.
  • Build the other two walls in the basement with stud and board.
  • Insulate the interior walls, ceiling, and door (and any pipes or ducts) to keep the heat out.
  • Ensure there is a ventilation system that allows cool, fresh air from the outside to be brought into the root cellar and stale air to be exhausted out.

Hole-in-the-Ground Cellar

Another option outside the house is to dig down into the ground or horizontally into a hillside. 

  • This option requires good drainage; sandier soil works better. An elevated slope helps because the water will run away from your pit as it moves downward.
  • If your winter temperatures drop below 25 degrees, dig your pit deep enough so that all the crops are under the soil's surface. 
  • As you dig your hole in the ground, flare the sides so that it does not cave in. 
  • Line the hole with straw and dried leaves, cover the hole with a thick wooden lid, and cover the lid with soil.

The Garbage Can

During the wintertime, using a metal garbage cans or barrel in your hole-in-the ground cellar helps keep water out.

  • Dig a hole slightly larger than the diameter of the garbage can and deep enough so that the can's lid will sit 4 inches above the soil level.
  • Heap earth around the circumference, add straw inside the can with the crops, and cover the lid with straw or mulch and a sheet of plastic to keep everything dry.
  • Root vegetables will store well, even in the coldest weather.

How to Keep It Cool

To create the best atmosphere in your root cellar, consider this:

  • Complete temperature stability is reached about 10 feet (3 m) deep.
     
  • Don’t dig a root cellar near a large tree; the tree’s roots can be difficult to dig through, and they will eventually grow and crack the cellar walls.
     
  • Inside, wooden shelving, bins, and platforms are the norm, as wood does not conduct heat and cold as rapidly as metal does.
     
  • Air circulation is critical for minimizing airborne mold, so shelves should stand 1 to 3 inches (3 to 8 cm) away from the walls.
     
  • For outdoor root cellars, packed earth is the preferred flooring. Concrete works well and is practical for a cellar in a basement.
     
  • Every root cellar needs a thermometer and a hygrometer (to measure temperature and humidity, respectively), which should be checked daily, if possible.
     
  • Heat is usually regulated using ventilation to the outside or an exhaust pipe—usually to allow cold air in, often on fall nights to get the temperature down.

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Comments

To Tony G.: I did not

By JAMES09

To Tony G.:
I did not realize that the temp inside the root cellar was dependant on Geothermal AND surface temp....
my knowledge of Geothermal energy is extremely limited...almost non-existent.
I knew surface temp played some kind of role, but I always thought that if the root cellar was 10 feet or more underground, that the temp would remain constant year round...sounds like I was way wrong. TY for correcting me.

At any rate, personally, I would prefer a root cellar to be deeper than 10 feet underground...that way it can also be used for a tornado shelter as well.

All the bshing is quite

By Mindy C Tucker

All the bshing is quite rediculous, when you take into consideration that a root cellar nowadays is typically used for winter storage of garden goods! It's not like anyone is going to try and refrigerate their milk in it during the summer months!

In the summer, a typical root cellar would become an 'ice-house' if the family could afford the ice (brought in from frozen lakes in the spring).

Most will eat their produce by spring, thereby leaving the root cellar for storing of 'canned' goods until used up. By fall a new crop of produce will be ready to store for the winter.

Common sense goes a long way when considering what food you will can, vs. what food you will store raw. I would suggest eating the raw, fresh produce first (to prevent spiolage and then eat the items you have canned during the following summer months. Most produce will not make it through the winter and summer in any type of storage except a freezer.

Mindy,where I am from what

By Steve N. on July 29

Mindy,where I am from what you are referring to is a cold cellar not a root cellar. The common name root cellar is used because the primary storage was for root crops. Using the term “cold cellar” in place of “root cellar” implies broader use – it is not just for “root” crops. A cold cellar is different than a cooler or refrigerator because electrical refrigeration is not used. We have a root cellar that has (will have) bushels upon bushels of potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips, and beets that keep well into June. Our root cellar is probably one of the most important buildings on our farm.

My parents had a root cellar

By Robert Hogfeldt

My parents had a root cellar dug into the clay and then sand stone under their house. The cellar worked well, but it was to humid and eventually this dank moldy smell permeated the whole house. I remember a sum pump and water oozing out of the sand stone. I am planning a basement root cellar, but my basement is to dry ( wood heat ), is a humidifier the way to go or do you recommend something different?

Yes the posts that stated

By Dean Hawk

Yes the posts that stated being 10 feet maybe less holds a constant temperature no matter the conditions outside... something to keep in mind if you are in danger of freezing to death with some fair warning to dig the hole of course...lol...

I recall my grandparents root

By Mike Wickerham

I recall my grandparents root cellar in the basement of their home. They built the home in 1968 in central michigan. Grandpa was a carpenter by trade. Born in 1909 & 1914, they new how to live before rural elictrification. They always had a large garden; probably a couple acres. Their root cellar was located in the south west corner of the basement,(not the North-East), insulated with fiber board and framed in plywood. It was vented as described above. Inside was a variety of produce from the garden that would stay preserved through winter and much into spring. There were wood shelves, but all in all it, wasn't that complicated. What was once common knowledge and life an hundred years ago, is now a great mystery to many: God help us if we should ever lose the power grid!

Can anyone recommend a good

By Chris11

Can anyone recommend a good accurate thermometer/hygrometer combo for this purpose. Have searched the web and called around and can't seem to find one specific to the root cellar purpose

a thermometer/hygrometer does

By JAMES J. REYNOLDS

a thermometer/hygrometer does not know the difference between a root cellar & house basement....my point is, they measure the air around them no matter where they are.
so the best advice I can give you, is to buy the best thermometer/hygrometer that you can afford. read the reviews that others have left; they often will reveal things that the seller did not...some times, these reviews can mean the difference between a great product, & a piece of garbage...and they can often save you a lot of money too.

Is typical of things posted

By snnonomous

Is typical of things posted on the Web people looking for hits with out real content or knowledge
Now the fact is a riot cellar can make ice in any part of the USA... How you say? By use of evaluation is not difficult is just lost knowledge..... evaporation is what all cooling is based on from a seer pot in africa to a propane pilot light powered refrigerator in a motor home to our daily use air conditioning. ?.... a root cellar combined with a windmill pumping cooling water pumped thru pipes in the root cellar combined with evaporation cooling the pipes b4 they go into the root cellar and your making Ice... heat is used all the time to make ice.... When I was a kid I worked in a meat locker ... out side was an evaporative cooler using water and air to remove heat from the cold rooms.... The Tower was 60 feet high and 20 feet square at the bottom maybe 10 x 10 at the top .... it worked on the same principle as a swamp cooler.... it had pipes that brought the heat from the cold rooms to the water tower those pipes had amonia in them to work as anti freeze .... It was very effective and windmills could have easily powerd it

This writer is mistaken and

By tonyG

This writer is mistaken and doesn't want to admit it. There are two main factors that determine cellar temperature -geothermal and surface temperature. If you are far enough from any geothermal energy then the underground temperature is the average of the above ground temperature. the closer it is to the surface, the more the temperature in the cellar fluctuates with the temperature above ground. So where in the USA is the average temperature below 40 degrees F ? Maybe Alaska... Here in upstate NY we have Howe Cavern; since these caverns are so far below ground, over 160 feet, the temperature stays 52 degrees year round. Maybe this writer forgot to mention the ice, or air conditioning unit she uses. Maybe she meant a high powered air conditioner where she used "ventilation." And the idea that a garbage can, not even fully buried below the surface will maintain a temperature between 32 and 40 degrees F? That is just cartoonish ...funny...

While the walls of a deeply

By Glurth

While the walls of a deeply buried ice/root cellar will indeed have the avg yearly temp, one CAN keep an ice cellar cooler than this without the use of electric refrigeration.
Open it wide on the coldest day of the year, and fill it with blocks of ice (or frozen buckets of water) that are the temperature of that day. Then close it back up. The high-heat capacity of the ice will keep that room colder than the walls, for weeks or months (depending on how much ice you bring in, and what the temperature difference between the ice and the wall is.)

I totally agree with

By JAMES J. REYNOLDS

I totally agree with you...
it is my experience, that you can not keep a root cellar below 45 degrees F in most of the U.S.

and a garbage can only partially buried? food put in there will not last long...at least not without some outside intervention.

I really do not think this writer knew what she's writing/talking about.

Well OK, I thought about it

By tonyG

Well OK, I thought about it and reread the article. In the Fall through spring it would totally work here in Upstate NY. It would be hard though to keep it below 40 through the summer though.

I am sorry Sandy but the only

By vstultz

I am sorry Sandy but the only place you might find natural temperatures like this would be in the Alaska permafrost. What you are dicsribing is a refrigerator not a root cellar. It is not possible. The internet is a wealth of bad information.

I can not believe how many

By Laurence Peter Brown

I can not believe how many people make comments without knowing what they are talking about, and I am not trying to put anybody down here. In middle east countries, in the desert, they are able to attain temperatures to freezing by using the natural cold below groun with passive technologies. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakhchal

I'm not sure where this

By tom elias

I'm not sure where this person lives but a prime example of what Sandy is talking about is found naturally in caves all over the world. My house is an old farmhouse built before 1780 and has a perfect root cellar. I don't need to do anything since there is also the old well down there that was somewhat capped. I'm thinking of thinking it ho and using half the basement as a dry storage area

Essentially, root cellars

By Almanac Staff

Essentially, root cellars were the first refrigerators. They have the ability to keep their contents 40 degrees cooler than outside temperatures during the heat of summer. This also works in reverse in winter, when root cellar temperatures are kept slightly above freezing. Our page here on Almanac.com serves as a guideline. There are many cooperative extension sites that offer detailed information on how to build a root cellar and keep it at an optimum temperature.

when you have 10ft.of dirt

By TODD FISCHER

when you have 10ft.of dirt above ur head in a root cellar, the temperature will be about 54-58degrees F, no matter where you are on earth,no matter what the temperature is outside!
that's deep!
if the room is 8feet high,that would mean you are down 18ft in the ground! what a hole! and the roof of the cellar,it can be wood, or the floor joists of the floor of the house above or it can better yet be concrete. the floor can be dirt,as humidity will come up from the ground,and hopefully not ground water! so the place is cool and damp year round! or you can have dirt walls and floor, and years ago, a trap door in the house's ground floor could be opened up and a ladder was inside the cellar to climb down on into the root cellar. u will need a flashlight,or have some power down there to light it up. in a storm, its a good place to hide! you can store a lot of different things down there,wine and to age it,cheese and to age it,veggies,smoked hams to dry it slowly and age it, home-canned goods can be stored there too! you don't see that much anymore,since milk comes from the store,not the cow!!LOL!!
everything today is processed and packaged in a plant,not at home! those days are gone for most of us! the good old days of country livin!and eatin!are hard to find anymore!
life was slower back then! that's why I like the Amish way of life,but young people today want everything now,and the Amish kids are no different then anyone elses kid,thats why its hard to stay in the community! I would love to be Amish,or at least I think I would! its work! and lots of it! but it sure is good eatin!

Kern, don't know when you

By Eugene W. Homan

Kern, don't know when you posted, this date is 8/2013, I am digging mine by pick and shovel(8' x 20' x 12")(2 rooms) Location is Phoenix AZ! Please read different sites for information, stay away from trees(roots), provide ventilation, use wooden shelves. I am layering concrete texture on outside of walls and the dirt on the outside of walls is going to be mixed with cement to create a moisture barrier. I am building a shed on top of the first room and the second room is going to have a wood deck over it! Entry door is going to be in work cabinet to provide shade and security.

Where do you get the barrels

By Busy mom

Where do you get the barrels from and what are they made out of?

It doesn't have to be fancy.

By Almanac Staff

It doesn't have to be fancy. You could use a basic trash barrel with lid and add a plastic liner. Google "plastic food grade barrel screw on lid" and you'll see some options.

someone needs to educate

By JAMES J. REYNOLDS

someone needs to educate Ms.Newton...
much of what she writes about, may look & sound good on paper/computer, but in reality, it does not work.

trying to keep a root cellar at 40 degrees F or lower, in the lower 48, is next to impossible in the summer...maybe in winter, but not summer.

Burying a garbage can in the soil & expecting it to be good enough to store food, is nothing short of fantasy...it does not work without outside intervention on a daily/weekly basis.

I love the Old Farmer's Almanac, but articles like this one need to be removed for they are more fantasy/wishful thinking than fact.

You sir do not know what your

By snnonomous

You sir do not know what your talking about
Put up a wind mill to pump water from below ground pipe that water thru a water evaporative cooling system then pipe they root cellar then to your storage tanks or to the fields and you are now removing heart from the cellar ... Now your cellar can actually make ice .... Just because you been tocolledge and been edumacated dossent mean you are smart .... You can actually use the heat of the summer to make I've.... The power of evaporation it's elementary meaning in the old days even children know how

Would you PLEASE write in

By CommonSensePlease

Would you PLEASE write in complete sentences with proper grammar? College or not, it's very hard to decipher what you are trying to say!

...I just don't... um...

By maceng

...I just don't... um... what? :|

AS A SEASONED REFRIG. TECH- I

By lorn baker

AS A SEASONED REFRIG. TECH- I MUST SAY SOME OF YOU GUYS HAVE A VERY STRANGE VIEW OF "COOLING" ANYTHING!!!!

We built a cellar in one

By Diane Coberly

We built a cellar in one corner of our garage...approx. 4x6' with 2 sides from the brick garage and 2 inside walls, insulated with sheets of insulation and a 2 ft. door for entry..what advice can you provide to improve or cautions to take ? thanks

Please read the suggestions

By Almanac Staff

Please read the suggestions above and make sure you have good ventilation. Sometimes using a fan in the cellar helps move the air around.

I built a root cellar under

By wayne hachey

I built a root cellar under my house .It is approximatly 6w X 12L X 6.4H. I have three block walls and one concrete wall on house side.The ceilling is insulated from house by 2 inch foam.This is not part of the basement.Its the ventilation part i need to understand. Where is placed and how big.

I need much more detail in

By Kern Severtson

I need much more detail in building a root cellar. I want use my back hoe to dig "way" deep and use concrete block for walls. what temp & humidity can I expect?
Kern

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