Root Cellars: Types and Storage Tips

Which Type of Root Cellar is Right for You?

Sandy Newton
Potatoes in root cellar

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, wintry 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 the natural cooling, insulating, and humidifying properties of the earth. They are typically used by farmers and gardeners to store raw and pickled vegetables.

  • To work properly, a root cellar must be able to hold a temperature of 32º to 40ºF (0° to 4.5°C) and a humidity level of 85 to 95 percent.
  • The cool temperatures slow the release of ethylene gas and stop the growth of microorganisms that cause decomposition.
  • The high humidity level prevents loss of moisture through evaporation—and the withering look that goes along with it.
  • Root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, beets, parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips are typically stored in a root cellar. The environment is ideal for storing jars of pickled vegetables and the bulbs or rhizomes of perennial flowers as well.

Carrots

Types of Root Cellars

Basement Root Cellar

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 as two sides of your root cellar.
  • 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. This helps to prevent mold and mildew.

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°F, 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 can 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.

Ready to build a root cellar? See Celeste’s article on how she created her own small root cellar.

How to Keep Your Root Cellar Cool

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

  • Complete temperature stability is reached at 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.

Beets. Photo by Darasp Kran/Shutterstock.
Photo by Darasp Kran/Shutterstock

10 Tips for Storing Your Harvest

  1. Stock your root cellar as late in the season as you can. If possible, chill the produce in the fridge before putting it in the cellar.
  2. A few vegetables—such as potatoes, winter squash, pumpkins, and onions—need to be “cured” for a few days in warm temperatures before going into storage. See how to cure squash and pumpkins.
  3. Shake off loose dirt rather than washing it off. Many root-cellar vegetables store better this way and leaving them wet can encourage rot. Carrots and beets are especially easy to store: just brush off loose dirt, clip foliage back to about an inch above the root, and store roots in boxes of moist sand or peat moss.
  4. Always handle your vegetables with great care; even slightly rough treatment can cause invisible bruising, which starts the produce on the road to decomposition.
  5. Store cabbages and turnips in a detached root cellar so their odor, which can be unpleasant, will not permeate the house.
  6. Think about where you place produce: The driest, warmest air is near the ceiling, more-humid air is lower as well as farthest from the door. Check out our page on storing crops without a root cellar to see which vegetables prefer which conditions.
  7. Most fruit “breathes,” and some—particularly apples and pears—should be wrapped in paper to slow the release of ethylene gas, which can cause other produce to spoil.
  8. Making a root cellar in a garage or using pressure-treated wood is not recommended.
  9. Vegetables piled together generate heat, which can lead to spoilage. Space out vegetables on shelves close to the floor and rotate the shelves every once in a while.
  10. Check your vegetables regularly, and immediately remove any with signs of rot. From the lessons of the root cellar comes the saying, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel!”

Try these techniques whether you harvest your own produce or buy it at a local farmer’s market!

What if it’s not possible for you to build a root cellar? See our article on Storing Your Harvest Without a Root Cellar.

Source: 

The 2003 Old Farmer's Almanac Canadian Edition

Reader Comments

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Root cellar and radon

I'm new to gardening. I've recently started to read about root cellars. I'm considering building one, but the basement room I'm considering using (with mostly dirt floor and partial broken cement floor, and one very small window) has a radon level of 4 pCi/L. Should I be concerned about the radon level as far as a root cellar is concerned? I am aware of radon issues affecting humans. I live in North East PA.

Outside root cellar

To avoid root problem with out door root cellar
place copper wire around the outside walls as
roots will stay away they do not like copper.

Humidity question

I see that the humidity should be quite high. Our area just doesn't have that much humidity. I have the perfect place in my basement, but how can I increase the humidity?

Increasing Humidity

Keep a pot (or more than one, if necessary) of water on the floor of the root cellar, replacing the water as it evaporates. This should help to increase humidity in the area. Monitor humidity with a hygrometer, if possible.

root cellar

I live in southern Mississippi and so during the day the Summers get hot but in the winter it usually doesn't get below 20 degrees. I was wondering if one of the in the ground storm shelters that you can buy would work for a root cellar.

Root Cellars

I can remember many years ago when I was still in my late teens/early twenties and working as a construction laborer building houses that during the summer I would take my lunch break in the basement of one of the houses we were building. The poured concrete walls had not yet been insulated and 3 of the walls were underground so that even during the hottest part of the summer it felt like I was walking into a refrigerated room. I even had a wild fox join me on one of those days..... :) I've always been interested in "back-to-basics living", and experiencing that really showed me how much wisdom the "old-timers" had, and also inspired me to want to do the same if I ever had the opportunity to buy some land and build my own house on it. Sometimes if we want to move forward, we must first look back.

Root Cellars;

Root Cellars; Maple Sugar Houses; old Ice houses; good to see some returning to use; a true root cellar is a stone type hut with most of the stone house under the ground; we had quite a few root cellars in Fairfield Conn.; at one time; one historical root cellar can be seen nearby;
(I will try to get a picture; + contact to house owner to tell him he a root cellar treasure house):

Root Cellars; Farms;

Fairfield Conn. is a Historical "Onion farming town"; Root Cellars were essential to the original settlers/farmers to live in New England;

Root Cellar/ cooler

When I was a kid, our house has what the called a cooler. it was cabinet that had vents to the outside, has anyone seen this or use something like this for veggies/fruit? I was thinking that I want to build something like that here. I live very close to sea level, so a cellar is not an option.

Veggie Cooler

Yes! I lived in a house built in 1890, and in one corner of the kitchen was a built in tall cabinet with wire shelves. There was no 'floor' to the cabinet. It went down to a dugout under the house.

Old root cellar

In our 1793 dirt floor cellar is a brick walled root cellar. My husband has been digging out the dirt to put in concrete and found a layer of broken glass in the walled in storage room. Was there a reason to line this area of the floor with glass, maybe to keep the rodents from digging in?

Crushed Glass in Root Cellar

It’s possible the crushed glass was used for drainage purposes–though that is just a guess!

crushed glass in a root celler

Glass bottles were often laid in the floor then covered with soil or motor to act as a layer of insulation. The space they created kept the floor warmer. They were also used in pig stalls in England during the Victorian era.

Broken glass in dirt cellar floor

Thanks for the thoughts. As he has been digging out the entire cellar floor out to the corners, my husband has come across broken glass, including pottery and dishes, underneath the dirt. It may have been insulation or a rodent deterrent, but it seems to be the entire floor.

root cellar

i live in the Richmond Va area and want some input for a potato bin, i am considering using a large aluminum truck tool box i have laying around. it has a hinged lid. i was going to bury it in the woodline of my property to keep it out of the direct sun and approx 3 ft deep withe the lid just above ground level to keep rain out. i was going to add a vent pipe to the lid for air circulation. any thoughts

Root Cellar

Hi Doug,

That is a very clever idea! Just be sure to line the bin with straw for insulation. And cover the lid with a tarp to prevent water from leaking in.

potato bin

lining it with straw & tarping was my thought too. thanks for the input

Could I use filing cabinets in a basement?

I live in an old house in NH, built in 1840, and we have a basement that has been dug out and lined with concrete and is in good shape. I have been thinking of building a root cellar in the basement utilizing a corner that stays at a constant temp and humidity. However in a store that is just up the street from us I have seen a line of old filing cabinets for sale. Could the cabinets be used in the basement for storing veg?

storing vegetables

Filing cabinets, especially metal ones, might not be a good idea to store vegetables over the long term, as they need air circulation to help prevent mold and other diseases. You might be able to modify the cabinets, such as remove the front part of the drawers and replace with wire mesh, but there are other containers that might work better, such as baskets, or cardboard or open wooden boxes.

Can I convert a cement silo into a root cellar?

We bought a home that has a VERY well kept cement silo with a steel 'cap' on top. It has a dirt floor and the steel cap roof has a gap for ventillation. Its a lovely structure that is in great condition. We'd like to use it for something useful- but are not sure what? There are no 'windows', so no light (which took away our idea of turning it into a chicken coop), but we have been researching if it could be used as a root cellar? Any thoughts if this would work? Or what things would we have to consider before deciding if it would offer the right 'conditions'? ps- we live in Wisconson where winters get very cold.
thanks

Basement root cellar ventilation

We are building a root cellar into a new home construction. The root cellar will have 3 exterior walls, and will be over 12 feet long. All pics I have seen put both vents side by side, is that necessary? Can we place them on opposite walls, in order to distance the inlet from the outlet? Instead of the long horizontal pipe found near the floor on the inlet pipe, we would separate the vents at the top, and put a downspout on the inlet to take the cold air down.

When you say the root cellar

When you say the root cellar must be 10 feet deep, do you mean the floor or the sealing?

Hi, Arne- The page doesn’t

Hi, Arne- The page doesn’t say that the root cellar must be 10 feet deep, it says complete temperature stability should reach about 10 feet deep.

Root cellar

I live in the desert were during the hottest time of year is around 118 deg. And even through out the night dose not go below 100 deg.. I need to know how deep I need to dig. What depth should the ceiling be, and how deep to the floor? Thank you

Found a root cellar

Hi! Looking for best advice/practice. I am very uneducated about a root cellars purpose. I had to google what a root cellar is and I'm curious about the process. I recently moved into a historic 1920's home and discovered a root cellar under the shed outside. I opened the door (hidden underneath a rug) and found standing water (no idea how much) and tons of mosquitos. There's not a ladder and honestly, looks kinda *scary*. Is it salvageable (assuming bc standing water there is not drainage). Should I drain it? What health risks are there if there's been standing water for who knows how long? Should I just pretend it isn't there? TIA for any feedback, thoughts and opinions.

The two most important

The two most important factors are to keep moisture out and have good air ventilation. Read the information on this page and scan some of the question and answers on this page. It sounds like your old root cellar needs some major work to function properly.

That sounds really creepy and

That sounds really creepy and cool!

Root cellar under Home

Good afternoon everyone, we are getting ready to build a straw-bale house and would like to put a root cellar in some what under the house. The entrance would be implemented into the island in the dining room, roll island out of way, go down the stairs into the root cellar. It would also serve as a storm shelter.

Here is what I am thinking , dig a hole to where the floor would be about 12 feet under ground, 8 feet of head room 6" thick reinforced cement roof/ceiling with 3' 6" of earth on top of that. The root cellar would not be directly under the house, just partial. please give me your 2 cents.. pros, cons, it does not matter, I want to do it right. Our land is flat, we have no hills this is why I am going with under ground.

So why isn't an adapted

So why isn't an adapted refrigerator or freezer going to work as a cool place for storing root vegetables? Lack of circulation or too much humidity? Would a wine cooler work for root vegetables?

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