Root Cellars: Types and Storage Tips

Which Type of Root Cellar is Right for You?

By Sandy Newton
August 6, 2020
Potatoes in root cellar

Root cellars are “cool” again (pun intended). With modern refrigeration, root cellars seemed obsolete. However, with a renewed interest in gardening, food security, and even sustainable living, root cellars have returned! Here are some advantages of storing root vegetables in a root cellar and a look at a few types of root cellars.

Before refrigeration, an underground root cellar was an essential way to store carrots, turnips, beets, parsnips, potatoes, and other root vegetables. Today, root cellars have made a comeback to keep food from freezing during the winter and keep food cool during the summer to prevent spoilage.

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. Whether you stock a root cellar with your own homegrown produce or the bounty from local farmers’ market, it’s a time-tested storage method.

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 canned or pickled vegetables and the bulbs or rhizomes of perennial flowers as well. A secondary use for the root cellar is as a place to store wine, beer, or other homemade alcoholic beverages.

Advantages of Root Cellars

While root vegetables aren’t expensive to buy, the quality of a homegrown potato or beet is far superior, plus grocery stores do not always carry vegetables year-round (or you’re buying a vegetable that’s not in season and not very tasty!). Having a root cellar is like having a six-month supply of quality vegetables on hand.

Also, there’s a certain peace of mind of having enough food security without being at the mercy of grocery stores and potential interruptions in the supply chain.

Finally, there’s the bonus of not having to pay as high an electric bill to refrigerate or cool the produce, since the ground temperature will naturally do this for you.

Root Cellar Requirements

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. This means that root cellars may not work in warm, southern climates.

  • The cool temperatures slow the release of ethylene gas from the crops and stop the growth of microorganisms, which slows down ripening and decomposition.
  • The high humidity level prevents loss of moisture through evaporation—and the withering look that goes along with it.

Check with your local building department to see what legal requirements you may need to comply with before doing any construction.

Consider your location. Root cellars can not be build in places with a high water table or a septic system nearby. Also, you’ll want a close and easily accessible location. Some people have built them under a garden shed so they don’t have to remove snow to access it during the winter.

You’re going to need a design that allows you to control humidity, temperature, ventilation, and drainage. These affect how long you can hold your produce in storage. 

Root cellar filled with pickled and canned vegetables

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 (-4°C), 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.

Root cellar in Newfoundland, Canada.
An old-fashioned root cellar in Newfoundland, Canada

The Garbage Can

During winter, 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.

See our articlee on how to build a small root cellar.

How to Keep Your Root Cellar Cool

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

  • Complete temperature stability is reached at about 10 feet (3 meters) 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.

Free Online Gardening Guides

We’ve gathered all of our best beginner gardening guides into a step-by-step series designed to help you learn how to garden! Visit our complete Gardening for Everyone hub, where you’ll find a series of guides—all free! From selecting the right gardening spot to choosing the best vegetables to grow, our Almanac gardening experts are excited to teach gardening to everyone—whether it’s your 1st or 40th garden.

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The 2003 Old Farmer's Almanac Canadian Edition


Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

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?


A loss of power would be quite a heartache

I only need to keep 15-20# of

I only need to keep 15-20# of potatoes and around 10#carrots. I was hoping there was a way to build a makeshift cellar by buring a plastic bin in the ground Now that I've read all these comments, sounds like that would not work. Is this correct?

Hi, Michelle: This really

The Editors's picture

Hi, Michelle: This really depends on the ground temperatures and conditions where you are. Even a homemade bin-type root cellar needs air circulation and protection from moisture, not to mention being far enough down to be in a consistently cool temperature. Even though every dime counts, the stakes here are rather small, so it might be worth experimenting, remembering that ground moisture and pressure are very vicarious things. Good luck!

does anybody know if a root

does anybody know if a root cellar can be used as a wine cellar? 50-55 degrees is the Ideal temp.

yes the root cellar is

yes the root cellar is perfect

Depending on where you are,

Depending on where you are, and I am in NY, you can also place a small hose/tube through the foundation or through a window or snaked up somehow to the outside. Cold air will sink and you can easily bring cold air in through a small opening, closing it off when the area is cool enough and opening it for a while to bring the temp. down slowly. Whatever your cold temp is outside, if it is below your indoor temp, you can get your room colder. I have a small root cellar in my old farmhouse in one corner of my basement. I am working on it to get it better insulated this winter, but it averaged around 50 all winter last winter with doing nothing but keeping it closed off. Half of my basement is a finished room that stays over 60 and up to 70, and I was still able to keep this small room in the opposite corner very cool. It can be done. And remember, in the summer you DON'T NEED it to be cold.You should be eating fresh from the farm at that point and should not need root cellar storage! And in the summer my basement is around 55-60 even when it is 80-90 outside for weeks on end.

I have not seen anything

I have not seen anything posted on this yet but does anyone know if one can use the space beneath stairs that go from garage to basement. I live in Central Wisconsin near the mighty Mississippi and was hoping I could insulate that area and vent it to make a good storage space. Any ideas appreciated. Also is there a shorter name or term for "the stairs that go from garage to basement". Concrete on 3 sides and 10 feet deep.

I have not seen anything reply

I harvested over 400 lbs of potatoes from my garden last year. I do not have a root cellar, so I chose to store them in burlap bags under my basement stairs. The potatoes kept just fine in the dark cool area under the stairs.
You mentioned the garage connecting to the basement. I don't know your exact circumstances, but I wonder if mice could get under your garage door and get to your stored harvest. It would be a shame to grow something, then find out mice had the most fun eating it.

If you can overcome issues with space and rodents, I can't see why it would not work for you.

Good luck, hope all works out well for you.

storage under garage stairs

The Editors's picture

That vacant space under the garage stairs? You could use this space.

Traditional root cellars are built into the side of a hill, affording entry while also getting the natural benefits of underground storage. But may people turn the corner of a basement into a root cellar, using an exterior wall that is in contact with the soil. Then add shelves, bins, and other storage containers.

However, if there isn’t a wall in contact with soil, you can still create a space as long as it’s a cool area. Use insulated coolers filled with straw, or even store your veggies in sand. You can keep whole bushels of carrots, beets, and parsnips in oversized wooden crates filled with moist sand or sawdust and left in a cool, dark place. Specifically, keep carrots and beets fresh by, alternating layers of vegetables with moist sand or sawdust. Use the same bin for storing potatoes, turnips, or winter squash, but leave out the sand.

To Tony G.: I did not

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

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

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

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

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

I recall my grandparents root

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

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

a thermometer/hygrometer does not know the difference between a root cellar & house 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

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

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...

Well OK, I thought about it

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 totally agree with

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 least not without some outside intervention.

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

While the walls of a deeply

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 store my potatoes in a 55

I store my potatoes in a 55 gal metal drum. I line it with plastic sheeting and bury it in my compost heap with 24 inches of soil all around the sides. I put 2 bales of straw on top. when we want potatoes i just lift the straw bales off get what we need and put the straw back.We live in Ohio and our potatoes last until april. what we d ont use i use for seed potatoes the next spring. they dont freeze get moldy or anyhing.

I am sorry Sandy but the only

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.

Essentially, root cellars

The Editors's picture

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 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

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!

I'm not sure where this

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