Root Cellars: Types and Storage Tips

Which Type of Root Cellar is Right for You?

By Sandy Newton
July 26, 2019
Potatoes in root cellar

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.

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. A secondary use for the root cellar is as a place to store wine, beer, or other homemade alcoholic beverages.

How Does a Root Cellar Work?

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 (-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.

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

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Reader Comments

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Kern, don't know when you

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

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

It doesn't have to be fancy.

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

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

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

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

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

AS A SEASONED REFRIG. TECH- I

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

Would you PLEASE write in

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!

cooling a root cellar

Root cellars work great for root veggies and good storage for most produce short term. Do not try to refrigerate your root cellar this would lower humidity and your produce would not stay good as long . the crisper drawer in the refridgerater is the warmest spot . the person that is building a wind mill to cool his root cellar would probably save money buying a walk in cooler

We built a cellar in one

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

The Editors's picture

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

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

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

Did you find the information

Did you find the information you were looking for? If you have received good, solid info, could you share that with us? Thanks

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