Since the 2008 recession, many people have rediscovered the savings, joys and health benefits of locally grown food – whether you have a backyard garden, participate in a community garden or shop at the local farmer’s market.
In good years our gardens can be bountiful, throwing off much more food than we can consume before it goes bad. Some folks have added freezers or second refrigerators to store the excess. Others have re-learned canning skills our grandmother’s used. In the past few years, another trend, root cellaring, has re-surfaced.
What is a root cellar?
A traditional root cellar is an underground pit or room, typically covered or surrounded by earth used to store food. According to Old Fashioned Living – a cellar can be a hatch (a hole in the ground), a hillside room (a hole in a hill) or an above ground structure, padded with dirt.
However, a root cellar can be as simple as a sectioned off part of your basement, a trash can buried in the ground with a bale of straw on top or even a shelf in an unheated room or garage. My Grandma used to store apples picked at the local orchard in her living room, which remained unheated most of the winter, but was kept above freezing due to the heating stove in the next room.
History of root cellars.
Prior to modern refrigeration techniques (and their consequent energy consumption and environmental impact), most houses were designed to accommodate storage of food throughout the year.
Prime among the design plans were root cellars. Houses were actually constructed to be sure a root cellar could be incorporated.
As late as the first half of the 20th century, root cellars were commonly in use – especially in rural areas where electricity was only slowly appearing.
Benefits of using root cellars.
Using your own space to store food has several benefits:
- It is a greener alternative to storage than using an extra refrigerator or freezer.
- It is healthier to use whole foods, than it is to use foods processed by freezing or canning.
- You save money on gasoline (assuming fewer trips to the store).
- You save money on electricity (no extra cooling unit sucking dollars).
- You might be able to store more of your excess harvest than you could in the refrigerator.
- Your food is close at hand and not dependent on external sources.
Tips on food storage in root cellars.
These tips are all courtesy of others, as I have not had great success storing my own food (other than canned or frozen). The trick, apparently, is in knowing which foods need what conditions, making sure that the food you intend to store is in pristine (non bruised, cut or spoiled) condition and in checking frequently to remove/use any items that have begun to show less than desirable ripening.
So, courtesy of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardners Association, here are some tips for how to store several different kinds of foods.
“Foods that like cold temperatures (32 to 40 degrees F.) and high humidity (90 to 95% relative humidity) include beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, celery, winter radishes (Daikon), leeks and Jerusalem artichokes.
“Potatoes, cabbage and apples also do best at 32 to 40 degrees F. but with less humidity (80 to 90% relative humidity).” Try storing potatoes in paper bags.
“Garlic and onions keep best in cool temperatures, 32 to 50 degrees F., and dry conditions, 50 to 60% relative humidity.” You could hang garlic bulbs and onions in mesh bags where these conditions are available.
“Pumpkins, winter squash and sweet potatoes store ideally with a moderately warm temperature (50 to 60 degrees F.) and dry conditions. “
“Use caution when storing apples, however: They give off ethylene gas, which promotes ripening and maturation of other vegetables and, at some concentrations, can promote sprouting in potatoes.”
“Beets, carrots, turnips, celeriac and winter radishes like very humid conditions, and store best packed in moist sand or wood shavings.”
“Pumpkins and winter squash prefer warmer and drier conditions. “ They put butternut and ‘Delicata’ squash in an unheated bedroom.
Victoria Riess in A Root Cellar for Your Homestead gives even more tips on harvesting and storing your produce. One such tip gives detailed instruction for when to harvest potatoes, how to cure them so that they don’t go bad before you put them in the cellar, when to store them and how long they will keep. In addition, she gives approximate storage tie for a number of different fruits and vegetables.
Resources to learn how to build root cellars.
I’m sure by now, you are panting to install your very own root cellar – but how do you build one?
Here is a plan to allow you to use a corner of your basement for a root cellar – from a long standing fantastic source – Organic Gardening Building a Root Cellar in Your Home.
Here is a PDF formatted plan from Hobby Farms that sounds like the Hatch variety described by Old Fashioned Living (that I mentioned above).
Finally, here is a very simple plan for a buried trash can cellar from Earthineer.
An internet search on build root cellar, or a call to your local university extension center will yield many different options as well.
Do you have a root cellar? Share your tips with our readers please!
Also, check out my attempt at Financial Fables: A Mouse in the Cellar on FamilyMoneyValues. It was the inspiration for this post!