Root Cellars

From Antivist

A root cellar was an essential part of every home in the days before fresh produce was available in supermarkets year-round. A root cellar is still an easy, inexpensive and a cool way to store root crops, winter squash and some other homegrown produce.


stocking the root cellar

  • To prepare root vegetables for winter storage, simply trim the green tops, leaving a one-inch stub (if left untrimmed, the top growth will decay and encourage the deterioration of adjacent roots. Take care not to cut the root flesh, and don't cut off root tips, eitherâ��any skin break invites spoilage.
  • You needn't wash vegetables before packing them away; in fact, it's better not to clean them. Just gently brush off any large clumps of soil that may cling to them.
  • Some root cellar owners simply pile their apples and root vegetables in crates or baskets. Others prefer to pack the produce in leaves, hay, sawdust or moss to help prevent drying, especially if using a basement room, which might not be as damp as an outdoor cellar. When we kept turnips, rutabagas, carrots and beets in a cold, dirt-floor cellar in the old house on our farm, we always packed them in dry leaves or sawdust. Sand can also be used for winter vegetable bedding, but it's not as easy to wash off as sawdust.
  • Some leafy vegetables can be replanted in buckets of sand, soil or moss in the root cellar. We've had good luck with Chinese cabbage, escarole and leeks. Celery is a good candidate for this treatment too. Chinese cabbage has kept for us until Februaryâ��the crunchy fresh inner leaves hidden inside an outer layer of wilted, paper-dry wrapper leaves.

Curing vegetables

Certain vegetables must be cured in order to keep well.

  • After clipping off their topsâ��leaving a one-inch stubâ��expose garlic and onions to the sun for a week, and then spread them loosely in shallow boxes or hang them in net bags or old panty hose.
  • Cure pumpkins and squash (except acorn squash in the sun for two weeks after picking them so they'll develop a hard rind. Always leave stems on.
  • Freshly harvested sweet potatoes should be cured in a warm, damp placeâ��aim for 80-85°F and 90% humidityâ��to toughen their skins and encourage healing of small scratches. We cure our sweets in crates near the wood cookstove, with a damp newspaper spread over the top of each crate. Then, after seven to to days of curing, we wrap the potatoes individually in newspaper, sort them for size, pack them in cartons and keep them in a cool room.
  • Curing white potatoes isn't as essential as it is with sweet potatoes, but it's a good idea to spread the spuds out in a sheltered spot-about 60-75°F (â��for a two-week skin-toughening program before piling them into crates in the root cellar. Be certain to keep them in the shade, though; sun will turn potatoes greenâ��and toxic.

rules of thumb

  1. TREAT all winter-keeping vegetables gently at all stages of harvest, preparation and storage. Bruised produce spoils sooner.
  2. STORE only your best fruits and vegetables. Cut, bruised or diseased vegetables not only spoil more quickly but also encourage spoilage in neighboring foods.
  3. PICK PRODUCE at maturity�neither unripe nor overripe.
  4. HARVEST fruits and vegetables during a dry spell if possible.
  5. LEAVE VEGETABLES in the garden as long as possible, but keep an eye on the cooler fall weather and rescue them before black frost hits. Beets, for example, can stay out well past the first light frosts, but they should be dug before night temperatures dip to 24°F unless their exposed shoulders are well protected by mulch. Low temperatures in the autumn encourage vegetables to store more sugars and starches and less water, making them better keepers.
  6. CHOOSE VARIETIES of vegetables that are well-adapted to storage: Long Season beets, Penn State Ballhead cabbage and Kennebec potatoes, for instance.
  7. AFTER DIGGING root vegetables, chill them as promptly as possible. Don't leave them out in the sun.

simple root cellar plans

  1. Choose a damp spot. Most crops keep best in relatively high humidity. So build your root cellar in the dampest area of your basement (typically the sump pump is in the dampest corner).
  2. You want, if possible, to build on a wall that's below grade (underground), because you want the greatest contact with outside soil temperature you can get. If you need to use a wall that's above grade, be sure it doesn't get too much sun. (Use north or shaded walls.)
  3. Allow for ventilation. Without ventilation, your stored produce will spoil. To create good ventilation, you need to get two pipes through that outside wall�one at the highest point of the room. Both pipes should be about 3 inches in diameter. Try to pick a site that allows for this easily, such as one that includes a casement window or the like.
  4. Your vents can be made of just about any pipe or ducting. Plastic (PVC)�3 inch�is durable and easy to work with, and the valves you'll need fit right into it. Cut a length of the plastic pipe to reach through the wall. Cut the end straight. Slide a closed blast gate (valve) onto the pipe until it fits snugly against the end of the pipe just tight enough to impart a slight resistance. Use 3 or 4 screws to secure the valve to the pipe.
  5. Now cut pieces of pipe for the other vent. This one can go through the wall just about anywhere; just add an elbow and a length of pipe running down the inside so that it ends up about a foot from the floor. Add another blast gate in that pipe.
  6. These two vents create a siphon. Cool air is more dense than warm air, and will collect in low spots. Anytime the air outside your root cellar is cooler than the air inside, the siphon will allow warm air to be drawn out and cool air to flow in. As outside temperatures fluctuate, you'll get almost continuous air change while keeping the temperature as low as possible.
  7. Which brings us to the reason for the valves. If the temperature outside goes below freezing, you should close one of the valves to stop the siphon. You'll get some venting while keeping things from freezing. If the outside temperature goes way below freezing, you'll need to close both valves (at least partially).
  8. Seal the wall around the pipes with aerosol insulating foam. This will fill in any gaps and cracks, and once it sets, does a good job of holding your pipes in place, too.
  9. Build the walls. You could build the walls out of just about anything, but, due to the moist conditions, you should splurge on a handful of 2X4s made of cedar or other rot-resistant wood for framing, and some moisture-resistant wall board ("green board" sold for use in shower stalls).
  10. Nail a 2X4 to the ceiling, fasten another to the concrete floor with a bead of construction adhesive (the kind in caulking gun tubes) and cut the studs to fit between them.
  11. Cover the walls. Put your gypsum board on the inside surfaces first. Once the inside panels are glued and screwed in place, stuff the cavities with fiberglass insulation and cover the outsides. With all of the coverings in place, get out the aerosol foam again and shoot it into all of the cracks�especially between your new wall and the (likely) ragged edges of the old walls.
  12. A root cellar does not need to be airtight, but the tighter it is the more control you'll have over the air quality and temperature. Plug as many gaps as you can.
  13. Add the shelves. Bear in mind that lower shelves will be cooler and wetter, higher shelves will be warmer and dryer. Arrange and space your shelves to suit the items that will likely be stored on them.
  14. Hang a door. You can use a ready-made door if you want. Or you can make it simply from quarter-inch plywood and hang it directly on the studs. One customizing touch worth considering is to make the door in two pieces. This way you can open the top half and grab a couple carrots without letting out the coldest, dampest air at the bottom of the root cellar.
  15. Finishing touch. Fasten a rod to the handle of each blast gate and run it through the wall into the basement. This way you can open and close the valves without opening the door and spilling the cold air. It also will allow you to see whether the valves are open or closed without opening the door.

mini cellars

  1. Mini cellars are for storing produce like apples, turnips, cabbage and carrots. Any produce that requires a cold moist environment to last very long. So you *wouldn't* want to store something like winter squash, pumpkins, peppers or citrus.
  2. We dig ours on a slightly sloping part of a flower bed. The flower bed because it is less conspicuous. Cut off and save the sod from the top of the hole. Dig the hole three feet deep and two feet in diameter. Place a layer of straw at the bottom of the hole about 6 inches deep, or you can line with plastic first and then straw.
  3. Next, place a your produce in the hole, place straw between each piece of produce, don't let any piece touch another. Then cover the vegetables with more straw. Continue on like this layer after layer til you get to about 6 inches from the top. Cover the top with a layer of straw. Next you need a lid made of wood or other sturdy material.
  4. Cover the hole with the lid, then the sod. Press and mash the sod into the surrounding soil and water it a little.
  5. If you will line the hole with plastic and wrap the plastic loosely over the top of the produce after the hole if full, you will have a better time with keeping water out of your veggies. I use landscape plastic. Don't forget where you made your mini cellar...there's no worse feeling than not being able to find your stash!

pallet root cellar

  • Collect six pallets from outside stores and garbage pick up points or the local furniture movers.
  • Measure your pallets (usually 4'x4') and dig a hole several inches bigger all round than the pallets. Be sure to allow enough depth for the top pallet to be below ground by 6" when it is put on.
  • Line the hole with a sheet of good thick plastic, the plastic should loosely drape in the hole.
  • Place one pallet flat on the bottom for a "Floor." Be careful not to tear the plastic liner.
  • Standing on the floor pallet in the hole place the other pallets around the sides to make "Walls." You will find that the pallets do not support each other because they are all the same size.
  • Cut 2 pieces of 2'x4' the same width as the floor pallet and attach it to the top of the end pallets or side pallets (it does not matter which) using bailing wire or thick string. Now the pallets will not cave in.
  • Secure the four corners of the pallets to each other with wire or string and you will have a sturdy box to work with.
  • Pull the plastic inside the box and, as you stand inside, pull loose dirt down around the sides of the box taking up the space between the outside walls of the box and the sides of the unit. Pack the dirt down and "firm up" the box before you get out. Then, from topside, walk around the box tamping down the dirt with your feet. When finished pull the plastic back out of the box and roll it up.
  • Once food is placed in the storage unit, the top pallet should be put on. Pull the rolled plastic over the top to keep the inside cool.
  • You may decide to put hinges on the "lid," as well as make shelves or other improvements to the basic design.
  • As soon as the unit is full, cover the lid with a good 3" of newspaper, pull the plastic liner back in place and cover with a good strong plastic tarp. Then put rocks, bricks, or soil over the tarp to keep it in place.


Building Plans

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