In our agrarian past, we didn’t have a grocery store in every town receiving shipments of fresh fruits and vegetables from all corners of the world on a daily basis. Food preservation was a necessity to survive the long winter in most locations. Over the centuries, many have gotten their winter produce fix from a simple non-tech solution: the root cellar.
The first root cellars in recorded history were in Australia – more than 40,000 years ago it is indicated that they were burying their yam harvests in order to keep them fresh. Since then, underground food storage caches have been found all over the world, as people took advantage of the cool moist atmosphere a few feet down.
The Perfect Root Cellar
If you’re lucky, you have a room in the basement you can set up as your cold cellar. If you live in an area in which basements are not customary, a root cellar can be housed in a separate concrete or stone cellar outside of the home. Some root cellars are completely unfinished, with dirt floors, while others are containers that have been partially buried.
Michigan State University offers these tips on conditions for the ideal root cellar:
The produce is still alive – stored carbohydrates of energy is consumed in the presence of oxygen and produces heat and carbon dioxide. To maintain the proper “living” conditions, at least three variables need to be considered: temperature, humidity and ventilation.
Most cold tolerant or cool season crops will store best between 33 and 35F or just above freezing and up to 40F. Warm season crops sensitive to chilling injury (tomatoes, cucumbers, etc) are typically stored at temperatures above 50F unless processing, cooking or eating will occur shortly after removal from storage. The temperature needs to be actively monitored and managed and will vary with the quantity of produce in the space.
Most root and leafy crops will store best at high humidity (+80%) or moisture levels. Root crops like carrots need to be stored in some moist medium to maintain quality. Some crops like onion, garlic and winter squash store better at low humidity level (less than 60%). Moisture may need to be added by wetting the floor or walls with water depending on the construction methods.
Reasons for ventilation include: 1) removal of heat of respiration, 2) replenishing the oxygen supply, 3) removing volatile compounds from the produce that may effect flavor or sprouting like ethylene. The greater the density or amount of produce in the space, the more ventilation is needed. Ventilation or air tubes need to be planned prior to construction and place during construction.
Common storage categories are 1) cold dry, 2) cold moist, 3) cool dry, 4) cool moist. (source)
What fruits and vegetables should you store in a root cellar?
The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture offers the following chart with storage information for specific produce:
|Vegetables||Temp F.||% Humidity||Storage Time||Comments|
|Beets||32°||90–95||3 months||Leave 1-inch stem.|
|Brussels sprouts||32°||90–95||4 weeks||Wrap to avoid drying|
|Cabbage||38°||90–95||4 months||Late maturing varieties **|
|Carrots||32°||90–95||5 months||Top leaving ¼-inch stem *|
|Cauliflower||32°||85–90||3 weeks||Wrap in leaves *|
|Celery||32°||90–95||4 months||Dig with roots ***|
|Chinese cabbage 32°||90–95||2 months||Dig with roots ***|
|Cucumbers||50°||85–90||3 weeks||Waxed or moist packing *|
|Kohlrabi||38°||90–95||3 months||Trim leaves *|
|Onions||32°||55–60||8 months||Dry for two weeks.|
|Parsnip||32°||90–95||6 months||Top leaving ¼-inch stem *|
|Potatoes||38°||85–90||8 months||Pack in boxes unwashed.|
|Squash||60°||55–60||3 months||Winter types, leave 2-inch stem|
|Tomatoes||60°||55–60||8 weeks||Single layer in covered boxes|
|Turnips||38°||90–95||3 months||Waxed or moist packing *|
|Small fruits||32°||85–90||7 days|
* Pack in moistened sawdust or sand.
** Wrap in clean newspaper.
*** Replant in moist sand.
Organizing Your Root Cellar for the Longest Storage Times
You can’t just place everything together and hope for your food to all remain fresh. Some items cannot be stored together because they release a gas called ethylene. Ethylene gas is a ripening agent, which hastens the decomposition of other produce.
For example, apples, pears, and tomatoes produce high amounts of ethylene and should be placed higher than other foods, and near vents if possible. They should not be placed near potatoes and carrots, as the ethylene will cause those to spoil rapidly.
Some produce will easily absorb odors from items with strong smells. Strong smelling foods like cabbages or turnips can be wrapped in newspaper to help contain the smell. Onions store well when hung in mesh bags.
Some produce is stored more successfully if cured at a temperature of 80-90 degrees F for 10 days before being placed into storage:
- winter squash
Two small investments for your root cellar should be a thermometer to measure temperature and a hygrometer to measure humidity. (This item is analog and measures both temperature and humidity.) This way you can ensure your conditions are right to keep your food fresh for the longest possible time.
The following resources provide specific information on how to create and maintain your own root cellar:
Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables
The Complete Root Cellar Book: Building Plans, Uses and 100 Recipes
Build Your Own underground Root Cellar
Daisy and all, unless the usgs earthquake map is wrong, it has started, over 100 quakes in the last hour, told you I would advise, NEVER seen anything like it. the entire map red around the pacific rim.
poor Oklahoma this yr…100’s of earthquakes.
It seems we are on the same page. We planted butternut squash this year and plan on making one of the areas in our 1/2 basement a root cellar. I read where one woman washed and soaked her winter squashes in approximately 1:10 Clorox (store bought solution) to water! You can kill Ebola with that. While I understand that chlorine is used for vegetable washes all the time in our modern food centers, I am going to use vinegar and make sure the squashes do not touch. We have also used the space under the stairs in the bilco doors. I understand that root cellars must be maintained. Then again, so are freezers and refrigerators!
When we had our homestead in the 80’s we had a Root Cellar and a Fruit Cellar.
We had hundreds of pounds of vegetables and apples we stored each year, and the apples would have made everything else ripen too fast.
If you must store them in the same location try this – Wrap each apple with paper, newsprint or otherwise and store between layers of cardboard in the boxes. If you do not put your potatoes in a bin of dirt or sawdust then at least throw a heavy packing blanket over them in their bags.
Onions, Garlic, squashes all need pantry treatment. Cool – not as cold as root cellar although it can be, but DEFINITELY not as moist. Cellar cool/cold moist – Pantry cool dry.
One year I washed ALL of our squash dipped in mild bleach water and let them air dry all over the kitchen. I also examined for bruising or frost burns and ate those first. Any that had lost a stem got wax poured over the area to seal. They lasted well into spring.
And oh yah, why don’t we still have the homestead? The proverbial SHTF. And it was TEOTWA I knew it.
But I am going to make another attempt here in my older years. If the world still exists in a recognizable form I hope to be on my sons twenty acres in a couple of years…
But before I move I need/want two things. A huge cistern that can be kept from freezing and ? You guessed it – A root cellar!
Halfkin… our 9000 gal cistern is under our basement & doesn’t freeze on the Canadian prairies. Of course it depends if you have deep soil so this is possible.
We ate our last two carrots from last years crop in July this year. Good enough to be grated for salad. We packed them in pails of sand in our root cellar.
To canadagal – if it is in your basement, does that mean you rely on electricity to get your water out? I am hoping to go off grid as much as possible. Not that I do not love having the little power switch, however, I want a system in place to sustain me without having to store fuels, depend on solar, have an arsenal of battery back up, etc.
We are considering wind mill to draw water up from the deep well if all goes down,but they have parts that wear out also.
I lived three years with no electricity and I didn’t really miss it that much. Those were the days before internet and all.
Thanks for your input,
Halfkin the windmills now will last waay past our lifetimes. the ranch has 1 that has over 25 years on it without a breakdown so there ya go. since where we live its kinda flat all i did was had a basement poured 4 ft in the ground then covered up the rest with ground i had moved for some hoop houses. so no problem. the power thing is up to you.
Wildman – good to know about the windmill parts,thanks!
I will be moving to the family home where I was raised. It is located in central Minnesota and is at the edge of a river. We just put in a new well and a geothermal heat system, so I suppose the grid will fry and the geo won’t be worth squat. However, we do plan to install a hand pump, alongside the geo pump in the well. I found a site that makes them this way so that you do not have to pull your pump from the line in order to switch to hand pumping.
However, it would be nice to also have a windmill for this purpose also. Can anyone suggest a reputable, fair priced place to buy one? The geo killed us $$$$$$. The house has hot water base board heat that also will work, if there is fuel oil to be had at an affordable price and if there is electricity. In addition, the is a fireplace with a heatilator in the living room. It also has an electric fan system to circulate air around the heatilator and then into the room. I do plan to buy a cast iron stove for in the kitchen, as I think that if TSHTF it will be impossible to get cooking gas for very long.
If we get the right tools and build an ice house we could store ice from the river to use in the summer. My father used to talk about their ice house, cutting ice chunks from the pond across the road, and hauling the ice to the ice house and covering it with sawdust. The neighbor makes kitchen cabinets so I think we could stock up on saw dust. Also found a place giving away large plastic type bags that contained 2,000 lbs. Niger thistle seed. We got about 50 of them so I think we do some serious saw dust storage…..LOL
The area is full of the older burr oaks so there is endless wood that can be cut and piled. We are currently in the process of putting an entirely new roof on a huge “shop” and also a two stall garage. I think we will store cut and chopped wood in the shop, and perhaps also some sawdust.
My concern is that TSHTF before we get everything set up.
Any info. Re. Windmills would be greatly appreciated.
We plan to have lots of chickens, goats, and some pigs too.
We also have 28 small sized dogs that we adopted due to the dogs having medical problems, so having everything set up and ready to go is HUGELY important to us.
Thanks for any info and names of resource places……..
had a real whopper of a winter in upstate ny and an amish neighbot of mine built an ice house last fall, finally thawed late august. I was impressed and would like to build one as well. Funny read walden a couple weeks and had no clue what he was talking about in the winter chapter and all the ice cutting- thought they were selling it to big cities, but it was used to build cold storage nearby. Found an old ice cutter (crazy huge saw type thing) in our new home- an 1840’s farm house. may come in handy by next season! this place has been an antique lover’s or simplifyers dream house! old wringer washer, hand pumps in barn etc…one thing it lacks is a heat source, and with all the epa/insurance junk about wood heat, i am saddened that we may not be able to have that cozy glow of a wood fire i grew up with…..
gabe- being aware makes you already ahead of the game when shtf!
THanks so much for this…. never knew you could store celery for so long! roots on of course! my grandparents always had an active root cellar, nothing like those sweet late summer carrots in the middle of the winter! as a “prepper” and a farmer this info is vital for my family in order to preserve the harvest especially since i didn’t have much time for canning this season! (too busy growing and selling food to put up it seemed!)
I live in Goose Bay, Labrador on the Churchill River delta. I have a hm underground rootcellar 2.5m x 3.5m and bump your head not high enough. We dug the hole in a sandbank and built a log cabin, coered ot with galv. steel rooofing and 5 layers of tarp and plastic, then covered it with nearly a metre of sand. It has an inside door, an anteroom and the outside door has 3 inches of styrofoam. I keep potatoes, parsnips, rutabagas and carrots until July. I have collards I harvested mid Oct.that are still good, mid Dec. The temp stays between plus 3 and 6 Celcius and the rh over 95% year around.
Can anyone tell me. If l can use cold water mass to keep a cellar cold? My well water is very cold and want to know if I put a 550 gallon cistern tank inside the cellar will the water mass act as a cooling element? Thanks Parry in Montana.
I was just wondering about the last image of the cellar. We have a space that looks very similar to this in our 1922 house and we’ve been trying to figure out what it was since it’s actually below or back porch. I’m curious to see the stairs down to the space. Unless it’s an old image. It would be very cool to turn it back to a root cellar! Although right now it gets too wet to store anything in it. Thanks in advance!