Pioneer Root Cellar Food Storage

One problem that frequently pops up to the modern prepared person is what to do with refrigerated products. When the power goes out, how do you keep milk, cheese, meat, and other valuable foodstuffs from molding or rotting in the heat? If all else fails you could binge on these foods and eat them quickly, but what if you would like to save those valuable nutrients or if you have a source for fresh milk or meat? In that case, you would need to go back to the olden days before refrigeration, when every home had a root cellar.

What is a Root Cellar?

Essentially, a root cellar is an underground room that uses the fact that the temperature underground is kept at a stable 30-45 Fahrenheit degrees (depending on location and season) year ’round to help preserve foods. It can be built into the house and accessible via a staircase, in your current basement, or you can construct a separate structure outside.

Although a hill or incline can greatly reduce the work, you can build a root cellar on a perfectly level plot of ground. It can be as long as you need, or as short as you’re able to build it. In short, it’s a highly customizable structure that can ease the pain of loss when your refrigerator ceases to function.

Small Root Cellar

A root cellar doesn’t even need to be an actual “cellar”, if you can find a suitable container for smaller amounts of food.

What Can You Put Into a Root Cellar?

There are a variety of goods that can be stored in a root cellar, though space will probably be limited in there much more quickly than you would guess. These are some of the top candidates for your precious preservation space:

Fresh fruits and veggies. This is a no-brainer, as the cool, humid environment keeps wrinkling to a minimum, slows rotting and molding, and preserves a crop that usually arrives all at once in a short space of time.

Stored grains like wheat and rice. Generally speaking this is not for grains already safe in a 5 gallon bucket and mylar bag, but rather for the fresh stuff that you can barter for or harvest.

Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt These are still not long-lived products generally speaking but they will last longer in a root cellar than they will sitting on your kitchen counter. If you do put these in your cellar be sure to check for mold or curdling each day, since you don’t want mold spores to start spreading throughout the cellar.

Canned goods benefit from being in a root cellar, but the cellar also benefits from the heat slowly released by the canned liquids!

Canned Goods

Canned goods. Light and heat are destructive to canned food, so keeping them in the root cellar is a great way to extend their life. Furthermore, the liquid in those jars will tend to help maintain stable temperatures, since the glass will slowly leak absorbed heat in the cold.

Meats, both fresh and preserved through salting. Again, you’ll have to keep an eye out for rot even in the optimal conditions of the root cellar, but it will help extend the life of freshly caught fish, hunted game, or slaughtered animals. Preserved meats benefit from the environment as well, as it adds additional preservation to both the meat and the improved flavor.

Wines and alcohol. Now, a root cellar can never replace a properly designed wine cellar with all of the accouterments those require, but generally speaking it can’t hurt to keep your alcoholic beverages underground.

Potatoes are among the most popular foods to be stored in a root cellar.

Potatos Root Cellar

Different Ways to Build One, but Common Requirements for All Designs

We will get into the major designs (one very small and simple, others larger and more complex) in the next few posts, but there are some general guidelines you’ll want to keep in mind regardless of which kind of cellar you ultimately decide to build.

Ventilation shafts have been build in dozens of different ways. This old-timey cellar uses one protected from outside vermin and debris by a wooden tower.

All root cellars must be ventilated. There are a variety of reasons for this, including removing heat, regulating humidity, and especially getting rid of ethylene gas that comes from fruits as a result of decomposition. Ventilation doesn’t mean that you need to setup a fan to move air, but you will need at least two vents (for pulling air in and pushing air out) of some kind that can use the natural flow of hot and cold air to properly regulate temperature and humidity. In winter, you’ll also want to be able to quickly and easily seal one or both of these vents in order to maintain temperatures above freezing.

Root Cellar Vent Shaft

Humidity is also very important. To some people a root cellar should be a dry, chilly environment but you’re actually looking to create and environment similar to a large “crisper” drawer in your fridge. Dry air causes veggies to wrinkle and dry out, but a humidity level of 80-90 percent keeps them fresh for much longer.

Air circulation is key to freshness. Ethylene gas from decomposition is intended to cause other nearby substances to rot more quickly, as this gets those nutrients back into the soil faster in nature. Here, it destroys your food before you have the chance to eat it, so be sure that you build shelving and storage so that air can circulate properly. Furthermore, proper circulation also keeps molds and other growths to a minimum.

Wood is generally preferred to metal for any surface. Odd as it may seem, metal actually hinders the ability to regulate proper temperature in your root cellar.Wooden shelves are much better than metal ones, as they keep temperatures more stable.

Root Cellar Wooden Shelves
Wooden shelves are much better than metal ones, as they keep temperatures more stable.

You see, wood slowly gains or looses heat which keeps things more stable as things change over the course of a day. Metal on the other hand changes temperatures rapidly and can make it much more difficult to keep temperatures stable as a result. Keep doors, shelves, storage bins etc wooden rather than metal.

Floors should be made of dirt or concrete. Both types help preserve the proper humidity, though dirt floor will have higher overall humidity than a concrete floor will. Some larger cellars will actually have two rooms, one of dirt for products that take advantage of the highest humidity, and the other of concrete for those goods that benefit from less humid environments.

Always be aware of the soil and water conditions around your cellar. Whether you build one inside your house or outside, you’ll need to construct your cellar so that it has good drainage so that your goods aren’t flooded or rotted in excessive humidity among other concerns.

All root cellars need an accurate thermometer and hygrometer so that you can measure temperature and humidity on a daily basis and make adjustments as needed. This is one aspect of modern knowledge and technology that is a definite improvement here, as you will be able to keep optimum conditions for food preservation consistently even when circumstances are less than optimal.

Make sure you’re ready in case mice start invading your root cellar.

Vermin control is vital, because there is a lot of food in a small, dark space. Mouse traps, poisoned bait, whatever means are necessary should be used to keep your cellar free from pests. I do strongly advise against any airborne preventative treatments, however, as the vents may be insufficient to properly remove the poisons, leaving you with food covered in pesticides.

Always be sure to check with your local code and building permit authorities before building, to ensure that there are no regulations concerning root cellars. Although many rural areas basically class them as unregulated sheds, there are plenty of places that would charge a hefty fine if you tried to avoid purchasing a permit.

In the next few articles we’ll discuss some specific designs for particular situations, ranging from the simple and easy to build to a large and well-appointed room full of every feature you could want. For those of you who like to customize and fit things to your specific needs, just keep these design features in mind when building your own root cellars.

Root Cellar Design Concepts

We discussed the basics of root cellaring as a concept, as well as a few design guidelines. We are going to cover the three major designs I’ve seen popularized by farmers all across the country. One is very small and simple, and you could make multiple “mini cellars” quite easily to store small harvests. The other is the true cellar, an actual room with vents, shelves and doors. We’re going to consider the mini-cellar which is great if you are on a budget or lack the ability to build or dig out a larger cellar.

Supplies You’ll Need for Your Mini Root Cellar

The whole idea behind this design is that you’re building a small, contained storage area for a few food items and burying it until all but the access lid is covered in earth. This makes them unsuitable for dairy and meat products, as the depth is insufficient to keep those properly preserved. On the plus side, the list of needed materials is small:

An old fridge can be great for storing produce even once the power is out.

At least 1 container suitable for burial. Depending on the container you will need to punch holes in the bottom for drainage, so don’t pick something too difficult to drill through. People have used trash cans, storage tubs, and even old freezers and refrigerators. You’re looking for something that is unlikely to rust out or break if buried for about a year or so, longer if you plan on reusing it.

A shovel to dig a hole deep enough to bury your container.

Straw to insulate the top of your container and to layer groups of produce.

A piece of heavy plywood (if you lack a lid) and several stones to keep vermin from opening the lid.

A spot to dig that will remain reasonably dry. You will still need to add certain features to direct rainwater somewhere besides your container, but naturally you don’t want to pick places that tend to remain submerged after particularly heavy downpours.

How to Build Your Container Cellar?

Dig a hole just large enough to fit your container in, and just deep enough that the top of the container is either flush (if you don’t have a lid of some kind) or just barely above the ground (so your lid can fit).

Garbage Can Root Cellar

If runoff will be a problem, dig a very small small circular moat (drainage ditch) around your hole. This will keep soil from building up around/inside your container.

Place gravel or small stones at the bottom of the hole, for proper drainage.

Punch holes in the bottom of the container to allow any moisture to drain into the soil. These do not need to be large, so a hammer and a nail can punch sufficiently large holes for proper drainage.

Put the container in the hole, with the lid side facing up (so if you use a fridge, make sure that the lid can swing open by placing it horizontally).

Place a little straw in the bottom of the container, then begin adding your produce. Be aware that certain kinds of produce should not be put in together. Apples in particular should only be layered with other apples, as they will readily rot anything else placed in the same small container with them.

With each layer of produce, add a little cushioning straw between each layer. This acts as insulation and keeps fruits and veggies from bruising each other.

Keep piling until you end with a final layer of straw at the top of the container or until you run out of produce. Fill the remaining empty space with more straw if it is not completely filled, for extra insulation.

Cover the lid of the container with straw, and then cover that lid with stones. The stones keep opossum, raccoons, and other vermin from sneaking under the lid to get at your food.

When you need to get food, remove as little straw as possible and quickly retrieve the needed produce. The less time the mini-cellar remains open, the better it does as keeping your food preserved.

Cover this with a little straw and a few rocks, and you have the perfect little storage system.

Ideally, you can build as many of these as you need for all of your produce. Not only that, but these can be truly buried if you wish by simply digging deeply enough that you can cover them completely with earth without making an obvious hump in the soil. This can make for decent caches of food in the event of confiscation, overpowering looters, or just as a little insurance. Be advised that you do have to check on these periodically, since fruits and vegetables can still rot in these containers, so they aren’t perfect, but they are certainly a major boon if/when you need them.

Location of the Root Cellar

We’re going to start take a look at the true root cellar. Whether built into a basement or outside, these have enough room for shelves and bins to store food and can hold a fairly large amount of the harvest all at once.

Build Inside the House or as a Separate Building?

Obviously most people would probably find it easier to build an underground room in their basement or at least under their house rather than digging up their yard. But assuming you have the room to make that choice, here are some considerations:

A basement cellar generally has less risk of collapse or other structural fault than a dugout building outside. If you lack construction experience, I would probably recommend the easier option for safety reasons.

Dugout shelters can be much larger, depending on your needs. Depending on the size of your basement, you may only be able to have a very short, narrow little room with only a few shelves. Outside, you can make a 10×10 room suitable for several families if need be.

It is possible that coding and permit restrictions may be different for the two types. Since a root cellar in your basement is actually a room in your house, you might be subject to additional regulation. Of course, an outdoor cellar can also run afoul of regulations, but many rural areas can classify these as unregulated sheds.

Assuming they are the same size, basement cellars tend to have a lower cost unless you can salvage a large amount of materials. Generally, a basement saves you money and time since you already have the digging done and several of the walls setup. However, owing to the need to use special moisture resistant wall coverings and the like in a basement, you might be able to build an outdoor cellar on the cheap if you have access to old railroad ties, a pile of stone blocks, or a good deal of treated lumber.

Railroad ties

Unless you can get access to cheap construction materials like these railroad ties, a basement cellar tends to be cheaper.

Building in a Basement

Many people find this to be much simpler than digging outside, but you still need to pay attention to detail. Moisture-resistance and proper sealing are both vital, since you want to keep humidity in that cellar but you don’t want to start growing potentially deadly mold in your walls. Being able to cobble things together from makeshift parts is perfectly acceptable and very useful when building a basement cellar, just be sure that everything can perform adequately before you install it.

Choose where you want your cellar. Ideally it should be in a north-facing spot of an exterior wall, away from light and heat and buried as deeply as possible. If you wish to run a vent pipe out of the basement window instead of cutting holes in the wall, you can include it in the room as well.

The cover for the window doesn’t need to be fancy. Just insulate, allow the pipes to go through, and you’re good!

Cut and setup your two ventilation holes, which need to be large enough for the piping you will use (I recommend 3″ PVC). One should be set as high up on the wall as possible, while the other should be as low as possible. This will setup an air siphoning system, which will allow the cellar to adjust its temperature constantly in order to keep things nice and stable. If you’re using your window, you’ll have to build or buy a support for the pipes that will block that window up completely.

Insert your piping, and cover the the part of each pipe that connects to the outside with a valve that can be opened and closed. These valves will be used to prevent hot air from being sucked outside when temperatures drop below freezing.

Add levers that reach into the room and allow you to shut the vents from inside the cellar. It can be annoying to have to run outside and then back in to check on the temperature differences when you open/close vents. Having a convenient lever on the inside is much handier and you’ll appreciate it especially during the winter months.

Build the frame for your room out of moisture resistant lumber. Pressure treated stuff is naturally perfect for this job. Cedar is also naturally rot resistant, if you have an aversion to pressure-treatment.

Green board like this is great for making a moisture-resistant wall.

Attach moisture resistant wall-board. “Green Board” commonly used in bathrooms and showers works well here, and won’t be damaged as easily by the high moisture content in the cellar.

Seal the cracks and insulate the walls. You want this room to be as nearly airtight (aside from the vents, of course) as possible to keep that humidity in. Use fiberglass insulation and spray foam to fill in the walls, any cracks, and to touch up any drafty areas in the new room. You may also want to seal the extra space around the ventilation pipes at this time.

Add your shelving. Higher shelves will be warmer and drier, while lower shelves will have extra moisture and cool air to contend with. Plan your shelf sizes according to what products you will store on which shelves. For example, milk would probably be best on a lower shelf where it is colder, so you’ll want shelves that are wide enough to hold milk jugs/bottles, and maybe a lip to keep the milk from falling off of the shelf.

Add a door. You can use a standard pre-built door or a homemade one, depending on your level of skill. Just be sure that it is also as airtight as possible while still being fairly easy to open.

Add your thermometer and hygrometer, and start filling up your new cellar.

Your root cellar may be small, but it will help keep you and your family fed with preserved foods.

Outdoor Cellars: The Two Ways to Build a Separate Root Cellar

If you elect to build outside, there are two major designs to choose from: the dugout and the pit. Which of these two designs you choose is mainly based on geography.

If you have a hill sufficient for a dugout root cellar you’ll almost certainly want to use that design, as it requires much less digging and you can keep the entrance somewhat level with the rest of the cellar. Furthermore, drainage is much easier in a dugout cellar, since you can add a slight slope as you dig to allow any water to drain out the door.

You’ll want to use a dugout if:

A dugout cellar is great if you have the right hill for it. A north-facing one is best to minimize sun exposure.

You have a hill available. No hill, no dugout!

You have sufficient soil quality to build the cellar in. Loose, sandy soil can require additional support for your roof and may be bothersome as a wall. Heavy clay soils are much better for a dugout, as your roof will be stronger and more durable.

The location has solid drainage. If your hill is placed so that the entrance will send water rushing into your root cellar after every rain, I would not recommend building your dugout there.

You understand how to properly construct and support your tunnel. No blog post can cover the skill needed to construct a tunnel properly to keep it from collapsing in on you, and even 4 feet of earth can present a serious danger. Acquire the skills needed to build a solid roof and walls to protect you and your food!

The law permits it. As we’ve said before in this series, always be sure that the local code-enforcers won’t have a reason to come knocking at your door.

This is a massive example of a pit cellar with a shed built over it. The sod on top helps with additional insulation.

A pit cellar built on flat ground generally requires you to dig a large rectangle in the earth and then cover it over with an earthen roof. The entrance is typically via a shed built on top of the cellar or a simple trapdoor and ladder depending on the design, and you will have a great deal of earth to move either way. Since you lack the premade side insulation that a dugout provides, you’ll be piling at least 4 feet of earth on each side of the root cellar as well, so unless you have quite a few willing hands some manner of earth-mover is strongly recommended.

Shed Pit cellar

Before building, know that:

You need to ensure proper drainage. Since you lack the ability to create a sloped exit for water, you need to design a floor of gravel or sand that will let the water drain away.

If you have a high water table, you may need to build some of your cellar above ground. Some areas have water everywhere, and so you won’t be able to dig at least 3-4 feet down into the soil. In that case, the earth you dig out will need to be used to build over the top of the roof, adding additional layers of soil above to give you proper coverage.

Building One of These Cellars

Unlike the previous designs, there is almost no way to create an exact step-by-step instruction on building one of these larger cellars. There are simply too many variables depending on the size, shape, and general skill of the person building the structure. We hope to have the chance to add a post showing our own root cellar construction project in the spring, but until then our general design guidelines are your best bet.

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