Our ancestors built root cellars to keep their produce fresh without refrigeration. These days you may want to consider making a modern root cellar, as it is still a viable option to store large harvests, saves you electricity, and some types can even double as a storm shelter.
But do you know how they work? There are key components root cellars must have to function properly. And you should also know about the three types of root cellars you can choose from.
I’m going to answer your questions and offer a few tips too. This will help you find success when planning your modern root cellar.
How Does a Root Cellar Work?
A root cellar is an area which can maintain a temperature (ideally) between 32° Fahrenheit and 40° Fahrenheit.
If you don’t have an area which can maintain these cool temperatures, aim for an area which can stay between 40° Fahrenheit and 50° Fahrenheit.
You won’t be able to keep your vegetables or fruit quite as long in these higher temperatures, but they can offer short-term storage.
The point of maintaining the lower temperatures is it creates an environment difficult for bacteria to grow. Where bacteria are slow to grow, it also slows the rotting process, which makes your fruits and vegetables last longer.
However, root cellars must also maintain a high humidity of approximately 85-95%. This allows the area to retain moisture and in turn, keep your fruits and vegetables looking fresh instead of shriveling up from lack of moisture.
By placing your new modern root cellar ten feet or more beneath the surface of the ground, you should find it easy to maintain the right temperatures and have the proper humidity.
What Every Root Cellar Must Have
Every root cellar must have proper air flow and ventilation. If you have cool temperatures, high humidity, and stagnant air, you’ll end up with too much moisture in your modern root cellar and rotten food.
Therefore, make sure you have a ventilation system in your root cellar set-up. An ideal ventilation system would have a pipe at the top of the root cellar running through a wall and a pipe at the bottom of the root cellar running through a wall.
Warm air rises. The pipe at the top of the root cellar would allow the warm air to escape, while cooler air is denser. Therefore, the pipe at the bottom of the root cellar wall would allow cool air to come in.
This would keep air circulating. If you can't run pipes through walls, consider installing ventilation anyway you can.
My root cellar is a crawlspace we transformed. It has vents which slide and were installed when the house was built to offer ventilation to the crawlspace, and we use this as our ventilation system for the root cellar. Use anything you can to keep the air flowing through your cellar.
Be sure you add screens to your vents to keep unwanted visitors out of your root cellar and be sure you have a way to open and close the vents when winter comes, as you must keep freezing temperatures out of your root cellar.
Another important aspect to consider with ventilation is shelving. Make sure your storage shelves aren’t directly on the wall. Try to prop them off the wall an inch at minimum.
This allows for air to flow all around the food and nothing has blocked airflow because it’s being crammed up against a wall.
The Three Main Types of Root Cellars
There are three main types of root cellars to choose from. They each serve a different purpose, and you may find you could incorporate more than one type of root cellar in your food storage system. Here are the options to choose from:
1. Basement Root Cellar
A basement root cellar is when you find a dark, cool, yet dry corner of your basement and apply shelving to the walls.
This is a great place to store fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and canned goods alike. This style of root cellar is convenient because it’s right beneath your feet inside your home.
2. Trash Can Root Cellar
A trash can root cellar is when you dig a large hole in the ground, big enough to fit a trash can. You must install ventilation pipes for the cool and warm air to circulate.
Place the trash can in the ground only leaving the lid to where it can be opened when you must access the crops inside. Be sure to dig the hole deep enough to be able to maintain stable temperatures during the winter months and high humidity too.
3. In-ground Root Cellar
An inground root cellar is what pops in most people’s minds when considering a root cellar. This style of cellar is either dug directly into the ground or in the side of a hill.
A door is added to the structure, and it doubles as a great storm shelter. Again, it must have proper ventilation and a sturdy door. The door will keep unwanted pests out of your cellar and block the elements.
Root Cellar Troubleshooting
The biggest issues people face when installing a modern root cellar is not understanding how to get or maintain proper temperatures and humidity. Here’s what you can do to help your root cellar function optimally:
Before installing a root cellar, use a thermometer to measure temperatures in the area. If you’re creating a basement cellar, place a thermometer in the corner you’re planning on using.
If the temperatures stay where you need them to, it’s a prime location. If not, you’ll know to look elsewhere.
When digging a spot for either an in-ground or trash can root cellar, place a thermometer in the hole and monitor the temperatures before moving forward with the build.
If the temperatures are too high, you’ll know to keep digging or change locations.
2. Proper Humidity
It’s essential to use a hygrometer to measure the humidity in your root cellar. This will let you know if you’re in range or not.
The best way to maintain proper humidity in a root cellar is to add dirt floors. This allows you to spray the dirt with water when you need more moisture in the air.
This may be hard to do if you have a finished basement, but you can install a humidifier in the corner you’re using for a root cellar when needing additional moisture.
A Few Tips for a Modern Root Cellar
When using a root cellar, there are a few things you can do to make your experience better. By taking a few things into consideration it will help you enjoy this method of off-grid refrigeration and avoid wasting any of your harvests:
1. Pick the Right Shelving
When choosing how to store items in your root cellar, it may be tempting to install metal shelving. It’s durable and lasts for a long time.
The downside with metal shelving is it fluctuates in temperature easily. Instead, choose wood shelving, which keeps a more consistent temperature. This matters because the temperature of the shelf can impact the temperature of the crops being stored on it.
2. Store the Right Items in the Right Way
If you store canned goods in your root cellar, be sure to store them in higher locations. If you store them too close to the ground, the moisture and cooler air will rust the lids.
However, if you store them up high, there’s less moisture and warmer temperatures. This will keep your canned goods in good condition while they wait to be used.
3. Different Crops Call for Different Cellars
You may need more than one style of root cellar. For instance, cabbage stinks when it’s being stored. If you have a basement cellar, the cabbage can cause an odor throughout your entire home.
Instead, you may wish to take the smellier items outside and store them in a trash can or inground root cellar.
4. Proper Storage Techniques
When storing your crops, there are a few storage techniques which can make all the difference. To start, gently shake the dirt from your freshly harvested crops instead of washing them.
The water can get trapped in the crops and cause rot. Also, be sure to wrap your apples individually when they’re being stored. This prevents the skins from resting on one another, which can cause decay.
Staying on top of rot is vital to maintaining healthy produce in a root cellar.
5. Root Cellar Placement
If you live where there are rough winters, you must consider the placement of your root cellar. When there’s a great deal of snow on the ground, are you going to be able to make it through the snow to get into your in-ground cellar?
Will you even be able to find your trash can cellar? In these conditions, many choose to bury their cellars under their porches or go with a basement cellar. Consider the cellar's accessibility all year long before deciding on a location.
6. Avoid Trees
Some may decide to bury their root cellar or place it near a tree because the shade of the tree helps with maintaining cooler temperatures.
Before doing this, you must know the roots of the tree may be difficult to dig through. Plus, they can grow through root cellar walls which will destroy what you’ve built.
When using and building a root cellar properly, make sure you keep the cellar as dark as possible when you aren’t in it.
Most walk-in root cellars have a light which can be turned on when you’re inside, but for the most part, you want the cellar dark to keep your food as fresh as possible.
8. How to Store Your Crops
When using a root cellar, don’t pick your crops and toss them in the cellar on a dirt floor or shelf. This will not only cause the vegetables to rot, but it can allow some to take root inside your root cellar.
Be sure to use a bushel basket, wood shelf, or a wooden crate to store the crops in. Place layers of saw dust or straw between the layers of crops to avoid vegetables resting on top of each other as this can cause them to deteriorate and rot.
You now know how to properly use a root cellar, how to store your crops where they have the best chances for success, and how to layout your root cellar where it functions best.
Hopefully, this information will help you to store your harvest in one easy-to-access location and give you fresh foods all year round.