Our Root Cellar Experiences

Root cellars are an essential way to properly store those precious commodities to retain freshness and nutrients for the longer term.

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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Ron Melchiore
Some of the Produce Stored

As long time homesteaders, we have used various versions of a root cellar to store our fruits and vegetables. Root cellars are an essential way to properly store those precious commodities to retain freshness and nutrients for the longer term. And therein lies the challenge. The words “longer term”

Depending on many variables, one can store crops for weeks to many months or even longer if done properly. Some of the variables that need to be considered are temperature, ventilation, humidity and ease of access. Let’s not forget, the varieties of fruits and vegetables have a huge bearing on how well they will store. Certain varieties are better for storage and some are more suited for fresh use. Select varieties known for their storage qualities when perusing the seed catalogs.

Our Maine Root Cellar

Our first attempt at a root cellar was in Maine over 40 years ago. I had built an insulated pantry with a door as part of the kitchen. It was hoped that with the cold Maine winter temperatures which could easily hit -20°F and with the pantry insulated from the stove heat that we could maintain an internal pantry temperature below 40° but above 32 which is freezing. In reality, the temperature was cooler than the house interior but never got anywhere near the optimum temperature of roughly 35°F. While we don’t get crazy about seeking the perfect temperature, the idea is to keep the fruits and vegetables in a refrigerated world for best storage. Depending on how the root cellar is constructed, temperature will fluctuate a little. That’s to be expected and is OK but an area slightly cooler than room temperature like our pantry was is inadequate for long term storage.

Our next try was to utilize an area in the barn. The barn was unheated but sheltered and we pondered what clever thing could we do to make a root cellar out there. Obviously dealing with temperatures well below zero for an extended period of time would call for some real creativity.

So we dug a hole roughly 3 feet deep X 8 feet long X 3 feet wide and I built a wooden frame out of cedar. The framework was set into the hole to act as compartments. I made cedar boxes that we filled with potatoes, carrots, apples, cabbages, rutabagas and beets which filled up the entire void. A piece of plywood capped this hole along with styro-foam insulation sheets set on the lid. Then a layer of plastic to help seal out the cold. Full hay bales were then stacked in a neat layer over the whole mess. Then loose hay was piled on top and in any crevices. I had some heavy mover’s blankets I layered in on top, and phew, we called it a day.

As you might imagine, it was quite a hassle getting in to this “root cellar” mid winter. I still have fond (nah, not that fond) memories of bitter cold temps and uncovering that whole mess to retrieve a bunch of goodies. Then having to re-cover the hole so the remainder of our produce was protected until the next time we needed to replenish our inventory. Yup, definitely a hassle. And believe it or not, by winter’s end, there were ice crystals on the lid and some things were definitely not happy. Cabbages and the apples did not like the ultra damp storage. But we got most of our produce through to spring.

Nevertheless this was far from ideal. We found out in a hurry that this was not ideal when spring showed up. Maine gets copious quantities of snow. And when two to three feet of snow melt in conjunction with spring rains, our hole was flooded in no time. Then we were bobbing for apples and potatoes. And it wasn’t even Halloween! What a mess!

But that was our best option for all the years we spent homesteading in Maine and now that we knew what the deal was, when spring started to show up, we opened the hole and emptied it before we had to dip arms in the icy, murky depths and search for submerged produce. It worked and we were able to keep our fruits and vegetables longer term than if we had kept things in the house pantry. We’d also learned a great deal and stepped our food security up a notch.

Saskatchewan Gets Cold!

When we moved to the wilderness of Canada, we lived above the 56th parallel. That gives a new dimension to the term “cold.” The coldest we hit was -57° F and we always hit -40° each year. To consider an outdoor root cellar for that extreme climate would be a bad idea.

Fortunately our house site was on a sandy knoll. After clearing the site of trees by chainsaw, we laid out the house perimeter and decided a root cellar would be in a dugout hole under the house. After telling Johanna I thought there was buried treasure in the location, you should have seen the sand flying as she quickly shoveled the hole out!

Meanwhile, I was building a box roughly 4 feet high X 6 feet square from plywood and framing stock which ultimately was set down in that hole. Because this site was mostly sand, I used a combination of 2X4 and two adjustable jack post columns to prevent the force of the sandy soil from pushing in and collapsing our root cellar.

Boxed Frame for Root Cellar

Access to this root cellar was through a trap door in the floor of my workshop. Then down a ladder set in the hole. Not ideal since everything had to be carted down into the hole. Countless five gallon pails of potatoes, carrots and cabbages were taken down each fall. When Johanna needed to go shopping, she’d uncover the hole in the shop floor, head down the ladder and fill her shopping basket with all kinds of goodies. It was a hassle but it sure beat moving bales of hay in a freezing barn, grabbing items and then going through the reverse process to cover everything up again. So this was another step up for us.

Our Ideal Root Cellar

Now that we’ve made the move to Nova Scotia, we have the ideal setup. There is nothing we could improve upon here. Our home is ICF which is short for Insulated Concrete Forms.

Before we started construction, we had an excavator dig out our basement. This basement would be like most except most of it would not have a poured concrete slab. It would have a vapor barrier and then foam sheets of insulation as the flooring. We also knew the location we wished to have our root cellar.

Before any concrete was poured for the walls, I set into the wall two 4 inch vent pipes. The concrete was poured and I put commercial vents on the exterior of our house to prevent rodents and insects from gaining access to the basement. On the interior of those pipes I installed adjusters, essentially devices where we can manually regulate air flow.

Then I framed walls to delineate the root cellar. On the interior studs I stapled heavy 6 mil plastic as a vapor barrier before sheathing those walls. On the outside, I carefully cut 2 inch Styrofoam the width of my wall studs and wedged the insulation tightly. I took up the insulation on the ground so there’s only plastic vapor barrier over earth. That earth is a good heat sink and once cooled down, will help maintain a more constant temperature in there. Of course the ceiling was insulated well too.

Insulating Our Framed Root Cellar

I built bins on the ground and installed shelving units. We couldn’t be any happier with our setup. Moisture is perfect for keeping everything at the proper level and temperature is pretty steady even with the typical Nova Scotia fluctuations. It maintains between 35 to 45 degrees with the floor being the coldest and the higher shelves a tad warmer. That gives us flexibility on what is stored closest to the ground.

Backyard Buried Can Root Cellar

Let me throw one more idea your way. There are many versions of root cellars and you can see, we’ve tried many of them. But you may have heard about burying a trash can as a slick and quick way to protect your own produce.

Backyard Barrel Root Cellar

As an experiment for our Nova Scotia climate which can get as cold as ± 0°F, I had an excavator dig a hole and then I buried and insulated a metal trash can to see how well it would work. I made a short video you are welcome to watch on how I built it, insulated it and the end result when I opened the can in the spring. It is certainly a viable means of protecting one’s harvest.

So there you have, a synopsis of various root cellars we’ve tried over the course of roughly 42 years of homesteading. The basics are temperature, ventilation and humidity control. Experiment. Every location and climate needs to be adapted to.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Johanna never did find any buried treasure digging out the root cellar at our Saskatchewan homestead. Imagine that!

Ron Melchiore and his wife Johanna are currently building a new homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published by Moon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron and Johanna are the authors of The Self-sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader. Connect with Ron at In the Wilderness and on Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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