Food preservation can be an energy-intensive proposition for any homesteader. If you freeze your harvest, you rely on electricity to keep those chest freezers running all winter long. You also risk losing everything if there’s a power outage and you don’t have a generator. Even if you do, it takes a lot of gas to keep that going nonstop, as well.
Luckily, lots of fall crops can be stored in a root cellar for a low-energy way to keep them crisp and fresh. This old-fashioned method of food preservation is one of the simplest ways to keep traditional storage crops like onions, winter squash, apples, pears and root vegetables like turnips, carrots and potatoes. These foods last for months in a cool, dark place, and a root cellar is a great project to make your homestead a little more green this winter.
In an old farmhouse, a root cellar may have been simply a dark corner in the cool basement. A windowless tone foundation and dirt floor mimicked natural conditions underground – the perfect environment for tricking root vegetables into thinking they were still at home in the garden.
Root cellars were also dug into the sides of hills or excavated in the ground, and this is still a good plan today if your house is too modern and well insulated to have a damp, cool basement. Choose a spot near enough to your kitchen that you’ll be able to access it easily during the winter. The area should have relatively sandy soil and drain well – a slope is ideal.
Consider how much room your crops would take up if stored in bins and barrels, and consider how large a room would be required to hold it all. A root cellar will basically be this underground room. You can line it with wooden shelves, but do make sure that it’s spacious enough to move around in. It’s better to go a little bigger than you think you may need – you never know when you’ll have a bumper crop!
The first step is to excavate the hole for your root cellar. With the right construction equipment, this should go quickly. Tamp the base for a packed earth floor to allow for natural temperature and humidity, but build cinderblock walls on all four sides of your underground room to support the earth.
If you build your root cellar into a slope, you can add a door to one side to walk in. If your root cellar in on flat land, you’ll need a door and a ship’s ladder to access the area from outside. Though your food should all be stored below ground level, it’s perfectly fine to build a roof of cedar, corrugated metal or stone that rises above ground to accommodate an entryway.
Once you have a door, you just need to add ventilation, which is crucial for keeping your food from spoiling underground. It’s easy to add a couple PVC pipes through the roof and cap them to keep out the rain. For better humidity control, consider a louvered vent that can be adjusted to open and close depending on conditions.
Once your root cellar is built and filled with your harvest, be sure to check your produce regularly to remove any bad apples or soft potatoes. This will keep any rot from spreading and ensure a winter’s worth of healthy food – without adding to your carbon footprint.
Photo by tookapic/Krzysztof Puszczynski
James is green builder and home improvement blogger who focuses on sustainable living via his family blog Homey Improvements. He also enjoys sharing his recent discoveries with DIY projects, home tips and organic gardening. James is "Alaska Grown" but now resides in PA. Connect with him on Twitter at @DIYfolks. Read all of James' MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.