I am in the process of writing and producing a University peer reviewed publication on root cellars for the inter-mountain west. And I thought it would be fitting and interesting to share a few of points from my publication in a weekly gardening article. Most young people have never lived in a home with a root cellar on the property, as the advent of refrigeration, and the ability to buy fresh produce year-round in a grocery store made these natural storage units obsolete. But, with the current events of late and a renewed interest in storing food, and sustainable home food production; root cellars are being recognized again for their potential benefits.
Every household has different eating habits, and a root cellar’s design and contents would vary widely depending on what your family’s needs are. For me a root cellar would be the best place to store my homegrown potatoes, carrots, beets, rutabagas, parsnips, and other root crops since that is what we produce. While these crops are all pretty inexpensive to buy, I personally am disappointed with the quality of the potatoes available in the store, as they many times are bruised, have cuts in them, and have turned green. So I grow my own, and really like having a 6 month supply of quality vegetables on hand. I also am not at the mercy of grocery stores and potential interruptions in the supply chain of food because of this. Sure, I buy groceries like everyone else, but during the past few months I really appreciated the peace of mind of having enough food storage (that we actually use and eat daily) on hand for my family. Aside from the advantage of food security, is the added benefit of not having to pay an electric bill to refrigerate or cool the produce since the ground temperature will naturally do this for you.
Here are some basic principles of a root cellar if you are considering building one. Before starting, check with your local building department (or government agency who oversees building where you live) to see what legal requirements you may need to comply with before doing any construction. Start making a design that will meet your storage goals and work for your physical abilities. So, for example if you cannot walk down stairs or use a ladder, then design a root cellar that could be built into the side of a hill or a mound or somewhere so you don’t have to go down a set of steps. Select the right size of cellar for the amount of food you will be storing. These don’t have to be very big if its only enough food for a couple of people, or if you have a large family then building a cellar with more capacity may be necessary. Recognize that since you are building a structure below ground, to use the earth’s natural cooling temperature, you are also building in an enclosed space, which requires some precautions to be taken. There are potential dangers in the form of structural failures, cave-ins, or a build up of unwanted gases, and other issues that can occur when building below ground. We don’t want a root cellar to accidentally become a death trap, so do your research prior to building. There is incredible weight pressing down from the top and sides on a root cellar, so building it correctly is critical. (Basically life and death if you don’t do it right). So design your cellar from the beginning to be a safe and structurally sound structure with proper ventilation. Next, consider all aspects of the land where you want to put your cellar. Some locations have a high water table or a septic system nearby which in both cases would result in flooding and a failed building project. The distance from your home also affects how often you will use it. A root cellar located a long ways away will be inconvenient to access when all you need is a handful of potatoes for Sunday dinner. So place it in a close and easily accessible location. Some people have built them under a garden shed, so that you don’t have to remove snow to access it during the winter. Next is designing your root cellar to give you the ability to control humidity, temperature, ventilation,
and drainage; as these affect how long you can hold your produce in storage. The most common approach is designing based on the storage needs of the crops you want keep. So, ask these questions. Does the produce need a moist and cool environment, or dry and cool, or warm and dry? Does the produce need ventilation to get rid of excess gases so that it doesn’t rot or sprout? Ultimately, I would design my root cellar with the options and flexibility to change to meet the various climate needs of the produce I am storing, as I will probably be putting different crops in there over the years. In conclusion there are many different considerations when putting in a root cellar, and doing good research, creating a good design, having the right site, and managing it correctly can give you great results for a very long time and be a rewarding investment. For gardening and horticulture questions please contact Lance at 208-624-3102.