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The advantages of storing produce in a root cellar and how to build an effective one

In the Garden

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Root cellar | Rett Nelson,

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. They are often bruised, have cuts in them, or have turned green. So I grow my own, and really like having a six-month supply of quality vegetables on hand. I also am not at the mercy of grocery stores and potential interruptions in the supply chain because of this. I do 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. For example, if you cannot walk downstairs or use a ladder, then design a root cellar that could be built into the side of a hill or a mound 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 it’s only enough food for a couple of people. If you have a large family, then building a cellar with more capacity may be necessary. Since you are building a structure below ground, you are also building in an enclosed space, which requires some precautions. 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. Do your research prior to building. There is an 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). Design your cellar from the beginning to be safe and structurally sound with proper ventilation.

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 a long way from your house will be inconvenient to access when all you need is a handful of potatoes for Sunday dinner. Place it in a close and easily accessible location. Some people have built them under a garden shed so they don’t have to remove snow to access it during the winter.

Next, design your root cellar to give you the ability to control humidity, temperature, ventilation, and drainage. 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 option and flexibility to change the various climate needs of the produce I am storing because 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.