There was a time when root cellars came standard with the purchase of a home. Over time, we got away from home root cellars. But, as the saying goes, “everything old is new again,” and there is a current resurgence in people wanting or needing a DIY root cellar.
My great-grandmother had a basement root cellar, and as children my brothers and I would dare each other to go “down there” and bring back up a carrot as “proof”. None of us ever got hurt, and the danger was solely the rickety staircase and lack of lighting. The “proof” was never anything but good quality produce. (The house has long since been sold and I am sure the root cellar was converted into a media room sometime in the mid-1990s.)
But even today, there are still a number of reasons to have a small root cellar for your home. Maybe you have a garden and would like to store some of the bounty for the winter to come. Or maybe you would simply like to purchase vegetables when they are in season – and much cheaper – during the late summer and early fall. Maybe you are aware that most supermarkets only carry a three-day food supply, and you’d like to have a larger cushion for you and your family. All are valid reasons.
Whatever the reason, a root cellar is an old idea that was a good one, hence the renewed interest.
In order to have a functioning root cellar, it needs to be able to maintain about 80% humidity, and hold temperatures near thirty-five degrees F. All vegetables and fruits do not have the same storage needs, so having different root cellars for different crops – or having your root cellar partitioned off – is better than having one large space.
A root cellar may be as complex an underground room attached to your house with humidifiers and climate controls. Or it can be as simple as a clean galvanized trash can buried in the yard.
Back in the day, most root cellars were located in the basements of homes like my great grandmother’s. These basements were usually unfinished, with dirt floors and a few shelves for storage. Sadly, most homes today now have the furnace or laundry room in the basement, which means turning the basement into a root cellar is no longer a viable option. If you do go with a basement option, make sure you can provide your vegetables and fruits with good air circulation, low temperatures and consistent humidity.
One of the easiest and cheapest ways to have a simple root cellar is to use an old refrigerator. Just bury it in the ground and cover it with straw or leaves. This is my favorite solution for the diy-root cellar. No advanced skills are needed, nor are expensive tools. Just a shovel or spade will do.
Most defunct refrigerators offer the bonus of having two separate compartments. One for vegetables that decay when exposed to ethylene gas, and a separate one for the fruits and veggies that give off this ripening gas. On top of that, refrigerators are built to be air and water tight, so leaks should not be a problem.
Depending on how high the water table is in your area (in the southern U.S., for example, it tends to be quite high), you may opt for an above ground root “cellar” – a walled-off corner of the garage or a sectioned-off portion in the basement. If you’re in the south, it’s also worth considering that warmer climates have longer growing seasons, so your root cellar may not have to have the same storage capacity as someone who is in the north with a much shorter growing season.
If you would like have a more complex root cellar than a simple buried refrigerator, options abound – more than I can cover in this short article.
But if you opt to have a larger, walk-in root cellar, you may want to consider one or more of the following tricks and tips…
…Consider growing button or oyster mushrooms inside the cellar. Cellars are famous for their fungus-friendliness, and most kinds of fungi are things you’ll want to keep out. But there is some evidence that the mushroom spores can colonize the root cellar, making it difficult for other types of fungi to invade. Two birds, one stone – no harmful fungi, and bonus mushrooms to enjoy!
…Treat your veggies with honey, which has the capacity to protect your produce with its anti-decay properties.
…Dip your root vegetables in melted paraffin wax (I don’t necessarily fully endorse this one, but some people do it). This will seal the root, preventing gas, water and fungal damage that can negatively affect your produce.
…Store your veggies mixed with garlic bulbs – another way to prevent damage.
Well what are you waiting for… winter will be here before you know it!