When you were a child did you have monsters living under your bed? I didn't. Thankfully, my bedroom was safe, but I did have monsters in my basement--specifically the root cellar. Now, as an adult, I know that a root cellar is best used for storing vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and beets--not figments of my imagination (even if celery roots look rather gruesome).
First of all, what is a root cellar and why might you want one?
A root cellar is simply a storage location that uses the natural cooling, insulating, and humidifying properties of the earth. You want one if you have an excess of root crops that need to be stored for an extended period of time. A root cellar is a green building option because it doesn't use electricity for refrigeration.
There are four essential characteristics that a root cellar has to have: cool temperature (between 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit), high humidity (85-90 percent), ventilation, and darkness.
3 options for constructing a root cellar
1. Insulated box method. Technically, this is a box, not a cellar, so it can not accurately be described as a root cellar. Never the less, it uses many of the same principals that a proper root cellar uses. It's a good option for folks who don't have a basement or the desire to take on the challenge of constructing a root cellar.
You need an extra large box like the kind that supermarkets receive large deliveries of paper towels or toilet tissue in. Use 4-5 inches of sawdust or peat moss to line the bottom of the box. Place your storage crops inside. While adding your vegetables be sure to maintain the same 4-5 inches of insulation on the sides of the box. Don't fill the box completely full because that same 4-5 inch layer of insulation is needed at the top of the box. Close the top of the box, but don't seal it airtight because it needs air for ventilation.
2. Buried box method. Unlike the insulated box method, this method is actually in the ground so it's closer to being an actual cellar. But, it doesn't require the construction skills needed to partition off part of your basement. It's also a good option for folks who don't have a basement, but you do need a patch of ground.
You need a large metal garbage can with removable lid. The size you choose is determined by how many crops you have to store and how much digging you feel like doing. Dig a hole large enough to bury the can below the frost line (usually a foot underground). Place the metal lid on top of the can and insulate by placing insulation on top of it and a few pieces of plywood to keep the insulation dry and in place. Alternatively, use hay bales to insulate.
3. Partition off a portion of your basement. A true root cellar--the kind found in centuries-old New England homes (where my childhood monsters lived)--has a dirt floor, cement or stone walls, and natural ventilation. By partitioning off part of your basement you are trying to recreate these conditions.
If you choose this method then bear these facts in mind:
- The walls of the cellar should be made of concrete or stone. Do not use wood because it can rot and attract mold.
- Place the cellar away from heat sources such as hot water heaters, boilers, pellet/wood stoves.
- Ideally, the place you choose will have a window that you can cover to provide darkness but open to ventilate the cellar.
- The cellar should be on the north side of your home so it will be the coolest.
Because I'm not an architect, engineer, or Bob the Builder's gal pal Wendy, I refer you to this article which contains a detailed sketch of a basement root cellar as well as easy to follow instructions.
No matter which method of root cellar construction you choose, consider which crops you're going to want access to first, second, third, etc. because this will affect their placement in the cellar. For example, if you don't anticipate using carrots for a while, put them deepest in the cellar. If you'll be using potatoes soon, then place them closest to the opening.
Traditionally, root cellars were found only in areas of the country with cold winter temperatures (think Minnesota or New England). For those of you in warmer climates such as Florida and southern California you're going to have to choose another method for storing your crops (such as refrigeration) because your temperatures are too warm for a root cellar.
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Image of storage crops via Shutterstock