Root Cellar How-To Wisdom
“Preserve everything” is the homesteader’s mantra during the months of plenty. Traditionally, this was the only way people had food to eat during the winter. Even today, you’ll see farm women working over the stove, canning their precious peaches, dehydrating their crop of cherries in the sunshine or bundling up herbs to dry. But maybe the easiest way to put up for winter is to store the produce in a cold-storage root cellar.
Even for a backyard gardener, this can be a great way to carry over a surplus of root vegetables with very little planning or prep work. Frankly, it’s much easier to throw a bin of apples in the cellar than it is to can all that fruit. That’s not lazy homesteading— it’s smart homesteading.
Certain crops lend themselves better to root cellar storage and winter eating than others. Such crops as potatoes, onions, shallots, beets, garlic, squash, carrots, cabbages, parsnips and turnips are at the top of the list. Among these crops, there are particular kinds that tend to store very well, so select varieties that are good for long-term storage if this is a route you’d like to explore.
I remember being young and venturing down to my grandpa’s root cellar. It sat in the basement of his home, built sometime in the 1940s when root storage was still regularly practiced. His was lined with shelves of produce, flower bulbs and canned goods. There were heavy cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and the smell of moist earth in the air. I hated going down there because —hello!—cobwebs and dark, dank cellars are super creepy to a 6- year-old. But now that we’ve got a large root cellar ourselves, I can’t wait to creep my own children out with the same memories. (I’m such a good mom.)
The root cellar
If you’re aiming to do the same, or if you just have a bumper crop of something to put up this year, the following tips may help with your own root cellar. The storage principles can vary ever so slightly from crop to crop, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on the basics:
Keep it Cool
The idea of root cellar storage is to keep the produce in a cool, damp environment, much like a refrigerator. Back before refrigeration existed, this was the way people kept much of their produce from decomposing too quickly. Ideally, the root cellar will hold the produce at an average of 52 degrees.
Keep it Moist
If the air in the root cellar is too dry, it will draw moisture away from the produce and will result in shriveled produce all too quickly. The way to prevent this is to keep the humidity at around 90 percent. Yes, that’s pretty high. But a true root cellar will have a dirt floor, which naturally holds moisture, keeping the humidity elevated. Gently wetting the floor can be a great way to increase humidity. You can also place damp towels over the top of the produce bins to maintain good moisture in the air.
Keep it Dark
Produce stores much better out of direct sunlight, which will break it down quickly. Sunlight also encourages the roots to send up shoots, which renders the food inedible. For optimal storage, root cellars should be windowless; if yours has windows, be sure they are sealed and well-covered.
This essay is from Shaye Elliott’s Welcome to the Farm: How-To Wisdom from the Elliott Homestead. A witty and personal guide to living off the land, it is available wherever books are sold. This story appeared in Country Woman Magazine.