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Vegetable Storage: Getting to the Root of the Problem

Here is a hypothetical situation that some of you may have thought about in the past. You are self-sufficient, either relying very little or not at all upon pre-packaged food. In point of fact, you grow your own. Living off the grid as you do, this makes your life easier. If you have ever wanted to cut the shackles of the grocery store and its processed, chemical and preservative-laden food, then you are in luck. There is a way you can do this, keeping your larder full and furthering your independence from local and municipal goods and services. Gardens are all well and good, but one avenue you might consider, if you have not done so already, is the root cellar. The root cellar provides a stable, year-round foundation from which you can store a wide variety of produce; many of the vegetables you find in a store or farmer’s market can be stored in a root cellar. But first, the basics.

Building a Root Cellar

What kind of root cellar suits you best? There is neither just one way to build a root cellar, nor is there a required size. Both the orientation of the cellar and its size depend upon you – your space and your needs. The very nature of the cellar lends itself to adaptation. In all permutations, one thing is constant however: the earth that surrounds it. When deciding on the size of your cellar, consider these factors: Is it for your use only or do you intend to sell some of it? Do you have a family? Are you looking to barter some of your produce? All of the above? A simple 5 foot x 8 foot cellar provides ample room for one person. An 8 x 8 offers enough room for the average off-the-grid family. Additionally a 10 x 10 offers more than enough room for anything that you might wish to store, whether for consumption or resale. As far as cellar placement is concerned, if you:

Build your cellar into a hillside

  • Your cellar is less likely to get buried during the inclement weather of the winter months
  • The chance for flooding is reduced during the rainy season
  • The floor of your hill-bound cellar can be graded to allow any water that does get in to run out safely without endangering your crops
  • The abundance of earth that surrounds your cellar in this scenario works to keep your produce cool and at a uniform temperature, saving you from having to resort to other means to maintain the cellar’s conditions
  • The main downside to this method is that it can be difficult to excavate: you have to dig out much of the hill’s interior. This can be costly and physically demanding.

Conversely, you could:

Build your cellar on flat ground

  • The ‘flat ground’ cellar is easier to excavate than the hill-based cellar. You have far less to remove and far less work to undertake to construct a viable cellar.
  • It is typically cheaper to construct than the above mentioned cellar type
  • To avoid having your entrance buried in the winter, you can place a vertical door above a staircase leading inside

Last, but certainly by no means least, you can integrate your root cellar into your home’s construction. If you have a basement, it would be fairly simple to add the cellar by way of an adjoining door. As with any cellar type, adequate reinforcement and insulation are important. If you do not have a basement but do have other outbuildings on your property, you can repurpose them if they are otherwise unused.

Building and Flooring Materials

When it comes to the bits and pieces of your cellar, your choices are nearly endless but they are as important as the location of the cellar itself. Wood, cement, gravel, dirt – all are good choices, all have their good and bad points as well. Three viable cellar construction materials are: wood, cement and as a dug out. Dug outs are the cheapest to build but potentially the most problematic if adequate insulation is overlooked. In the case of wood, whether for shelving or construction, you must be certain to use pressure treated lumber as this will help the wood stave off mold, rot and related deterioration. Cement is perhaps the most expensive, but also the least likely to fail or create problems later on down the line when it comes to adverse conditions in the cellar. In the case of flooring, you have a few options as well.

Dirt: Simple, cheap. Superb for humidity control, but messy

Gravel: In a highly dry or damp area, a few inches (three is best) of gravel works great for purposes of siphoning off excess moisture

Wood: When placing pressure-treated lumber, give it ample room to expand, as it will do in a humid cellar

Cement: Absolutely fantastic for a cellar with lower humidity

Mix and match: If your cellar crop is fairly diverse, where one crop requires things to be one way, and another crop requires something else, you would do well to consider having two rooms – one with a dirt or gravel floor for crops requiring a humid environment, while the second room might have a cement floor for those crops requiring a dryer environment.

Using and Maintaining your Cellar

One inclusion that some growers overlook, but that is nevertheless of vital importance (even though older cellars may not have them), are the addition of vents. Many fruits and vegetables give off gas as they ripen. Without proper ventilation to draw away this gas and draw in fresh air, your delectable goodies will spoil. Here are some other tips that you can put to good use in order to keep your cellar operating at peak efficiency and to ensure that your prized crops reach their full potential.

  • Place a thermometer and humidity gauge in the cellar, preferably the kind with remote sensors so they can read from within the cellar, allowing you to see their readouts without opening the door needlessly.
  • Snow makes a fantastic insulator. In the winter, leave it be as much as possible. It will keep your cellar from getting colder than it already is.
  • Also during cold weather, if a freeze threatens, put a light bulb within to raise the ambient temperature just enough. One caveat: if you have potatoes, cover them up or the light will turn them green. Yuck!
  • If you see signs of spoilage, get rid of the affected and offending party immediately. If you forget or let it remain, you can endanger your whole crop.
  • In the spring or fall, alternate between opening and closing your cellar door and/or vents to adjust the temperature and humidity. Doing so at night maintains the optimum temperature, so long as you remember to close them in the morning before it warms up.


Living in a self-sufficient manner really is more attainable than you might think. Being able to forswear the grocery store’s produce in favor of your own (superior) homegrown goods is a wonderful feeling. When you are savoring your favorite tubers, your most delectable greens, and your juiciest fruits as your friends complain of substandard fare in the produce section of their local market, you can rest comfortably knowing that you have made the right decision.

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  1. My dad grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania during the depression. For a lot of their fruit crops, like apples, they would dig a big hole and line it with tarps, fill it with apples, cover it with another tarp, then cover it over with lots of leaves. That proved to be enough protection from the elements for his large family to have apples (or whatever) all winter long and into the spring. Another idea is sinking large plastic garbage cans into the ground in a protected/shaded area. They will need to be the kind with well secured lids. Items in the lower half should stay fairly cool even as the weather warms. You will need to organize them in such a way that the items on the bottom don’t get crushed.

  2. Two comments:
    (1) When I had my bomb shelter-turned root cellar back in the 1970’s, it was all concrete and underground. I entered it from the top which had a concrete roof with an opening which I climbed down a ladder. Because the concrete roof was exposed to the elements (the opening to the inside was covered in an insulated wooden lid, fiberglassed), the inside ceiling dripped moisture like rain. So we installed a 6″ pipe through the glass block window with a wind turbine on top to pull out the moisture and installed styrofoam on the ceiling (held up against the ceiling with cement screws/washers). There had already been a drain in the floor for water drainage and also flanges installed in the walls to hold shelving. So I put up the shelving and kept my root crops and fruit in there. Don’t put canned goods in such an environment – the lids will rust and break the seals! Also, my first shelves of 2″ oak, rotted and broke and dumped everything on the floor before we had insulated and installed the vent. Afterward, we put in pressure treated shelves and those lasted. The styrofoam ceiling panels stopped all dripping water. Those two changes dried up theconcrete “root bunker” and it worked like a charm from then on.

    (2) After moving later to a new property, I had no cellar for my root crops. So one day I was reading a great fiction novel about an old woman in England who went out to dig turnips from her garden all winter and I got the idea that if I covered my root crops in the garden with mulch, I should be able to keep them from freezing in the winter. So that is what I did. Last winter, I bought about 20 bags of mulch from my nephew who was selling it for the Boy Scouts. I put the intact bags right over my turnips, beets, and carrots. I dug perfectly preserved veges all winter into the spring; just flipped it over and dug, then replaced it; in fact, they started sprouting early in the spring under the bags, so I took off the bags, (stored them in my barn) and allowed them to grow again this summer for seed!!! I collected beet seed, carrot seed and turnip seed – my first attempt at both wintering over veges for eating and then allowing the remainder to grow seed – a double reward!!!

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