Root cellars could be called feats of engineering dating back millennia, but very little technology, other than careful observation of nature and the trial-and-error method, may have gone into their construction and usage. Just plain need of storing excess produce for lean times was the impetus behind these typically earthbound structures which were either carved out of a hill, or built into the ground to be accessed by a trap door.
Even though the indigenous tribes of Australia are credited with the original root cellars that they used for storing their yams, the present-day concept of root cellars for storing all agricultural produce, as well as a good collection of spirits, originated in England in the 17th century only. They were popular with the North American settlers, quite understandably, since agriculture was their mainstay.
A typical root cellar  is built into a hill, which would offer excellent insulation on all sides but one. After all, maintaining optimal temperature for food storage is the whole idea. Neither too cool that food would freeze, nor too warm that it would rot. If there are no conveniently located outcrops close to the residence, people build underground cellars accessed by a ladder or a few steps.
After all these years, and besieged with every convenient storage options such as refrigerators and deep freezers, why should we go back to the old days? The renewed interest in these eminently useful structures is not a nostalgic trip into antiquarian times or a departure from modern conveniences on principles of sustainable living. The comparative benefits of root cellars themselves recommend them.
It can provide you fruits and vegetables year-round. In spite of their name, these storage areas are not meant exclusively for potatoes or other crops dug out from the ground. In fact, apples were one of the main items in an English root cellar, not to mention wines and beers that love these cool dark places.
What You Can Store
Why the name “root cellar,” then?
Root crops were what sustained people for longer periods. They typically gave substantial yields that had to be harvested all at once, making safe storage the foremost priority. Grains and pulses could be dried and stored, but potatoes, turnips and carrots had to be kept in conditions that would keep them plump and sweet. You’d be surprised to know how many different types of food can have a better shelf life in the cool and moist environs of a cellar.
Here’s a brief list to give you an idea:
- Apples. Depending on the variety, they can be kept crisp and juicy from 2 to 7 months, the more acidic ones faring better than the sweeter ones. While the popular Honey Crisp is a keeper, other good choices are Pink Lady, Winter Banana, Arkansas Black and Fuji. Wrapping each apple in a piece of newspaper would retard the ripening process, but if you have bushels to store, they may be better stored in bushels.
- Pumpkins and squash. If you love them, buy them cheap in peak season, and you can have your fill almost year-round, as they typically keep well for 4-6 months. Just select ones with longer stems. Curing them in a warm place before storage adds to their shelf life. Winter Luxury is a great choice for pumpkins, while Waltham Butternut and both Green and Golden Hubbards are good squash varieties for storage.
- Garlic and onions. They might just be the longest residents in your cellar, commanding an elevated position, hanging in handsome braids or mesh bags. Just keep them a good distance away from fruits and vegetables that don’t want to acquire an onion flavor. If properly dried and aired before storage, they’ll keep for up to 8 months.
- Potatoes. They are ideally kept cool and dry, but away from tomatoes and fruits that release ethylene gas during ripening. Keep them below 45degrees Fahrenheit to prevent sprouting.
- Carrots, turnips and beets. Stored in damp moss or sand, these staples will stay sweet and crisp for 4 to 6 months in the root cellars without giving the rodents a chance to steal your harvest. Radishes and rutabagas will keep for 2-3 months while parsnips can be stored for a month or two.
- Cabbage family. Most cruciferous vegetables don’t keep well more than 2 months, but cabbage is an exception. These have to be kept in a separate enclosure or near the air outlets so that their smell doesn’t trouble the other inhabitants.
- Tomatoes and tomatillos. They need a cool and dry area of the cellar. The green tomatoes will turn red in about two weeks, but the ripe ones of keeper varieties will be fine for more than 6
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Almost any vegetable or fruit will keep in the root cellar much longer than they would at room temperature. Consider it an expansive refrigerator in which you can have different zones of varying temperature and humidity to suit the storage requirements of different food stuffs. Popcorn is a great addition to any root cellar, where they may happily hang for years rather than months. The shelf life of dried peas and beans kept in airtight containers can also be counted in years.
It Saves You Money
Unlike refrigerators, root cellars obviously don’t need any electricity. The more food items you store in the cellar, the lesser the load on your refrigerator. (Or perhaps, you can stop storing vegetables in your second refrigerator.)
Root cellars reduce waste of the food items you grow. Even half a dozen tomato plants may give you a yield that cannot be used up by your family and friends. You also can buy fruits and vegetables in bulk during the season, get them at great prices, and then store them in your cellar. In fact, the barter system is strong in small farming communities; you can exchange products with others and save money.
An Escape From Processed Food
Processed food stuffs are so plentiful and available any time of the year that storing foods is no longer a priority for most people. But processed food is just that — processed, not fresh. People are increasingly turning to fresh locally grown food as awareness about the negative health implications of chemically processed foods grow. All pickled stuff, even when made by you, is high in salt or sugar.
Plenty of Storage Space
Paucity of storage space is what keeps many of us from growing all the stuff we can. At the end of waiting impatiently for your plants to grow and yield, not to mention all the hard work behind it, who wouldn’t be discouraged if you have to throw away baskets of rotting tomatoes or apples, or leave the carrots in the ground where critters had a free run on them? Root cellars fix this.
Makes You Self-Reliant
You may not be able to feed yourself round the year with just the things you’ve stored in the cellar, but they do add to your self-reliance. Also, having quite a few items stored in the cellar will give you a sense of well-being. Just walking into that room, scanning all the foods waiting to be used, and picking up whatever you need from the horde, is a joyful experience in itself.
We hear a lot about disaster preparedness these days, but if we had to hole up due to some reason, how long will our refrigerators and deep freezers sustain us? And what happens if there is a blackout for more than two days? A root cellar is not dependent on electricity, even though some of the latest high-tech designs incorporate a little bit of technology into everything. Even with a small-sized cellar, you could have enough stock of grains, fruits, veggies and even dairy products to last more than a few weeks, if not more.
Root cellars are indispensable to even hobby farmers, but you don’t have to be a farmer to enjoy their benefits. If space permits, everyone should have one.
What other benefits have you found of root cellars? Share them in the section below: