Root Cellars For Grid-Down Refrigeration

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The use of root cellars goes as far back as 17th century England.  Since refrigeration was introduced to the public in the 1930’s, Root Cellars lost favor in the U.S., but that has changed in recent years.  Soaring electricity and grocery costs have led a growing number of people to dig root cellars for a dependable, off-the-grid method to store the overflow from gardens, allow you to buy food items in bulk when they’re on sale or at peak supply levels, as well as for a place to keep long term food storage.

Typically, Root Cellars are dug horizontally into a hillside or a slope, but they can also be dug straight down into flat ground.  If you’ve postponed digging a Root Cellar because of the cost of materials (approximately $1,300), check out the do-it-yourself Root Cellar ideas below that can be built for next to nothing:

  • Earthbag Building. Com, Karl’s Root Cellar, shows step-by-step instructions to build a Root Cellar with inexpensive earthbags.
  • Emergency Preparedness, The Pallet Root Cellar, by Ted Wright.  This do-it-yourself Root Cellar is made of plastic sheeting, wood pallets (they can be found for free at building sites and sometimes lumber and hardware stores) and a few 2 X 4’s.
  • Saveourskills.com, 4 very simple do it yourself root cellar ideas! delivers just that; 4 ways to build do-it-yourself root cellars that cost next to nothing.
  • Survival Spot.  Here’s a place to check out how to build a root cellar, a basement root cellar, cold storage pits and more!
  • Organic Gardening, Building a Root Cellar in Your Home.  The materials suggested to build a root Cellar in a basement are inexpensive; insulation, 2 X 4’s, 3-inch diameter PVC pipe, and green board.

Want to go a little “bigger” & “badder”?  You can also bury shipping containers, cisterns, septic tanks, culverts, pre-cast concrete, and other structures in the ground for your cellar/underground storage.

What To Watch Out For Before Getting Started

Most root cellars are not effective for conditions where the ground stays warm year round. For such conditions, consider home canning or dehydrating fruits and vegetables. Food dehydration works well in warm, low humidity climate conditions.

In harsh winter temperatures, where stored foods could freeze, build your root cellar with extra insulation and vents to let in warmer daytime air. Climate zones that experience severe winter temperatures will benefit with a manure pit. Due to its slow decomposition, if you raise farm animals consider a manure pit that will supply needed heat to keep temperatures in your cellar from dropping below freezing.

Watch out for rodents and rot. Rodents can be controlled by installing wire mesh wherever they can enter, especially around air vents. To avoid rot, check food storage regularly, tossing any foods that have begun to spoil. If left unchecked, one spoiled fruit or vegetable can ruin the entire bunch.

(David’s note:  we have a continual battle with mice in our cellar.  I’d rather we didn’t have them at all, but their continual presence has resulted in several teaching opportunities for our boys.  Specifically, it’s allowed me the “Op Tempo” to demonstrate to my boys that you can either learn the habits of your prey and place empty traps in choke points OR you can put baited traps pretty much anywhere in the area.  After (literally) trying every single type of mouse trap available locally and on Amazon, my favorite, by far, is this one: 

There are many reasons why, but the main one is that I can put them on shelves and on the floor with impunity, knowing that it won’t destroy anyone’s fingers & toes, but will effectively trap and kill mice and other small rodents.  Once you trap something, and it’s dead, you can release it into the trash without touching the critter or anything that it’s touched, easily clean it off, and reset/replace it one handed.)

Root Cellars Will Preserve More Than Fruits & Vegetables

Root Cellars will extend the shelf life of  nuts, milk, cream, butter, cheese, beans, beer, wine, cured bacon, and other smoked meats. Smoked fish also keeps well in a root cellar.  (David’s note:  they also extend the life of temperature sensitive pharmaceutical items.  Even though we haven’t used Imodium in several years, we have a few packages on hand just-in-case and I’m confident about keeping them for a longer period of time in our 55 degree cellar than in our 70 degree house.)

Root Cellar Storing Methods 

Apples have the longest shelf life of fruits, and for the vegetable, it is the potato. Runners-up for vegetables with a long shelf life are: Beans, beets, cabbage, kohlrabi, onions, peppers (dried), pumpkins, nuts, squash (winter), sweet potatoes, and turnips.

  • Vegetables and fruits should be stored unwashed to avoid adding moisture that will promote rot.
  • Root Vegetables such as carrots, beets, and turnips store best in five gallon buckets between layers of slightly damp sand or sawdust.
  • Potatoes have a long storage life, but are best stored in sacks or boxes in the darkest area of your root cellar to avoid their turning green.
  • Apples give off gases that affect other stored goods. They should be kept separate from your other food storage, layered with newspapers in boxes that are relatively tight to keep the gases from escaping.
  • Root Crops should be stored in containers of loose soil or sawdust that protect them from the emissions of other vegetables.
  • Cabbages and Onions give off odors that can be absorbed by other vegetables and fruits. They are best stored away from other stored foods.
  • Pumpkins and Squash keep best in cool places at around 55 degrees with 70 -75% humidity. Storing them in a cool location in your home or stairwell is a solution for long-term storage.

Individual Fruit and Vegetable Storage Needs

At first glance, it may seem the diverse temperature demands of various fruits and vegetables listed below would not lend themselves to being stored together in a root cellar, but temperatures can rise a full 10 degrees warmer at ceiling height.

Because of this, you will gain optimal variation of temperature and humidity by installing tall shelves in you root cellar. Keep thermometers and hygrometer humidity gauges in several locations on the walls of your cellar to keep an eye on conditions. If you find you need more humidity, sprinkling water on the floor will increase the humidity level. Be sure to watch for high humidity conditions, where condensation may drip from the ceiling and spoil stored food.

Apples

Cold and moist

Do not store with vegetables

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

80 to 90 percent relative humidity

Beans

Cool and dry

Home and commercially prepared foods also need a cool, dry storage place

32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit

60 to 70 percent relative humidity

Beets

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Brussels Sprouts

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Cabbage

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Cabbage, Chinese

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Carrots

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Cauliflower

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Celery

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Garlic

Cool and dry

Home and commercially prepared foods also need a cool, dry storage place

32 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit ideal

60 to 70 percent relative humidity

Grapefruit

Cold and moist

Do not store with vegetables

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

80 to 90 percent relative humidity

Grapes

Cold and moist

Do not store with vegetables

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

80 to 90 percent relative humidity

Jerusalem Artichoke

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

May be left in the ground undisturbed until needed. Digging can be done unless the soil is frozen hard. A thick layer of mulch may extend your harvest season.

Kale

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Kohlrabi

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Onions

Cool and dry

Home and commercially prepared foods also need a cool, dry storage place

32 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit ideal

60 to 70 percent relative humidity

Oranges

Cold and moist

Do not store with vegetables

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

80 to 90 percent relative humidity

Parsnips

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Pears

Cold and moist

Do not store with vegetables

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

80 to 90 percent relative humidity

Peas

Cool and dry

Home and commercially prepared foods also need a cool, dry storage place

Airtight container

32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit

60 to 70 percent relative humidity

Peppers, hot dried

Cool and dry

Home and commercially prepared foods also need a cool, dry storage place

32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit

60 to 70 percent relative humidity

Popcorn

Cool and dry

Home and commercially prepared foods also need a cool, dry storage place

Airtight container

32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit

60 to 70 percent relative humidity

Potatoes

Cold and moist

Do not store with fruits

38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit ideal

80 to 90 percent relative humidity

Potatoes, sweet

Warm and moist

To keep sweet potatoes from spoiling in warm and moist storage, do not let temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit

80 to 90 percent relative humidity

Pumpkins

Warm and dry

50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit

60 to 75 percent relative humidity

Radish, winter

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Rutabaga

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

Squash, winter

Warm and dry

50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit

60 to 75 percent relative humidity

Tomatoes

Warm and moist

To keep green tomatoes from spoiling in warm and moist storage, do not let temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit

80 to 90 percent relative humidity

Turnip

Cold and very moist

32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit

90 to 95 percent relative humidity

 

If you have any favorite tips on Root Cellars or on other methods to preserve fruits, vegetables and other perishables, please share by commenting below!

God bless and stay safe,

David Morris and Survival Diva

Comments

  1. My dad had a friend in northern Wisconsin who had a root cellar with plate glass shelves, because they didn’t rot.
    I store my onions in the garage, in southern Wisconsin, all winter, as I need them. In Spring I bring some into the refrigerator. I hang them on a nail, in the rafters, a dozen in a bunch tied with twine around the stems. I dry a week on the garage floor first. If they are frozen when you bring them in, just hang on a cupboard handle in the air, then refrigerate.
    Acorn squash can be put in the basement until late December by stacking them in a two wheeled grocery cart, with wood slats between the layers. Then I freeze them.

  2. Joseph Lee Morehouse says:

    I have a root seller , it was built about 120 years ago but I am having trouble with venting.
    I think maybe it time to build a new one . Is concrete blocks a good choice? The root seller I have now is made with red cobbler bricks many are crack . I need a large root cellar.
    Thank you Good Article .

    • Survival Diva says:

      Joseph,

      Would it be possible to improve the venting? If so, it would easier than digging a new root cellar. The cobbler bricks might be able to be reinforced with Quikrete unless they’ve deteriorated past filling in the cracks. Just a thought. . .

      • Joseph Lee Morehouse says:

        I’m not sure , I could try Quikrete ,I’m dreading building a new root cellar , the vent pipes are old tin with a screens going below the frost line not sure how to fix.

  3. It was mentioned about mice being a problem and that one needs to learn their behaviors for successful trapping. Mice for the most part avoid open spaces and tend to keep to the perimeter of a space. If you usually stumble upon a mouse in the middle of the floor you will notice the mouse seeks the perimeter quickly and then runs along the perimeter. Mice can can entrance to any space with an opening as small as a dime.
    Rats avoid new things in their environment. They will also use the same trails over and over again. If you feed an animal outside in the same place all the time you may notice trails worn down to the animals feed dish caused by rats. Rats can gain entrance to just about anywhere by chewing their way through and already existing opening. Rats normall won’t start a new hole unless they can sense there is food on the other side.
    Rodents will eat just about anything but the main thing within their environment is nuts and seeds. The best bait in any trap is peanut butter. It’s will not become dislodged hence requiring them to stay at the trap vice grab and go.

  4. It occurs to me that as long as there is electricity available an AC unit could be adapted for this purpose. The heat load should be very low with an airtight insulated door so should not take a large unit and actual operating time should be low. This is a major bump in cost but if the cost/benefit is there it should work. It might even be possible to use the “Servel” system , such as the one in your camper, if it is desired to avoid the use of electricity.

    Also, simple devices for humidity control can be developed for example garden drippers to add moisture and room dehumidifier to lower. Automatic humidity control may be expensive however.

    Battery operated wireless instruments could be used to remotely measure both humidity and temperature which would certainly be a help to any manually controlled system.

    Get busy you inventors, experimenters an tinkers

  5. This is fantastic info. Thanks so much!!

  6. weatherwatcher says:

    Keep in mind that mold eats the cellulose in wood, sawdust, cardboard, and paper products including the paper facing of sheetrock. Mold organisms are ubiquitous, and can be very toxic to humans when concentrated indoors. For a more durable wall covering that won’t promote mold growth as readily as sheetrock use the cement-based tile backer board products available at home centers.

    Never build a wood frame and fiberglass-batt insulated wall with sheetrock or backer board over it against a concrete basement wall that has soil on the outside. What usually happens is the concrete wall constantly pumps soil moisture from outside to inside, and that water can’t just evaporate into the basement air because your new wall is covering it up. So eventually the insulation, wood framing, and sheetrock will become damp enough to readily support mold growth. You will smell it first, and eventually you will see the spotting and discoloration of mold and mildew colonizing all the materials. You have to tear everything out and put it in the trash to get rid of the mold, wearing a respirator.

    The safer way to insulate against a concrete wall is to use extruded polystyrene rigid insulation (also known as XPS or blue board) directly against the concrete. Use a hammer and mason’s chisel to knock off any protruding bits of concrete and high spots so the concrete wall is as flat as possible. Seal the concrete wall with a masonry sealer and let it dry completely. Hold the XPS two inches above the slab so you can see what is happening down there later. Fasten the XPS to the concrete wall with Tapcon-type screws with fender washers on them. In areas with wetter soils you have to provide for the possibility of water running down the backside of the insulation by chipping a gutter into the slab against the wall, and keeping wood and cardboard boxes off the floor. You can leave the XPS exposed if you are careful not to damage the exposed face. (This foam will burn also.) You can also cover up the foam with tile backer board screwed into the concrete wall, leaving the 2″ gap at the bottom. Insulating a concrete wall this way reduces the likelihood that mold will permeate the materials you used.

    The cedar and redwood framing materials available today do not have any significant rot-resistance, so using them in contact with dirt or concrete will be a disappointing experience. The current Copper Quat pressure-treated wood you can buy is EXTREMELY corrosive to metals, even stainless steel in the right moisture conditions, so use stainless steel everything to put it together and cross your fingers. A low cost alternative: home-treated wood. You can treat any wood products with copper napthenate wood preservative, a relatively non-toxic elemental copper wood preservative you can find at most home centers. Buy the Wood-Life Copper-Coat water-based version as it is less toxic to you working with it and won’t smell as badly or as long as the petroleum distillate based brands. Paint it on all surfaces (including and especially end cuts as you assemble the structure) with a brush or roller. Do not spray this stuff, keep it on the wood only, wear rubber gloves and an organic vapor respirator, DO NOT DUMP leftover product anywhere, especially near bodies of water (it kills fish) and let it airdry outside for a few days before using it. Multiple coats increase the protection. You can use galvanized steel fasteners and hangers with copper napthenate home-treated wood.

    • Survival Diva says:

      weatherwatcher,

      This is critical info. Tile backer board and rigid insulation makes sense!

    • Marquita S. says:

      This as well as everything else I’ve read on this who site has been invaluable. God bless everyone who has had anything to do with this information. Thanks so very much and a blessed Easter to all.

  7. Ron Polson says:

    You obviously put a lot of time and work into this article. As we all try to go back to a more wholesome lifestyle of our parents and grandparents we end up having to relearn the basics of home gardening and food storage. Thanks for the help, your hard work is appreciated!

  8. great info. nrrd to become more informed,
    thank you

  9. samnjoeysgramma says:

    One of the saddest things about having a garden is when it becomes so hot that your row of lettuce bolts or your first hard freeze is about to take the lettuce. Here is how to keep it fresh for a month at least. It does require a fridge or a way to keep it cool, but until the SHTF, your lettuce will now last more than a week.
    This is primarily for home grown lettuce, but works for store lettuce.
    It’s a trick my son learned while working for a B&B in Colorado. It came from a professor at Univ. of Colorado. I know you won’t believe it until you try it, I didn’t, but risk a head of lettuce and see for yourself.
    Ice cold water isn’t natural to lettuce. Think about it. The garden is warm and sunny, if it gets ice cold, that shocks the plants. So when you wash the fresh picked leaf lettuce before it bolts or before the first freeze, run a clean sink at least 6 inches full of water that is as hot as you can comfortably stand it on your hand. That is usually around 100 degrees. Here in Kansas, the garden is that hot by mid-July. Yes, I know you are flinching, but try this once and you will do it forever.
    The lettuce can be single leaves or in lose heads, it probably won’t work on true head lettuce like iceberg. Put the lettuce in with the stem up and swish it up and down for as long as you feel it needs to remove dirt. It can rest in the water for 5 or 6 minutes with no harm. Pull the lettuce out with the stem still up. Shake it gently to remove most of the water, not all. Put it in a zip lock bag and gently remove most of the air (I actually try to get it all out. I have no room in my fridge to keep refrigerated air). You can then put it directly into the fridge.
    This works so well that everyone I know who has tried it has become a believer. I have saved an entire row of lettuce from the garden and had lovely lettuce long after all my friends’ gardens were gone. It kills bacteria to some extent, but doesn’t hurt the lettuce at all. I would bet that is what they do to the bagged lettuce in the store. No chemicals, just clean water. Lettuce does not wilt and is crisp and juicy when cool.

    • Dave Duchesneau says:

      40 years ago, an old-time produce manager showed me how to wash lettuce (including iceberg) in warm/hot-ish water, more or less as described above by samnjoeysgramma, but with an extra very important step. As he pulled each head of lettuce from the warm/hot-ish water basin (he’d wash a half-dozen or so at a time), he immediately moved it to a sink or basin of the coldest available clean water, then shake it a little to drain the water out.

      He explained that besides washing the lettuce, the warm water also heats the lettuce and opens its pores. The cold water quickly drops the temperature of the lettuce and closes its pores again. Thus, any water that is pulled back into the lettuce through its pores (as its temperature drops) is fresh cold water, which helps the lettuce stay fresh longer.

      He also showed me that a similar principle applies when you USE the lettuce, but with one more twist, namely, removing the stem first. After selecting a head of lettuce that you’re going to use, REMOVE THE STEM. In the case of iceberg lettuce, knock the lettuce head (stem down) onto the countertop or other table surface, which breaks the stem free of the lettuce head. Pull the stem off, creating a cavity that exposes the inner structure. THEN, wash the lettuce under warm/hot running water, including all the areas made accessible by removing the stem. For iceberg lettuce, think of filling up a “bowl” (where the stem used to be). After draining the warm/hot water, rinse equally well with very cold water (for iceberg lettuce, fill and empty the “bowl” two or three times). Shake and drain the lettuce (get the water out), then dry and/or shred or slice as you would normally.

      Because of the stem removal and cold water exposure step, the lettuce will be more crisp, and will remain so longer as you serve it.

    • marilyn tweed says:

      Thank you! joe and sammies grandma! I’m going to do that.

    • Marquita S. says:

      I use warm water, white vinegar and baking soda to clean EVERYTHING, produce-wise from the grocery store…too many dern “bugs” out there nowadays. Even organic produce and stuff I grow in my own garden gets this treatment.

  10. You mentioned white potatoes can turn green when stored. Here is a good and short article about the production and toxicity of solanine — the offending compound. www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/potatoesgreen.html The information in this article is similar to what I taught my college students at a different Big Ten school.

    • Survival Diva says:

      Bob,
      This short article is important info. I’d never heard the eye of a potato was just as toxic.

      • Supposedly, it’s how the kid from “Into the Wild” died.

      • I don’t often use the terms “never” and “always”, however in this case I will. Never eat potato sprouts. The eyes are not a problem, it’s the spouts that will kill you. And “no” 100 degree water will NOT kill bacteria since that is in the 100-120 hyper-grow zone for these little guys.

  11. you can also bury an old refrigerator sideways door side up in the ground and you do not have to worry about rodents etc. The shelves in the fridge make nice dividers for potatoes, apples…. also great for other food storage.

  12. The Concrete Fairy says:

    I see no pic or link for which type of mousetrap… Is it just me, or is something broken?

  13. Grapefruit Seed Extract is used to wash produce. It kills virus, yeast, mold, fungus, bacteria and anaerobic bacteria. I theorize that buying the purer form (not for human ingestion, and it is caustic), diluting it slightly maybe with organic vinegar instead of water, and spraying it on produce in its concentrated form to prevent the water from creating rot, will reduce spoilage tremendously. It is not only ingestible but beneficial ato health. It is sold on sites for soap making and for livestock. Just search for ‘grapefruit seed extract’ and pay attention to the commerical uses. WARNING: “GSE” which is a brand name that stands for, of course, ‘Grapefruit Seed Extract’ no longer contains this active ingredient, thanks to For the Death of America (FDA). It contains pulp and skin, which is still beneficial for ingesting it, but nowhere near the efficacy it used to have.

  14. Interesting says:

    What about root cellar failure problem? You build it and the best temperature during the summer you can achieve is 78 degrees. Based on my experience it has to be fairly deeply buried to maintain a constant 60 degrees. As an example the most recent one I built was from concrete. 9″ reinforced ceiling with 6″ walls into a hillside with 2′ of dirt on top and if it’s in the 90’s the best temp. I can get is 78 degrees. So my point is that the examples you give reference to may work in the northern states, but may not achieve the temperatures advocated in areas where there is prolonged heat. I’ve learned alot with my “experiment” that soil holds temperatures for along time and concrete does also. My solutions are to decrease the intensity of the sun beating down on the cellar so the soil/concrete don’t absorb as much heat. I’m interested in your feedback!

    • Survival Diva says:

      Interesting,
      I’m assuming you live in a hot climate zone. I’d searched for days many years ago for advice on building a workable root cellar for hot climates. I could never find anyone who claimed they had found an answer. That’s why I noted the problem in the article. If I do locate a solution, I will post it.

      • Bonnie fritts says:

        i live in a warm climate also and have not been able to have a root cellar because of the heat and water. if you dig down 12 inches you hit water. i would love to find a solution.

        • Survival Diva says:

          Bonnie,
          I’m revisiting my earlier attempt to find a solution. if I fine one, I’ll definitely post it.

        • Great Grey says:

          I don’t know for sure what you need to do. However I wonder if a cellar with an air gap between it and an outer shell, and use the water to do some kind of evaporating cooling by having the air drawn through gap.

      • Interesting says:

        I’m in southwest Missouri

        • Survival Diva says:

          Interesting,

          Here’s what I pulled up on Missouri climate:

          Missouri generally has a humid continental climate (Köppen climate classification Dfa), with cool to cold winters and long, hot summers. In the southern part of the state, particularly in the Bootheel, the climate borders on a humid subtropical climate (Köppen Cfa). Due to its location in the interior United States, Missouri often experiences extremes in temperatures. Not having either large mountains or oceans nearby to moderate its temperature, its climate is alternately influenced by air from the cold Arctic and the hot and humid Gulf of Mexico.

          I wonder if you tried rigid insulation in the interior and making sure that dirt surrounds the root cellar–sides and top–if that wouldn’t help the situation.

    • To keep the cellar cool, it is traditional to import ice/snow & store in cans or earthenware. This has been succesfully done for centuries. When it snows outside, just place this in the middle of the floor & let it melt naturally. Even cold water can be caught & brought in the same. We live in a temperate climate & can get our cellar temp (built w/ concrete cinder block, over 100 yrs old) to 40-60 degrees in winter. Summer it is harder to maintain, & the cellar should be cleaned out anyway during those months. We do not have proper ventilation, bur have a window w/ a curtain & screen. We leave it open to allow cool air in, the window is @ the top of the wall.

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  1. […] a long-term crisis assumes that the overflow from the garden will be preserved by storing it in a root cellar, or cold storage, or through dehydration, and for those with a wood-burning cook stove, home […]

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