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Cobwebs. Darkness. Rickety, squeaky stairs …. If your vision of a root cellar involves your grandmother’s spooky old basement, then think again.

A root cellar is a useful way to ensure that your produce stays fresh and survives throughout the season to keep your family fed and your pantry diverse. Creating a root cellar may not be as difficult as you expect, if you know where to start and how to store your vegetables.

URBAN SETTING? NO WORRIES

All root vegetables will thrive in a root cellar, but you should separate each type before storing because not all vegetables succeed when stacked together.

Even if you don’t have a proper basement, you can still create your own version of a root cellar, says Steve Maxwell, co-author of The Complete Root Cellar Book. “Urban or rural, root cellars make sense,” Maxwell says. “As long as a person has access to some kind of soil, you can create a root cellar from nothing more than a hole in the ground.” In fact, Maxwell says, some people even create above-ground root cellars.

“A little bit of insulation and a little bit of electricity allows anyone to have a root cellar, even if they don’t have access to a basement or backyard,” he advises. “I’ve designed and created plans for root cellars for all applications, including conventional basements, urban backyards, stand-alone root cellars, and even a root cellar for a condo.”

HIGH MOISTURE IS ESSENTIAL

Some people believe that their basement isn’t amenable to the needs of a root cellar because they struggle with dampness—but that’s exactly the environment your root cellar will need to thrive. “A high moisture content is actually required for effective root cellaring in most cases,” Maxwell says. “Many root crops, for instance, keep best at a temperature just above freezing, and with a relative humidity of 90 to 95 percent.

Different types of produce require different conditions, and there are ways to achieve this all in the same cellar.” For example, you can place shelving in your root cellar to separate your produce. “I have a shelf very low to the ground for my vegetables that like it cooler and more moist (like potatoes), and then I put items like hot peppers on the high shelves because it’s warmer and more dry there,” says Andrea Bergen, who created a root cellar in her North Carolina home. In addition to ensuring that the temperature and moisture content is acceptable in your root cellar, you’ll also want to make sure it’s well ventilated.

After you gather your potatoes, store them in a dark place so they’ll keep longer.

GREAT ROOT CELLAR VEGGIES AND FRUITS

You’ll want to classify your root cellar storage spaces based on moisture and temperature, so you’ll need a way
to determine which types of produce require each setting. Cornell University’s “Storage Guidelines for Fruits
and Vegetables” offers the following tips, among others.

Ideal storage is cold and moist:

  • Asparagus
  • Apples
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Pears
  • Potatoes
  • Rhubarb
  • Sweet Corn

Ideal storage is cool and dry:

  • Garlic
  • Onions

Ideal storage is warm and dry:

  • Hot peppers
  • Pumpkins
  • Winter squash
  • Sweet potatoes
DON’T DUMP VEGGIES TOGETHER

Once you’ve carved out some space for a root cellar and you’ve controlled the temperature and moisture content, don’t simply pile your vegetables together and expect them to stay fresh. Instead, you must find out what helps each type of produce thrive and store it accordingly. “There are many little tricks to making the most of whatever root cellar situation a person has,” Maxwell says. “Apples, for instance, give off ethylene gas, and this promotes the premature ripening of other produce. That’s why it’s always good to keep apples separated from the rest of the produce.” Likewise, Maxwell advises, potatoes require dark conditions or they will turn green. “Rhubarb roots can be dug up in fall, brought into the cellar, then allowed to sprout when winter is still around,” he adds.

“You get fresh rhubarb long before it would ordinarily be ready.” When it comes to cabbages, instead of cutting them off at ground level, harvest them roots and all, then plant them in tubs of soil in the cellar, Maxwell advises. “They’ll keep much longer because they’re actually growing a little.”

“Urban or rural, root cellars make sense.”
—Steve Maxwell, co-author of The Complete Root Cellar Book.

NO BASEMENT?

No worries! You can even create a root “cellar” in a condo. If you have a cool, dark spot (even an unused closet in a guest room), you can create a makeshift root cellar. Key things to consider:

  • Cool, even temperature
  • A dark area
  • Space to store things with room for air circulation

You can even adapt a space below a stairwell or use a small, secondary fridge, because root veggies can be refrigerated. Note: Purchasing fresh, good quality produce is important for long-term storage.

As long as you have access to soil, you can create a root cellar.

GIVE IT A TRY!

Urban dwellers take note: if you think you don’t have room to have a root cellar, get creative! You can use anything from a closet to a space under a stairwell to start your cellar. It’s an easy way to ensure your veggies stay fresh and is the perfect solution to keeping your meals healthy and interesting!

THREE ESSENTIAL TIPS

You can be on your way to root cellar success if you avoid these three mistakes that Andrea Bergen made when she built her first North Carolina root cellar: Don’t build near trees. Bergen dug her root cellar and then planted several trees around it, which was great for the first few years, and then the tree roots made their way into the cellar and damaged the walls, so avoid building near trees. Use non-metal storage materials. Bergen had wooden shelves but a metal bin for potatoes. In the summer, the metal conducted heat, and the potatoes went bad very quickly. Place a screen in your ventilation area. “Bergen installed a ventilation hose from our root cellar to the outdoors but didn’t put a screen in it. Bugs ended up coming into the root cellar through the ventilation tube and damaging some of our food.”

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.