Sometimes old ways are best, and preserving food with a traditional root cellar can still be part of a modern prepper strategy. You do need the right conditions and location for it, which is a dark, cool space with the right level of dampness to store a large number of vegetables and fruit without any processing on your part. With a little luck, some things can last through an entire winter.
Weigh the Pros and Cons
Clearly, the biggest pro here is that you can store your food for months with virtually no supplies or effort on your part. Once you arrange your root cellar space, all you need is a collection of buckets or boxes to store things in, and that is it. Super simple, and wonderfully natural way to keep your food for later.
Of course, getting the “right conditions” can be a lot easier said than done. It’s not just about having a dark space to pile your turnips. It can be tricky to create the right environment, and to keep it consistent enough for good storage. We’ll discuss the details on the conditions in a minute.
Another minor negative is that this isn’t a long-term storage option. At best, you’ll be able to keep food for a few months (usually over the winter when you can’t grow anything). Not likely more than 6 months.
Lastly, root cellars are only a good prepper option for a limited number of food items. Most of the fall-harvested root vegetables can go this route, such as beets, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, turnips, squash and potatoes. You can also keep onions and garlic in a root cellar, as well as apples.
Proper Root Cellar Conditions
Now the moment you’ve been waiting for: what sort of environment do you need to maintain in your root cellar for it to work properly. Basically, you want dark, cool and quite damp.
For temperature, aim for a range between 32 and 40F (or 0 and 5C). Kind of think of it as being refrigerator temperatures. You definitely cannot allow it to drop below the freezing point. Keeping an area of your house this cool can be difficult, which is why this is usually only a method used during the winter. Traditionally, it’s the key to having food around until spring. An unheated part of the basement is going to be your best bet. A garage may work as long as you can control the temperature enough to keep it above freezing.
Next is the humidity, which can be a little tougher to control. You need a space that has at least 85 to 90% humidity (a humidity gauge or hygrometer can help). A basement or cellar with a natural dirt floor will likely have a high humidity level anyway, but you can help with the moisture level with a few buckets of wet sand. Keep an eye on it, and add water when necessary.
And even though you are trying to keep the moisture level high, you still need to allow for some air ventilation as well. Various fruit and vegetables all give off gases that speed up ripening and decomposition, so that needs to be vented out while fresher air can be moved in. This can mean your space dries out faster, so watch that humidity level!
This kind of dampness is fine for root vegetables, but obviously terrible for most types of conventional packaged foods. You’ll have to plan on storing the majority of your prep supplies elsewhere.
Root Cellar Construction
As we already mentioned, you may be able to make a root cellar area in an unheated basement room, providing you can section it off enough to bring up the humidity too. Just don’t choose an area with carpeting or wood panelling which can possibly start to mold with all that damp air.
If the basement won’t work, it can be a sizable project to actually dig a whole new cellar from scratch. You should check around online for specific plans or construction advice. I am only going to give you a rough idea of what you need here.
Step one is obvious: dig a hole. A hole straight down is fine but if you have a hill nearby, digging into the hillside makes access to your final root cellar a lot easier than climbing up and down stairs or a ladder. Then again, digging sideways into a hill means you have to deal with the weight of the hill over top your cellar as you are excavating.
How big? That is really up to you. A small hole will only hold a few provisions, but a bigger one will require a lot more construction to make it safe. Figure out what you need and go from there.
No matter how big you hope to go, you still need a hole that is larger than that so you have room for containers, shelving and yourself when you are trying to move around. Once you have a nice big hole, you need to build the cellar. It has to be strong enough to hold back against the pressure of the earth around it, The depth should place the floor of the cellar at least 7 or 8 feet down from ground level to get the most cooling. A little deeper is good if you can manage it.
The cellar structure can be put together with cinder blocks or a wooden frame (though wood is not so durable in these wet conditions). Leave the floor unfinished so the moisture in the soil can work to your advantage for humidity. This is also an open door for digging pests, so a layer of fine wire mesh should be part of your construction plans. If you really don’t like the idea of a dirt floor, just be aware that you will likely have to go with the wet sand approach we mentioned earlier to keep the moisture high.
Don’t forget your vents. Though it will be tempting to build this to be air tight for security reasons, you must have a way for air to exchange with the outside.
Using a Root Cellar
Unlike your usual food storage methods, you don’t want to seal things up tightly in a container. This is a situation where you need to let your turnips or garlic breathe and have access to the surrounding air. That’s the whole point. Have a collection of boxes, open buckets or baskets to hold your goods.
And when you go to stash them in the cellar, don’t wash them first. This is especially important if you actually harvested the veggies yourself and there is actual dirt on them. Store-bought food can also be root cellared, even though they are dirtless. Don’t peel off leaves, roots or excess rinds. Just leave everything as natural as possible. A little newspaper can pad the containers and add some space between each item.
That’s pretty much it. Check on your stores regularly, and use up any food that is starting to go off. Once decomposition starts, it will spread quickly. Hopefully, your root cellar will keep your food in good shape for weeks and months to come.
One Last Concern
Though root cellars work best for the traditional fall vegetables like carrots, cabbage and squash, you can also use this technique for apples. Unfortunately, apples don’t play well with others. They give off a gas called ethylene as they ripen, and this can (and will) wreak havoc with the rest of your root cellar if you are not aware of it.
That’s because ethylene triggers further ripening (and rotting) of anything it comes in contact with. Other veggies will go bad faster, and if they don’t, they will get very tough over time and be a lot less palatable.
You may want to avoid apples completely, but if they are a big part of your winter food storage plans, then you should be careful to have separate areas (with separate vents) to keep your apples away from everything else.