Our ancestors knew how to preserve food—they had root cellars, storing large amounts of produce in the cool underground. This allowed them to partake of fresh vegetables through all those cold winter months and on into the spring.
What is a Root Cellar?
What is a root cellar? It can be created in several different ways, but it mostly is a space dug into the ambient temperature of the Earth (55 degrees) and utilized to store beets, carrots, turnips, potatoes and other root crops through the winter.
We all know that even before the snow flies, the ground outside freezes up like compact concrete in the fall and pretty much remains so until spring. There isn’t likely to be much sustenance out there. We need to harvest these crops while we still can and tuck them into accessible spaces which don’t freeze for winter consumption.
When I bring a carrot, beet, or potato into the kitchen from my root cellar, you’d think that I had just dug it up from the garden. And they really keep. Last year, I ate my last beet from the former year’s garden the second week of July and it was still perfect. It’s better than a fridge—naturally cool, humidified, insulating, and spacious.
How to Create a Root Cellar
So, how do we create such a space? There are various ways to do just that.
My root cellar was created when we decided to put an addition onto our house. Before a board was nailed or a sona tube poured, my husband dug down to the ledge (about 5 feet) and cleared out a space approximately 3 feet by 4 feet. He then poured a concrete slab on the bottom, leveled it and let it set up for a few days. Once the floor hardened, he built up the walls with standard concrete blocks to the height where the future room’s floor was going to be. He then shoveled as much dirt as possible around the outside of the blocks to insulate the chamber from future frosts. As the addition was completed, a trap door was placed in its floor. To complete the root cellar, dense foam was sprayed into any cracks and crevices in the seams and corners to critter-proof the space.
Looking down through the trap door in the floor of an addition, we see a couple of crates of potatoes, a bucket of beets, a bucket of carrots & my Amaryllis (beginning to rest).
Not planning an addition anytime soon? No problem! Most people can create a root cellar out of their existing structures. If you have a cellar that’s not heated and doesn’t freeze, you already have a root cellar. You may need to find a way to critter-proof a section. The corner of a solid, concrete foundation can provide the first two walls. If you have a heated cellar, this is exactly the place to begin. Build a room with the other two walls exactly parallel to the corner walls. It can be as big or as little as you desire.
Standard construction using two by fours and plywood works fine. In a heated cellar, you will need to add insulation to these additional walls to keep the space cool. And, don’t forget that you will need a door to get into and out of your space. Shelves can be added for easy storage although they are not absolutely necessary. I just stack my buckets of beets and carrots on top of one another as well as the crates of potatoes.
Some farmers prefer to leave their root crops right in the ground for the winter. A truly thick blanket of hay can keep the frost at bay, but also be sure to put a tall mark where to dig, as the snow will hide anything short. I leave my parsnips in the ground until spring because the frost actually improves their flavor, and it’s wonderful to have a big crop to harvest in April.
Preparing Vegetables for the Root Cellar
Once the root cellar is ready to go, how do we prepare the vegetables? I put my beets, carrots and turnips in 5 gallon buckets. These can be inexpensively purchased from the hardware store, or sometimes places like Dunkin Donuts will sell their used filling buckets quite cheaply. Be sure to the get the lids as well. I re-use the buckets from year to year, but I clean, bleach and dry them thoroughly between uses.
Next, you need to get some clean sand; this has to be replaced every year and it should be very dry. I generally put it on my August “to do” list and show up with several buckets and a shovel at a local sand pit after three or four days without rain. I shave the sand off of the top of the pile as an extra assurance of dryness.
After my materials have been assembled and the frost is near, I’m ready to go. You want to leave the crops in the ground as long as possible, but it’s important that they don’t get nipped with frost. Check the frost dates for your area here. Again, I pick a nice, dry day to do the harvesting. I gently pull the beets, carrots and turnips and spread them out to dry a bit in the Sun.