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Storing fresh food in a root cellar is a low impact way to eat well in winter and save the summer and fall harvest. Sometimes, old technology is best. Read on.

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I recently wrote about storing non-perishable food in a kitchen pantry as a way to keep beans, grains, pasta, canned goods, and paper goods on hand. Food dollars go farther when you can stock up on sale items, and having reserves help out in busy times, power outages, and those big blizzards when you can’t get out.

The key word for the pantry is non-perishable. What about perishables? The old-fashioned root cellar is the best solution.

History of the root cellar

Root cellars were in use at least 5000 years ago in the scorching Middle East. The temperature of underground soil was considerably less than that in a building. It was a convenient and natural way to increase the shelf life of fresh food.

The ‘modern’ root cellar came about in the 1600s in the UK, and early settlers in North American brought this idea with them. Farming families needed to store their harvests through the harsh winters in the north. Root cellars can be found in the old farmhouses of New England and Canada.

With the advent of refrigeration, the root cellar went by the wayside. It is coming back into favor now that people want to live more simply and sustainably.

Benefits of a root cellar

A root cellar is a low-energy way to store fresh food. I do not recommend buying it at the supermarket to store. You don’t know how old it is or how it’s been handled before you’ve purchased it. The best candidates for the root cellar are from your own garden, a local farm, your CSA, or the farmers market. These foods will have the highest nutrient and flavor quality, and will store the best.

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A food supply is a buffer against price increases and shortages, due to frosts or flooding, which are inevitable every year. It also allows you to live more simply with a lower carbon footprint. Don’t forget to consider the gas you save with fewer trips to the store!

Simple ‘root cellaring’

Using a root cellar is a science and an art. Different foods need different conditions. You will want to monitor temperature and humidity for best results. You will also need to know the shelf life of the various types of food you are storing.

The easiest thing to do is find suitable areas in your house. Winter squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins like it warm (50º-60º) and dry, such as an unheated room.

Root crops, such as beets, carrots, and turnips, like high humidity and temperatures just above freezing to 40º. They could fill a corner of your unheated garage or basement. Potatoes like the same temperatures, but less humidity. Use a thermometer and a hygrometer to monitor the different conditions where you want to store things.

A root cellar is the best place for the harvest you have canned yourself. They have a longer shelf life if they remain cool and dark. Rodale’s Organic Life has a list of whole foods that do well stored in a root cellar.

Build a root cellar

If you want to get more involved that just stashing food around the house, build a full-blown root cellar. This can be dug into a hillside using the land as insulation, or dug as a pit with stairs or a ladder going down and covered by an outbuilding. It has easy access if it is attached to the home.

The ground below frost level is a constant 55º. It doesn’t freeze, and it doesn’t heat up, so it affords a consistent environment for food storage of many crops. The soil lends the necessary humidity, too.

Like any structure, it will need drainage so water does not collect inside. It will also need ventilation to release the gases that fresh food gives off. They hasten ripening, which is what you want to slow in order to store food longer.

Build sturdy shelves, and be sure to add a beam, rod, or rafter for hanging things that need air circulation.

Unique DIY root cellars

A concrete septic tank (unused!) can be outfitted as a root cellar in a hillside. I love this idea, because it keeps defective tanks from the landfill.

Earthbag buildings offer excellent thermal mass to regulate temperature, insulating from the cold and heat. They can be built into a slope, or a berm can be created around the back side.

A garbage can or 5-gallon bucket can be buried beneath the soil. Depth will depend on your coldest winter temperatures.

Do your homework

Determine how much food you want to store, what kind of space and conditions you have, and what you can build. For an outside structure, be sure your zoning and covenants allow it.

The root cellar uses the least amount of energy for storing fresh food, and for storing foods that are not suitable for a pantry or freezer. If you want to live a low impact lifestyle, start experimenting with one. Plan your 2016 garden to eat fresh and fill a root cellar. You’ll be eating the freshest food in the middle of winter!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.