Why do I need a root cellar?

I’ve been gardening for about 15 years now. I’ve gardened at home, at a neighbor’s house, at a community garden, in full sun, in half-shade, in the ground, in raised beds, in containers of all sizes, in a small greenhouse, on the windowsill, under lights, and in the weedy strip between two parking lots. I’ve gardened for joy, for science, for security, for reducing my carbon footprint, and for taste. I have explored all kinds of ways of extending the homegrown food season, from  lights to row covers to that greenhouse I mentioned.

And what is the #1 piece of equipment I recommend if you are serious about growing your own food? A cool storage space, like a root cellar.

Why? Root cellars:

  • allow you to eat locally-grown food pretty much all year long
  • are very low-maintenance – much less work than a greenhouse
  • are perfect storage for high-calorie, nutrient-dense crops like root vegetables
  • if you have a bad garden year, you can stock them with food from the market
  • unlike a greenhouse, they let you take the winter off from gardening
  • unlike canning, prepping food for the root cellar takes very little time and energy
  • zero ongoing energy costs for storage

Ways to do cold storage

Cool storage, for winter squash, sweet potatoes, and onions, can be up to 50 degrees, so a cool corner of a basement can work. But true cold storage, for root vegetables, apples, and cabbage, needs to be around 35-40 degrees, but can never freeze. This space will need to be vented to the outdoors (this assumes your winters get down to freezing). Some options include:

  • Large buckets or tubs layering crops between peat moss or wood shavings, stored in an attached garage or unheated breezeway
  • Wall off a corner of the basement that has a window that can be opened/closed as needed
  • Bury a fridge (with a vent installed) in a hillside – see instructions in Anna Hess’s book $10 Root Cellar along with some other DIY ideas!



Sprouting potatoes

I have something like 50 pounds of potatoes sprouting madly in the root cellar! What should I do with them, besides plant them?

On a side note, all of the Kennebecs are sprouting, but very few of the Yellow Finns are.

Garden wrap-up 2011

Well, we finally got a hard frost on Oct. 22 (!!!) and I think I’ll get the last of the potatoes in this year.

This year’s tally was a whopping 1200 pounds of produce! Seven hundred of that (and change) was squash. Those pink bananas were da bomb – prolific, tasty, and craaaaaaazy big. I’d grow ’em again just for the laugh factor. They are also by far the best producers per square foot of conditioned garden soil (somewhere around 4-5 lb per square foot) because I let them run out into the lawn.

Of course, I can’t eat 700 pounds of squash. I have several recipes I like, and a few even the sweetie will eat, but c’mon. So most of that goes to Food Gatherers. Still – it’s great to be able to grow that many calories of seriously nutritious food with that little effort. I’m happy to be able to donate something besides mac-n-cheez.

Other crops that did well were potatoes (holding tight a 1lb/sf), kale/collards, and sweet potatoes.  Had some good green beans, but my “succession” plantings utterly failed and they all came in around the same time.  Spring peas were great. Lettuce and rutabagas bombed – both probably because they were planted too late for their species. The lettuce went bitter and the rutabagas (planted after the summer heat wave) didn’t really bulk up. Most look like carrots.

I did manage to grow carrots this year, thanks to the wet spring, I think, but none of them taste fabulous.

The best discovery of the season was crowder peas. They are a dry bean of the cowpea family (so I’m not allergic to them), and are they size and shape of a garbanzo bean. They grow 10-15 to a pod, though, and are by far the most prolific dry beans I’ve ever raised. Without staking or anything – I grew 2.5 lb in a 25 sf bed. I don’t know about you, but that’s phenomenal yields for me for dry beans. And did I mention how completely tasty they are? Less “green” tasting than cowpeas, with a skin that holds shape without being tough and nice melty insides. I’m in love.

I also spent far less time in the garden this year than most. I barely went out there in July and August, except to harvest green beans in July. Man, I love raised beds and avoiding Vegetables of Obligation. Though that did lead to me whinging a bit mid-summer that “there’s nothing in the garden” – meaning “I can’t make dinner out of what’s currently ready to harvest.” It was an odd sort of stress, and it’s faded now that no one else has anything in the garden…but I’ve got kale coming out my ears, carrots and a few potatoes and rutabagas to dig, and a cellar full of squash and potatoes.

I did spend an awful lot of September and October digging tubers – I will NOT be planting 350sf of them next year. I think probably 100sf of white potatoes, and maybe no sweet potatoes. Sweets are tasty, but a pain to plant and dig, and relatively expensive. For the record, the Georgia Jets were most prolific, followed by O’Henry (a much less-sweet whitish variety) and Bush Porto Rico.  Together, they produced about 68 lb of sweets. Only about 1/2 to 2/3 of the plants survived to produce any tubers, and ironically, the Jets had the greatest slip fatalities (Hmm, Sharks in the garden?) but the most pounds harvested. At harvest, they were all pretty bland and un-sweet – I’m hoping curing them has improved the flavor, but haven’t tried them yet. (And seriously? Who can cure sweet potatoes at 85 degrees? I’m pulling the plants out because it might FROST tonight, people – 85 degrees is not an option.)

This year also showed our first notable harvest of perennial crops: hazelnuts. I got half a grocery sack of pods, which yielded 3 pints of nuts in the shell. Many are quite tiny (these are the wild native type, not bred for size). I plan to shell them this weekend – I expect a cup of nuts, max. But still – it’s pretty exciting, and I really want to plant some hybrids next spring that we can really count on for full-size nuts. They’ll go on the Berry Berm, which should also produce some strawberries next spring. Oh, and elderberries. Serviceberries will be a few more years.

I still haven’t decided on whether I’m growing tomatoes next year. I may try some determinate ones that all ripen at the same time, or I may repeat this year’s tactic of buying or trading for the tomatoes I need. I had a pretty nice deal with several neighbors: they gave me tomatoes, and I provided squash and canning gear and organization expertise for big canning events. That worked out reasonably well, so I might do it again. Just not sure yet.

I’m definitely doing 100sf of peas (pod and shelling), 100sf of crowder peas, 100sf of potatoes, 100sf of brassicas, and some big winter squash. I’ll fill in the details over the winter. At the moment, it’s a little hard to imagine enthusiasm about noodling out that puzzle, but that’s always how it feels at the tail end of harvest season.

For now, it’s enough to be thankful that the cellar is full of great things to eat, and that we’ve made it through to the rest season again, healthy and happy.

Root cellar update: the best bins for my root cellar

In mid-January, I did a complete inventory and assessed the success of a variety of storage bins and insulators. I tried three basic bin/insulation types: solid plastic Rubbermaid tubs filled with damp peat moss; the same with damp cedar shavings (as I don’t have access to clean sawdust); and either wicker or plastic baskets with layers of newspaper between layers of produce (3 sheets). For more details, see this post.

Root cellar storage

Clockwise from upper left: Rubbermaid tub with damp cedar shavings; basket with layers of newspaper between layers of produce (use at least 3 sheets per layer and cover top with 10 sheets); damp sand to add humidity to the air; cabbages resting on damp sand. All bins are usually covered with several layers of newspaper - I took them off for the photo.


Root vegetables:

Damp peat moss Damp cedar shavings Newspaper/basket* Notes
Potatoes (Kennebec, Russet, Pontiac Red) Sprouting OK where dry; sprouting where wet Excellent condition; a very few are starting to shrivel Store more than 50 lb next year
Sweet potatoes n/a n/a Quite shriveled and spotty – too cold Store with squash next year
Apples (Cameo) n/a n/a Excellent condition. A couple on the edges are a little
less crunchy, but none have gone mealy
Such a treat!  Grow this kind for sure.
Rutabagas A little rubbery, especially if they were near/above the
surface at all
Slightly shriveled, but better than the ones in peat moss n/a Stems make good eating, too
Beets Shriveling and sprouting Slight shriveling and a few sprouts; better than peat n/a Need LOTS of moisture. Also – these were in a paper bag for the first month or so – not a good idea.

* The flat black plastic baskets are great – you can get them cheap or free from nurseries or other places that sell flower bulbs. They stack and still leave room for air circulation!

Root vegetable summary:

  • Potatoes and apples do GREAT in baskets with layers of newspaper tucked around them.  I’m very happy – I can see how much of each I’ve got left and I don’t have to dig around to find dinner…or wash damp peat off my arm up to the elbow.
  • Rutabagas probably need some kind of damp medium, but cedar shavings seem to work OK.  The cedar did seem to impart an odd “sparkle” to the veggies – not sure what that is, looks like little fibers – but they wash off.
  • Beets need tons of humidity to stay solid and firm.  I night need a better way of storing them.

It’s funny – the damp peat worked great in buckets in the garage. Nothing sprouted or shriveled.  I wonder if that’s because the garage was more uniformly cold, and the root cellar often goes up to 40, and the ‘taters thought it was spring?


I also tried cabbage heads sitting in damp sand and covered with plastic and/or newspaper.

Newspaper/basket Damp sand
Cabbage – small storage heads Green; a few dehydrated leaves on outside; inner leaves
still quite good
Growing roots; a few shriveled, rubbery, blackening leaves
on outside; inner leaves fine
Cabbage – summer variety Very pale yellow; several outside leaves drying up; inner
leaves noticeably sub-prime
Very pale yellow; outer leaves translucent or blackening;
lots of roots (which hold sand)

Cabbage summary: What made the most difference for cabbage was the variety, not the storage method. I haven’t been growing my own cabbage, and it’s hard to get variety names at the market.  Small, solid heads work better than large, flat heads, but not all small heads are created equal. Also, I will probably not do damp sand next year because it’s hard to get all the grit out, even after I cut off all the roots.  I also expect to have better greens in the greenhouse next winter.

A few other random items:

Pickles and kraut

Pickles, kraut and daffodil bulbs

  • Pickles.  The pickles were fermented in July, and when they started getting a layer of gunk on top, I boiled the brine (with a little more brine added), wiped the top of the jars clean, and filled the jars to overflowing with boiling brine.  This killed the good bugs, I know, but it also sterilized the jars.  Note – I did NOT seal the jars; these are “half-sour” pickles and supposedly do not have enough acid to be safe to can.  So I put loose lids on them and put them in the root cellar, treating them essentially like refrigerator pickles.  They are not moldy or spoiled in any way, though starting to soften a bit.

    Stored squash

    Winter squashes - not in root cellar; in basement in 55 degree dry place

  • Kraut: The kraut was fermented in canning jars and covered with a loose lid – no other processing. Once it was “done,” I put it in the root cellar.  This was back in August or September when it was still 55-60 in the cellar, but it’s doing just fine.
  • Winter squash (Delicata, Waldham butternut, Long Pie pumpkins) – stored outside root cellar in basement (53 degrees and dry) in flat baskets or on open shelving – all are in perfect condition at this point. I grew these and cured them in the sun for a few days before bringing them indoors.
  • Daffodil bulbs: Starting to sprout just a little. I should have planted these in the fall, but I’m hoping they’ll hold on until spring.

Root cellar update: ventilation and humidity

Overall, I am very pleased with the root cellar I built last spring.  It’s keeping temperature well, not showing signs of mold or infestation, and most of the produce is in very good shape.  I have learned a few things and made some changes from the original design, though, and I’ve got some good preliminary data on which arrangement of bins is working best for me.

Outside paneling

With paneling

Insulation up

Without paneling

First, I had to take the paneling off the outside of the cellar before I even put food in it.  This was pressed-wood-fiber type paneling, got cheap at the re-use center.  It was pretty, but even though I took great pains to keep it from touching the floor or walls, it started absorbing moisture and got very moldy very fast.  I pulled it off and didn’t replace it with anything, so the outside wall of the cellar is bare studs and you can see through to the rigid foam insulation.  While my aesthetic side is sad, it doesn’t change the functionality at all, and I really want to avoid starting a mold farm in the basement.

Root cellar ventilation pipes

I've abandoned this ventilation system. Instead, I just let air flow through the holes where the pipes were, or open the window completely.

Second, I’ve abandoned the complicated ventilation system.  It wasn’t letting the cellar cool down enough in the early fall – we’d have a 35 degree night and the temp would only drop from 60 to 58.  Not nearly good enough.  I ended up just opening and closing the window as needed.  That worked really well until about mid-December.  Then I got to a point where having the window open was too cold but leaving it closed was too warm. (The cellar holds around 40 with no ventilation.)  So I took the window out completely and put the board back into the window. (There’s a screen to keep critters out.) This board is about 4″ narrower than the window frame (it had held the vent pipes in place) so it effectively closes off 85% of the window but left it open a bit for some air to get in and out.  I can leave it like that night and day unless we have a series of lows near zero and highs below 15F – then I need to put the window back in or it gets too cold in the cellar.

This hasn’t been much trouble at all.  I have a thermometer with a remote sensor on the kitchen counter, so I can see the temp in the root cellar many times a day as I’m passing by.  This has let me learn its patterns.  For example, I now know that if it’s going to be cold many days in a row, I need to close the window up completely.  It’s a 5-minute chore to open the window, or to swap the window and the ventilated board, so no big deal there.

Third, humidity.  I can’t seem to get the humidity in the room to stay above 50% now that winter has set in, even with bins of damp sand on the floor, so instead I’m trying to keep the local humidity around the produce high.  I’m ok with this – it seems to be working fine, except maybe for beets, and I’ve definitely not had trouble with mold on the walls.  My only concern is that the methods I describe below won’t keep things moist for the whole winter.  I’ll report back in April on that one.

The information on the bins is quite extensive – I’ll post that separately tomorrow.

Moving toward local eating: Storage

Choosing vegetablesPart of the “Moving toward local eating” series

Storing food is its own adventure.  No matter what climate you live in, different foods are harvested at different times of the year, and chances are you will want to store some food for the “off” season. It takes some space, especially if you start trying to, say, can a year’s worth of salsa in September.

I started buying in bulk a couple years ago and have kept great records, and now I know what we go through quickly (brown rice, peanut butter) and what languishes (cornmeal). I’ve also learned important lessons about where to store food in my house.  The basement, for example, is too damp for dry goods.  Cardboard boxes get wrinkled and moldy (I think I’m the only person in the world to have to throw out salt due to spoilage). The barley started smelling beery. Metal cans started to rust.  So I’ve moved that stuff to dryer locations upstairs.  All my canned goods are now in an actual antique jelly cupboard, which delights me so much every time I walk by it, I can’t believe a woman so normally uninterested in “stuff” can get so giddy about a thing.  (But it’s a really wonderful amazing beautiful practical perfect thing.  Really.  And it symbolizes so much about me and my work and my hopes and my values.  Yeah. It’s good.) Ahem. Back to this blog post, Emily…

I also am learning about storing different types of stuff:

  • dry goods, like wheat and beans
  • home-canned foods, like salsa
  • store-bought canned goods (yep, we still eat them)
  • pickled foods, like kraut
  • fresh vegetables, like potatoes
  • “live” produce in the greenhouse and on the windowsill.  (Craving greens in January? Put a beet in a flowerpot in a window and wait a few days….)

Each type of food storage was a bit of an adventure in itself, and you could start with any one of them.

And, of course, there’s learning to use the foods you’ve stored.  One surprising thing I’ve learned is that we can’t finish a loaf of homemade bread before it gets moldy or rock-hard.  And I’m allergic to most beans.  So my estimates of how many pounds of wheat berries and beans to buy were waaaaaaay off.  But, better to find that out now than when it really matters!


Root cellar: full and experimental

Root cellar

Sorry for the crummy picture quality...there's only so much you can do under fluoresent lights with a phone camera...

So, I’ve loaded up the root cellar with goodies for the upcoming year.  I’m trying several different storage methods to see which works the best and is least annoying.

Clockwise from top left:

  • Wooden crate with jars of pickles and sauerkraut (unsealed jars – though I did boil the brine and dump it over the pickles once they had soured enough), and a bag of daffodil bulbs I should have planted by now
  • Willow basket of potatoes – almost empty. Layers of potatoes are separated with 2-3 sheets of newspaper.
  • Plastic crate with sweet potatoes, covered in newspaper; there’s also a paper potato sack with potatoes in that crate.  You can get these crates cheap or free from nurseries in the fall – bulbs are shipped in them.
  • Two large flower pots with carrots and parsnips layered with straw.  This will be compost soon; my parsnips had all split and are starting to get moldy already. Also, the pots have drainage holes in the bottom that could let mice into the attractive, food-filled nesting area, if they figure out the root cellar exists.
  • (Bottom right) Another willow basket of potatoes.  The two wicker baskets held about 50 lb of potatoes total, though I’ve moved some of the potatoes into the big plastic tubs to compare storage methods.
  • Large purple tub – potatoes, beets, and rutabagas, separated by slightly damp cedar shavings (yes, like you put in a hamster cage).  These were easier to find, and less dusty, than clean sawdust.  I’m hoping this works; I hate getting dirty up to the elbow digging in peat moss.
  • Medium blue tub – potatoes, beets, and rutabagas, separated by slightly damp peat moss.  I know the peat works well, but it’s not so renewable and covers everything with damp dust.
  • Wooden crate of cabbages, between two sheets of newspaper.
  • And on the floor to the right: plastic crates lined with garbage bags, filled with damp sand.  One of these then has a couple cabbages set right on the damp sand.
  • The onions, garlic, and hard squash are elsewhere where conditions are a little warmer and less damp.  The sweet potatoes should probably be outside the cellar, too.

Originally, I was trying to keep the humidity of the whole room at around 80%.  This is really hard to keep up, though, and I worry about mold. The first month, I couldn’t keep the room consistently humid enough to keep beets (in a paper bag) from shriveling, and the cabbage-in-a-crate was already looking pretty peaked.  I tried putting out trays of damp sand, and that didn’t really help much, so I finally moved to burying most things in damp peat or wood chips.  The potatoes didn’t need this treatment as desperately as the beets.

I have three different varieties of cabbage, and it’s clear one is a better keeper than the other. The problem is, it’s hard to tell varieties at the market and the sellers often don’t know the variety.  So by buying from a couple different places, and looking for the hardest, most dense heads, I even the odds that something will be a long keeper.  I also have high hopes for putting the cabbage directly on the damp sand.  My main concern with that is that they will try to keep growing, which won’t work well in the dark cellar.

Temp has been fluctuating between 45 and 55 in November.  I’ve not been happy with the pipe ventilation system I put in (it didn’t let enough cold air in early in the season, when I wanted to drop the temp during cold nights) so I’ve just been opening the window at night and closing it during the day if it’s going to get over 50.  If I close the window, the temp tends to go back up to 55 – makes sense, as the earth surrounding 3.5 of the planes of the room are 55 degrees.

I’d say it’s a qualified “win” at this point.  It was too warm late September and early October to store roots from the garden. I couldn’t even get the temp to drop significantly when we’d have 40 degree nights – it would still be 60 in the cellar come morning. So I need to plant fall storage crops mid-summer…just when those kinds of things won’t want to sprout. Now that it’s colder, I can get temps down to 45 pretty easily overnight, though they tend to come back up during the day.  And I am happier with the humidity issues; that will make a huge difference in keeping things from shriveling. (The beets that were starting to go flaccid firmed back up when I buried them in damp peat, too.)

We’ll also see about quantities. We’re using potatoes so fast, I’m pretty sure we’re going to run out – but the other 125 pounds have already been shipped off to Food Gatherers, so there’s no getting them back now.  I also only have seven to ten pounds each of beets, sweet potatoes, and rutabagas.  I’d really like to eat more rutabagas, especially; mixed half-and-half with potatoes, they are a real treat…and a little less starchy, and not susceptible to blight.  They are surprisingly hard to find at the market, though, so grow-your-own is almost the only way to go.

For the record, from my garden were potatoes (Kennebec and Pontiac Red), long pie pumpkins, Waldham (?) butternut squash, Delicata squash, cucumbers for pickles, mostly failed parsnips (Andover; Turga) and carrots (Danvers); from the market were cabbage, beets, rutabagas, sweet potatoes.

Pictures of completed root cellar!

The root cellar is finished! Can I get a “hell yeah”?

Click to embiggen:

Through the root cellar door

Yep, that’s water on the floor, from the spring rains. It always oozes in around the corners – the shelves are on bricks to keep the wood away from the moisture. (Update 2011: I had to take the dark red paneling off because it wicked moisture up from the floor and got moldy.)

Root cellar shelves
(I ran out of 2x4s…but there’s room to add a third shelf on the top. These are 7′ long and the uprights are 64″ tall…just barely shorter than me.) The white circle in the lower left is the cap on the end of the cold air vent pipe.

Root cellar ventilation pipes
This is the ventilation system. The window lifted out of its frame easily, and I replaced it with a “sandwich” of plywood and rigid foam. Two pipes pass through it: a short one at ceiling height to let out warm air, and a long one down the wall and along the ground under the shelves to let in cold air. They open at opposite corners of the room to increase airflow. (That’s why the shelves are so open, too.) The pipes have caps for the ends to keep it from getting *too* cold in there. Or to keep warm air out in the spring/summer. Update 2011: I eventually just took this system down and opened/closed the window as needed.  The pipe vent system didn’t change the temperature fast enough.

There’s also a video with a 360 degree view. It looks very pink; the only fluorescent lights I had were grow-lights, which makes the colors down there very funky.

Root cellar: walls and ceiling done; ventilation and shelves in progress

So, I’ve kept chipping away at the root cellar. I am pleased to say, the walls and ceiling are finished, right down to the paint! I also put in a new light fixture that will work in cold, damp environs, because the original shop light wouldn’t turn on when it got below 40. The tour, in pictures: (you can click any pic for a larger version)

Root cellarThe bulbs in the shop light are actually grow lights, which is all I had. They are making the photos look pink, but in real life, it’s very blue in that room. The walls are painted white, and the ceiling is the blue of the Styrofoam rigid insulation. (Be sure you use the nails with plastic “washers” on them, or you’ll just end up poking holes in your insulation. Ask me how I know…)

Root cellarNo amount of paint will probably ever cover the stains on the walls, but hey, it’s a root cellar. White “Killz” paint is quite a bit cheerier than a root cellar has any right to be! It’s hard to see in this pic, but no insulation or paneling touches the outside walls or floor, to avoid wicking moisture. This corner often sees a small trickle of water come across the floor during heavy spring rains. Nothing serious, but nothing I want my paneling sitting in.

Root cellarTo the right is the NW corner of the room, and this little alcove is formed by the base of the chimney. The plastic pipes you see will be the ventilation system. The short one goes from the window to the corner, along the ceiling. The long one goes from the window, down the wall, and across the floor to the opposite corner of the room. Convection is supposed to keep the air circulating as warm air goes out the top and cold air sinks in to the floor. When it gets too cold, I have caps for the ends of the pipes to seal them off. There are also screens for the pipes so critters don’t come in.

Insulating the window ventThe window gets blocked with a “sandwich” of plywood and rigid insulation. I’ll stick it together with liquid nails, then screw the pieces together, and seal it with exterior paint. The pipes go through the sandwich, which will replace the glass in the basement window.

ShelvesThe shelves are also in progress. They are heavy! I’m using seven-foot-long 2x4s held together with 2x3s. These will be affixed to uprights (more 2x4s) sitting on bricks to keep them off the damp floor. The shelves don’t butt up to the walls – you can see how I’ve left 6″ sticking off the back to serve as a spacer. You want about 6″ of air space on all sides of the shelves to allow the air to circulate freely through the shelving. The shelf below is sitting on sawhorses, but it’s in the orientation it will be in when installed, to the left of the door as you walk in.

This page represents about 4-5 days of work, 2-3 hours a day. The end of the project is in sight, but it sometimes feels like it’ll never end! With gardening season coming on, though, I really have to get this finished up…

So close…root cellar insulation almost done.

It was a mixed bag working on the root cellar this weekend. Saturday, I got lots done (all the batts of insulation into the ceiling/floor joists) but on Sunday I was too tired and cranky (and breaking drill bits, and running out of hardware…) to get a whole lot done. But here’s the current status:

Safety first when working with fiberglass…
The Insulator

First step was to cut the batts to length and place them between the joists.
Installing batts

The finished batting:
Installing batts

Then I put scraps of rigid insulation between the joists over the door wall, so air wouldn’t flow in sideways through the batts. This also looks a lot neater.
Rigid insulation

I was quite thrilled that out of four 4×8′ sheets of rigid insulation, this is pretty much all that’s left over:

Next up: installing the rigid insulation on the ceiling, and sealing the cracks with tape and probably caulk or spray foam around the edges. I want to be sure moisture doesn’t get up into the batts and cause mold to grow.

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