Welcome back to our two-part series on root-cellar fundamentals. As a quick recap, in the previous article we discussed the ways a root cellar uses the natural insulation of the earth to keep food fresh in any season (read more about that here). The simplest type of root cellar, therefore, is a dug hole, usually into the side of a hill for convenience, with flared walls to prevent cave-ins (for larger cellars, wooden support shafts are also advisable). The hole should be lined with straw or leaves, and covered with a wooden lid, which is then itself covered with soil. The slope of the hill will provide adequate drainage, and the sandier the soil, the better.
Simple Types of Root Cellars: The Basement Cellar
If that sounds a little primitive to you, don’t worry! That really is only the simplest type of root cellar. Those of us with houses, and particularly basements, can create cellars that are much more refined. By far the most common root cellar is the basement cellar. To create your own, begin by finding a corner of your basement with a window. Solely for ventilation, the window will need to be covered to prevent the ingress of sunlight. Keep in mind though, that whatever you cover the window with will need vent holes, lest the purpose of the window be defeated. Two five-inch diameter holes will be roughly adequate for an 8×10’ cellar. To keep out any unwanted visitors, make sure to cover the holes with mesh, or some other breathable material.
All of the above means root cellars are great projects for unfinished basements, as their generally cinder-block walls allow the natural temperature of the surrounding soil to easily seep in. That said, the walls carving the cellar off from the rest of the house should be well-insulated, to prevent your home’s temperature from affecting the room. Making the walls from standard stud and board makes insulating them an easier process, though what sort of insulation you use is dealer’s choice. Standard pink fiberglass insulation works well, and is widely available at your local hardware store.
As discussed in the previous article, adequate ventilation is important to prevent the rotting of food. How you set up the interior of your cellar can help a great deal with this. When installing shelving, make sure to leave a two- to four-inch gap between the rear of the shelves and the walls, for adequate ventilation around your foodstuff. Likewise, to safeguard against rotting, produce should be stored in straw-separated layers. Make sure when actually putting items on the shelves, that you do not shove food baskets/containers all the way back against the wall, as this will defeat the purpose of the ventilation gap. If you’re worried you may forget in the hustle of storing supplies, give yourself a wider gap. You’ll be extra careful not to slide things against the wall, if the food has a chance of falling through.
The Trash-Can Cellar
Not have a basement to work with, but a hole in a hill sound far too primitive? Fear not! The trash-can cellar provides a nice middle-ground between the two. Start by finding a well-sheltered spot, particularly if you’re in an area that commonly sees snow. Under a porch, or inside a dirt-floored shed are both great places. From there, dig a hole deep enough to fully contain a standard, 20-gallon galvanized-steel trash can. Fill the bottom three- to four-inches of the hole with gravel, to promote good drainage. Then, take your 20-gallon trash can, drill some vent holes at the bottom of the can and fill it with the produce you wish to store, layered with straw as before. Lower the can into the hole, put the lid on, stack a foot or so of straw on and around the lid, cover it all with a tarp to prevent rain from seeping in, and viola! You have your very own root cellar, for well under 50 dollars.
To improve this design, I would recommend you find, construct, or have made an aluminum or stainless can, as though galvanized cans are rust-resistant, they will not last forever. Aluminum and stainless steel, on the other hand, are far more resilient. In addition, if you decide to go this route, I would recommend giving the can a depth of at least 124”, to get the base of the can down to the ideal ten-foot depth.
Now obviously, these are not the only types of root cellars out there. Should you have access to a backhoe, knowledge of how to pour a concrete footer, and the ability to build a roof, you can create an entirely separate, professional-grade cellar, at whatever size and depth you like. Being that the majority of small homesteads will not have access to such equipment however, not to mention the plans for such a structure would take up an article in and of themselves, I have not included them here.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion of basic root cellar construction. Tune in next time, for something completely different!
A humble homesteader based in an undisclosed location, Lars Drecker splits his time between tending his little slice of self-sustaining heaven, and bothering his neighbors to do his work for him. This is mainly the fault of a debilitating predilection for fishing, hunting, camping and all other things outdoors. When not engaged in any of the above activities, you can normally find him broken down on the side of the road, in some piece of junk he just “fixed-up.”