Root cellars offer a fantastic way to store foods without the need for energy or refrigeration. They work best in cooler climates and are extremely popular after harvest time as a way to preserve vegetables. However, almost any kind of food can be stored in a root cellar as long as temperatures remain below 40 degrees Fahrenheit as they mimic the cooling properties of a refrigerator.
The main benefit to installing a root cellar is to prolong the shelf-life of vegetables and certain fruits. They are very easy to install and maintain, and can help to keep items fresh and safe for consumption months after harvest. Everyone who is developing a medium to long term storage strategy should incorporate a root cellar into their playbook. Getting started is easy and only involves some elbow grease when it comes to digging out the hole in the ground.
Preparing the Container
Every root cellar should involve a container of some sorts. The most common examples include old or unused refrigerators or freezers and garbage cans. You can use plastic or metal. If using a refrigerator, it is important to remove all of the components until nothing but the case and door remain. You can also opt to remove the door and use plastic to cover the items stored inside as well. In both cases, you will need fashion a hole in order to insert a vent pipe that will allow air to move through out the cellar to preserve food effectively.
If using a garbage can, poke some holes in the bottom to allow moisture to escape along with a hole or two in the lid to promote air movement as well. Dig a hole deep enough so the container will rest a couple of inches below ground level. Add a layer of gravel or small stones along the bottom to secure it in place and provide the first layer of insulation. Rocks will allow for greater movement of air and reduce the chances of spoilage due to mold or mildew.
Avoid using plastic or wooden containers as rodents can chew their way through and damage the stored crops. However, if you line them with wire mesh, they can be used if no other options are available. Once food has been placed inside and the lid secured, you can add a layer of dirt, mulch or yard debris as an extra layer of insulation.
There is a lot of discussion as to adding layers of insulation between food supplies to help regulate temperature and maintain freshness. While insulating with hay, grass, mulch or even dirt can help to preserve food items, it will be difficult to access items that are on the bottom of the cellar. If you plan on insulating, consider limiting the stored food to one or two types only. This will ensure that you can access what you want when you want without excavating the stockpile to get at things on the bottom.
Insulating the inside of the cellar by layering foods is not necessary in most situations, especially if you plan on consuming the stored items within a few weeks. The temperature regulation that naturally occurs underground will provide a cool environment to keep sturdy vegetables fresh. However, adding a layer of insulation around the sides of the container as well as on top will increase crop shelf-life.
Remember that the root cellar is designed to provide an intermediate benefit between keeping items at room temperature and using a refrigerator. The foods that can be stored as well as for how long will depend on ambient temperatures and moisture present in the ground around the cellar. Cooler climates are the ideal location to utilize these tools for long-term benefits, but veggies can keep for longer periods underground in warm climates as opposed to storing them on the counter or pantry.
Do some experimentation and plan your storage based on your consumption habits so you can always access items when you want them. Use root cellars to your advantage and see how they can assist you with medium-term food storage needs in almost any environment.