By: Tom Chatham
There are many people that have the ability to grow some vegetables during the summer. Many of these are eaten at the dinner table while at their peak of freshness and taste. Those that are thoughtful enough to plan for extra production and have a place to store it can enjoy their bounty for many weeks after the harvest providing good food and a secure food source for their family. Most people will either store their excess in the freezer or can it. Both of these ways are good but require either a constant supply of electricity or the time and resources to can.
This is fine when everything is going fine but the day may come when these resources are not available or are intermittent and undependable. The ability to store fresh produce throughout the winter utilizing a root cellar is an old and efficient practice. Unfortunately, with the convenience of super markets providing fresh vegetables year round and home freezers, very few people use or are even aware of this method of storage today. This is one method that is useful especially when power and canning resources are unavailable for storage and food becomes a difficult commodity to procure. By storing your excess in the ground you can extend your harvest to get you through the winter until the spring planting begins.
There are many ways you can go about building a root cellar but we will only cover five inexpensive methods here. When times get economically difficult it is good to have a backup storage plan that doesn’t cost a lot.
There are some things that will be similar among all types of cellars so for brevity we will discuss them before actually talking about the types of cellars you can build. A small plastic pipe should be installed to run from within 6 inches of the inner bottom to where it will project just above the ground covering. A second pipe should be situated on the opposite side of the enclosure and run from about 6 inches of the inner top to just above the ground covering. This will provide air circulation to the produce to limit the degradation during storage. As vegetables age and decay they produce vapors that can speed up the decay process so removing these vapors will aid in preservation. When temperatures drop below freezing you may need to cover the vents to prevent cellar temperatures from dropping too low and damaging your produce. It is also beneficial to have a screen over the vents to prevent bugs from invading your cache. To maintain the proper moisture it may be necessary to position a bucket of water in the cellar or a wet sponge in a plastic pan if space is limited.
Trash Can Method – For a person with limited space or food to store, a large metal trash can may be used as a cellar. The can will need to be dug in with the top at least 3 inches above the ground level. The outside should be painted to prevent rust and dirt should be packed around it to within 3 inches of the top. Your produce can be placed in small individual boxes and stacked in the can allowing sufficient air space around the items. This type of cellar will provide a water tight enclosure that can be helpful if you live in an area that has a high water table. Once you have your items in the cellar you can pile straw or even leaves over the cellar at least 24 inches deep to provide the necessary insulation to prevent freezing and maintain a constant temperature.
Clay Lined Hole Method – For a larger cellar you can dig a hole approximately 4 feet on each side and 4 feet deep. You should angle the walls out so they are about 4 inches wider on each side than the bottom of the hole. You can then gather a mixture of locally available clay and mix it with enough water to make it workable. You can then apply about 4 inches of clay to each wall providing a smooth and stiff structure that will resist collapse when wet. The floor of the cellar should be covered with about 3 inches of stone to allow ground moisture to maintain humidity levels while avoiding a damp floor. The top can be covered with a thick piece of plywood or other sturdy material and then covered with straw, pine needles or leaves for insulation.
Plywood Lined Hole Method – The plywood lined hole is similar to the clay lined hole only plywood is used to strengthen the walls. A hole 4 feet on each side and 4 feet deep can be dug and four walls consisting of plywood secured together with 2×4 lumber in each corner. The plywood should be painted on the outside and the inner edges to make the form last longer. Gravel can be placed in the hole then the form can be lowered in and backfilled with soil. A Plywood lid can be added and covered with straw, pine needles or leaves for insulation. This will provide about 64 cubic feet of storage space.
Refrigerator/Freezer Method – An old refrigerator or freezer can be buried in the ground and used as a cellar. When this type of item is used it should be painted on the outside to resist rust. This type of structure is fairly quick and easy to install and will provide a very nice interior for storage. It can be covered with materials for additional insulation and protection.
Log Covered Cellar Method – This type of structure can be as large as you need and can hold many bushels of produce. A hole 6 feet by 8 feet and as deep as you require can be dug. If the walls are sufficiently strong and no internal bracing is needed you can either leave it as such or apply a layer of plastic to provide a cleaner appearance. If internal bracing is needed the walls can be reinforced with logs, masonry or a cob type of substance. The floor can be covered with gravel to avoid creating a muddy surface. Logs 6” in diameter and at least 4 feet longer than the hole opening can be cut and placed on the roof and can be packed with a cob type of material or covered with plastic for water proofing. Then the logs can be covered with two to three feet of dirt for insulation. A small entrance can be dug into one end and one door placed at ground level and one flush with the inside wall to provide an air lock to keep inside temperatures stable in very cold weather.
Root cellars can be built in just about any size you may want and with many different types of materials that may be available to you. The main points to keep in mind are proper ventilation, stable temperature above freezing, sufficient humidity, sufficient space for produce and a sufficiently sturdy structure to house your storage items. Each person must decide what type of cellar will best suit their needs then decide the best method of construction for their area. When times get tight and you find the need for storing excess in a simple and inexpensive way, you should have a plan for a root cellar that you can utilize. Modern storage systems are great but you never know when they may fail or become undependable. A well built cellar may even be utilized as a storm shelter so all possible uses should be considered before construction to get the most from it.