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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Self-Sufficient Living - Root Cellars...

12:13 pm - 48 degrees - light rain and fog...


You stroll out in to the garden, picking ripe fruits and vegetables, knowing that come February you’ll still be enjoying their freshness.  For those of us attracted to the romantic aspects of self-sufficient life, this is an appealing scenario and one that we’re seriously looking into.  After searching the internet and Pinterest – this is what I found out...

{photo source: pinterest.com}

Root cellars, the ancient technology that enables the long-term storage of your garden’s bounty, are currently experiencing a rediscovery, but not merely because of the pleasures of eating self-grown food, but also because of the actual possibility of reducing expenses and providing for significant food storage in times of potential trouble.

Here is a little history on root cellars... Native Australians were the first people to take advantage of the cooling and insulative properties of buried foodstuffs in the earth.  Records indicate that over 40,000 years ago they grew large amounts of yams and developed the technique of burying their produce in order to preserve it for future use.  In the process, they also discovered the phenomenon of fermentation, and ever since, alcoholic beverages have been a large portion of those products stored in underground repositories.

Underground storage facilities from the Iron Age have been discovered, and the Etruscans commonly buries their immature wine, but the actual use of walk-in root cellars as a means to prolong the freshness of fruit and vegetable crops was probably an invention that occurred in 17th century England.  It might seem surprising that the great civilizations of China and Egypt did not develop root cellars, but the Chinese were the masters of food preservation via salting, pickling and the additions of spices; the Egyptians, residents of an arid environment, were the masters at drying food.  It took the right combination of cool winters and hungry Englishmen to finally invent the concept of root cellars.

Early American root cellar.  {photo source: pinterest.com}

Certainly the most notable practitioners of root cellar arts were the early colonists that arrived in North America from the United Kingdom.  The eastern halves of America and Canada contain thousands of old root cellars, and the small Newfoundland town of Elliston actually claims the title of “Root Cellar Capital of the World,” and boasts of over 135 root cellars, some dating back 200 years.

What exactly is a root cellar?  A root cellar is a structure built underground or partially underground and used to store vegetables, fruits, and nuts or other foods.  The basis of all root cellars is their ability to keep food cool.  They were, essentially, the first refrigerators.  A well-insulated root cellar can keep the food inside 40 degrees cooler than the summertime temperatures outside.  This coolness also has benefits during the winter, as maintaining food at a temperature just slightly above freezing has the effect of slowing deterioration and rot.  Temperatures inside the home, even in basements, are noticeably warmer, so food stored inside the house have a tendency to spoil much more rapidly than food stored in a cooler root cellar.  Temperatures above 45 degrees F cause toughness in most stored vegetables, and encourage undesirable sprouting and considerably more rapid spoilage.


The temperature in a root cellar is never uniform.  The temperature near the ceiling is usually 10 degrees warmer than elsewhere in the cellar, so the ceiling area is therefore appropriate for placement of produce that tolerates warmer temperatures well, such as onions, garlic, and shallots.

What can you plan on storing in your root cellar once you build it?  Certainly, many of us probably have visions of root cellars in the 19th century, packed with bushels of apples and sacks full of potatoes.  Today’s root cellars are really not much different, and potatoes and apples are two eminently storable garden products.  But the problem with that pair is that they don’t really go well together.  Apples have a tendency to emit ethylene gas, which causes problems for potatoes stored nearby, and will also make any exposed carrots or other root crops bitter.  As a matter of fact, many fruits, including plums, pears, and peaches, and some vegetables, such as tomatoes, cabbage and Chinese cabbage, are also notorious ethylene producers.

Luckily, there are ways around this problem.  A good root cellar has a variety of shelves, some higher than others, and some closer to the air vents.  Placing the ethylene producers up high and nearer the exit vents has a tendency to move harmful gases away from produce stored on the floor below.  Many root crops are also regularly stored in boxes of loose soil or sawdust, further insulating them from their neighbors’ emissions.  Some produce, like cabbages and onions, often emit odors that can taint the flavors of other vegetables, as well as fruits, so finding high, remote corners for these pungent items is a good idea too.

One of the key control features of a root cellar is the set of air vents that allow air to enter and exit the cellar.  These vents not only allow a greater amount of temperature adjustment than available to a static space, but the air circulation can also be a valuable tool to deal with the ethylene gases and odors produced by a mixed assortment of fruits and vegetables. 

Inside the cellar, the arrangement of shelves should allow for generous distances between them.  The shelves should also be kept a few inches away from the walls to encourage greater air circulation.  Materials placed on the floor should be raised a few inches by small blocks or racks.

The down side to root cellars at the pests.  Rodents are the single most common pest problem for food stored in root cellars.  Installing metal wire mesh in common entry points, such as open vents, is a good idea, as is a frequent trapping program.  The next most vexing problem for stored food is plain old rot.  The saying that “one rotten apple with spoil the lot” is quite true in this situation, so care should be taken to remove any spoiling produce or other foodstuff.  In general though, the lower temperatures will combat the mold and bacteria problems that are common in warm, wet conditions.

{photo source: pinterest.com}

{photo source: pinterest.com}

{photo source: pinterest.com}

Food You Can Store In Your Root Cellar

APPLES – store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 2-7 months depending on variety

BEANS (dried) - store between 50-60 degrees – 60-70 percent humidity – shelf life: 1 year

BEETS - store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 3-5 months

BROCCOLI - store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 1-2 weeks

BRUSSEL SPROUTS - store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 3-5 weeks

CABBAGE - store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 3-4 months

CARROTS - store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 4-6 months

GARLIC - store between 50-60 degrees – 60-70 percent humidity – shelf life: 5-8 months

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES - store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 1-2 months

LEEKS - store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 3-4 months

ONIONS - store between 50-60 degrees – 60-70 percent humidity – shelf life: 5-8 months

PARSNIPS - store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 1-2 months

PEARS - store at 30 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 2-3 months

POTATOES - store between 40-45 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 4-6 months

PUMPKINS - store between 50-60 degrees – 60-70 percent humidity – shelf life: 5-6 months

RUTABAGAS - store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 2-4 months

SQUASH - store between 50-60 degrees – 60-70 percent humidity – shelf life: 4-6 months

SWEET POTATOES - store between 55-60 degrees – 60-70 percent humidity – shelf life: 4-6 months

TOMATILLOS - store between 50-60 degrees – 60-70 percent humidity – shelf life: 1-2 months

TOMATOES - store between 50-60 degrees – 60-70 percent humidity – shelf life: 1-2 months for green; 4-6 months for varieties intended for winter storage


TURNIPS - store at 32 degrees – 90-95 percent humidity – shelf life: 4-6 months

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