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Long before the first light bulb, "miraculously" illuminated our lives-almost everyone owned a root cellar. The root cellar kept apples, carrots, turnips, potatoes and squash, through the winter, sustaining the family through those cold and bleak months. Salt pork and smoked meats, milk, cream, butter and cheese were also kept in the root cellar to stay cool and fresh, ready for use.

It is thought that the first root cellars originated in the United Kingdom before colonial times. Immigrants then brought with them their country skills, including the functional and practical root cellar.

An earth-friendly, root cellar is the natural choice for the homesteader, whether or not you're, "on the grid." The low-tech root cellar, will keep your harvest fresh for two months or longer, depending on what you store, without ozone-depleting refrigeration, or electricity. In addition to the above mentioned foods, you can store your canned tomatoes, peaches, pears, green beans, peas, fish and meat, in fact, any type of canned foods in your root cellar. They will provide a pleasing array of natural colors; the result of a summer's hard work and patience, all neatly lined up on shelves.

There are several types of root cellar and different ways in which to construct one. There's the Hatch Cellar, Hillside Cellar and the Above Ground Cellar.

The Hatch Cellar usually consists of a large hole dug into the ground then lined with rocks. The floor is left in its natural state, just plain dirt. Beams and plywood sheets are securely laid over the hole, with a hatch door incorporated into the ceiling/floor, along with the installation of a ladder for safe and easy access. A shed is then built over the top of the cellar, overlapping the walls by about three feet each side.

The Hillside Cellar is dug out of a hillside, lined with rocks, and then a plywood ceiling is attached to overhead support beams. This type of cellar has a regular insulated door to walk through.

The Above Ground Cellar is made from a wood frame, covered thickly with sod on the outside, lined inside with rocks, with a regular insulated door at the front.

Shelves are installed in each type of cellar, three inches away from the walls, to allow air to circulate freely and inhibit the growth of molds. An exhaust pipe is installed through the ceiling to allow hot air to escape from the cellar. Installation of an intake pipe ensures fresh, cold air to enter, forcing the hot air to escape from the exhaust pipe. You must try to maintain an ideal temperature and humidity ratio to provide optimum freshness for your bountiful harvest.

Humidity is a major factor in your root cellar, whatever type you decide to install. Humidity will vary, depending on which part of the world you're located. If you're located in the arid, southwestern area of the United States for instance, you will experience high temperatures and low humidity. This will need adjusting with a pan of water on the floor of your cellar and possibly damp towels over your bushel baskets, to raise the humidity and prevent your harvest from shriveling. If, on the other hand, you live in the tropical regions of Australia, you will be faced with both high temperatures and high humidity. These extremes call for a deep, insulated root cellar with steps leading down to an insulated entrance door. As most of the harvest in your root cellar, will stay fresh in moderate temperatures and humidity--it will spoil quickly, given too high temperatures and humidity.

Preparing your Harvest for the Root Cellar


Fruits like apples, plums, pears, peaches and tomatoes release ethylene gas in storage, and while small amounts will not affect other stored foods; it speeds their aging process, and makes some vegetables like carrots, bitter.

To store fruit successfully, only pick the best of the bunch; neither too ripe, nor under ripe. Use the bruised fruits for sauces and for stewing or fruit salad. Wrap individually, each piece of fruit and place carefully in cardboard or wooden boxes. An alternative method would be to bury the fruit in boxes filled with sand. Be gentle, as one bad apple will spoil the whole bunch!


Mulching root vegetables thickly with pine needles, straw or other suitable mulching materials whilst they're still in the garden, will stop them from freezing and keep them for up to a month. At which time, such veggies as carrots, can be transferred to your root cellar.


When the green tops on your potatoes die off, the potatoes can be harvested. If you are experiencing hot weather at this time, you may want to keep them in the ground for a few weeks longer, until temperatures go down to 60-70F. The potatoes can then be dug up and cured in the shade for two weeks. Do not cure in the sun, as this will produce toxic, solanines (nightshade). This will turn your tubers green, and harmful to eat—especially for babies and pregnant or nursing moms; so please cure in shade only. Just remove excess dirt from the potatoes, as a layer of dirt helps extend their life; on NO account, wash them! When your potatoes are cured, you can move them to the root cellar. They keep best with high humidity of 90%, in a temperature of 38-40F. This temperature slows respiration, delay their sprouting, and will ensure the starch doesn't convert to sugar. Store them in a bin or a pile covered with straw or burlap--NOT plastic, to stop water condensing on the potatoes. These potatoes will now keep from four to six months in your handy root cellar.


Pumpkins should be harvested with a few inches of stem attached to help prevent pathogens from entering the pumpkin through the cut scar. Pumpkins should be left to sit outside for a few days to harden their shells. They will then be ready for the cellar. 65-70% humidity is perfect for these vegetables and cool temperatures, above freezing are ideal. Your pumpkins will now keep for up to six months.


Onions and garlic are ready to pull out of your garden, when the tops are dead and brown. They need to be cured, however, by tying or braiding their tops together, and hanging them up outside to cure. The porch or a handy tree can be used to serve this purpose. A few weeks of curing and they will be ready to hang up in your root cellar or somewhere cool—ideally 60-70% humidity with a temperature of 35-40F.


Cabbage…………………3-4 months
Brussels Sprouts………..3-5 weeks
Jerusalem Artichokes….1-2 months
Carrots………………….4-6 months
Chinese Cabbage………1-2 months
Eggplant………………..1-2 weeks
Parsnips………………..1-2 months
Rutabagas………………2-4 months
Radishes………………..2-3 months
Tomatoes……………….1-2 months
Cauliflower…………….2-4 weeks
Broccoli………………...1-2 weeks
Beets……………………4-5 months
Pumpkins………………5-6 months
Potatoes………………...4-6 months
Turnips…………………4-6 months

Although the above stated storage times are approximate, check
periodically for spoilage.

Copyright 2001 © Victoria Ries All Rights Reserved
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23,290 Posts
Great article. We've always wanted to do our cistern into a root cellar but just haven't gotten to doing it yet. Someday we will.

One thing I must note is that if not done properly, a root cellar can be dangerous. We've had a couple of people die from going into root cellars (in Canada) and I'm sure it must be from gases that could be stored there, such as the etheylene gas.
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