Root Cellaring Basics: Extending the Season Without Canning

Root cellars have long been used to extend the harvest. There is so much you can do to make veggies last longer no matter what space you have to utilize. The key is finding the cooler and more temperature stable areas of your home. You don’t have to get out the shovel and dig and an old-fashioned root cellar to use some of the techniques.

My basement is not a place I go often. We have a small house with a craw space style basement except for in the front there is a space that is 6 feet tall. This year, however, we started using it for some root vegetable storage. At the moment this is just a bushel of taters from a local farm. We put them in an old cooler to keep them protected from bugs and some moisture. Our basement is not wet, but sometimes it can be a little damp if there is a lot of rain.

A bushel of Kennebec potatoes from Leatherwood Family Farms.

Carrots

I buy a lot of carrots. For this winter I plan on getting an old cooler and filling it with play sand to store a large 20 lb bag of Earthbound Organic Carrots that are sold for juicing at my local grocery store. It beats buying the 1 lb or 5 lb bags and running out in the winter. The cost savings is good too.

The sand helps protect them. I don’t try to grow carrots when I can get them for so little. They require sandy soil and take some work to grow. Living on the side of a mountain means that I would have to change my soil composition with a lot of amendments and it still would be a fight to keep animals out of a tempting sand bed!

Onions

These are usually in no more than 5 lb bags at the grocery store and more typically 3. I find you have to watch out when buying them in small bags on sale because they are not always the best keepers. If I want a lot of onions for the cellar, the regional farmers market sells them in 50 lb bags. Even Vidalias are around $25 for 50 lbs last time we bought them.

Cabbage storage

Cabbages keep well in a cellar environment. Some people choose to wrap them in butcher paper or similar. You might also consider making some sauerkraut or other relishes from any excess you have.

You can also keep cabbages in the ground and cover with hay to insulate.

Think about the recipes you can put together with a few basics

If I got taters, carrots, and onions, and a little meat I am just fine!. I think that having a large supply of root vegetables will save time at the grocery store and make sure I don’t run out of some semblance of a fresh vegetable. If I can get my hands on some turnips or rutabagas that would be nice too.

I am currently testing out a Garden Tower, and that appears to be a good solution to growing some fresh salad greens and such during the colder months. The Tower will have to come in after it starts frosting a lot.

Finding your food stash spots

Under stairs going to basements is a good place. Remember that it doesn’t have to be a perfect temp, just cooler than the main living area. Anything cooler is going to help foods keep longer.

When in doubt document the temperatures in areas that you know are cooler and protected from excessive light. This will give you an idea of what is realistic to store and for how long.

Remember to rotate foods out

Root cellar foods should be rotated. You may want to have two tater containers or crates with one for eating on ASAP and another that is next in line an possibly fresher.

For example, I got a bushel of Kennebec taters, but if I were to buy another bushel of a different tater, I would store them in something else, so I don’t let old food lay around and eventually rot. Taters stink when they rot so try to eat them or cook them up for your animals. At $12-$20 a bushel (50-60 Lbs), taters make some good filler when feeding a dog. This is worth knowing in an emergency.

Dirt floors help with humidity

People just didn’t leave root cellars with dirt floors because they didn’t want to build a floor. Dirt keeps things more humid. A lot of veggies really prefer a high humidity and a dirt floor is a natural way to encourage this at no cost. You can also use humidifiers if you want to but the old way is digging down or back into the earth and using that temperature and humidity regulation to easily store food for the long term. Even if a lot of things are not kept directly on the ground, stick to a dirt floor when you can.

Storing Vegetables in the Garden

Some vegetables can benefit in flavor from exposure to colder temperatures. Parsnips, horseradish, turnips, and rutabagas taste better after exposure to 28 F-34 F temperatures. Their starchiness converts to sugar and the flavor are noticeably improved.

Don’t store fruits and veggies together

Apples give off a gas as they age that can cause potatoes to sprout and other issues. Fruits and veggies need to be dealt with differently in the root cellar.

Temperature matters a lot!

Remember that no vegetable can deal with a root temperature of fewer than 25 degrees. You can extend the time in the ground with hay and mulches to a degree, but even that will not do after awhile so you will need to bring it in and put them in a pit or similar storage. You really can have root vegetables most of the year even in a very cold climate. It is all about getting varieties that are right for your area. There are hundreds of types of potato out there for example, but some are more cold hardy than others.

At a cellar temperature of 50-60 degrees is okay for storage of potatoes, winter squash, onions, pumpkins, and a few tomatoes that have been picked greener than usual.

It is not suitable to store veggies in an area that has cars and equipment parked in it. Car emissions are most definitely absorbed by vegetables, and you certainly don’t want that.

Charts 

I found this handy chart that lists the ideal requirements for storing vegetables.

The chart above only includes a few vegetables but I thought it was neat how it showed the difference between how long they keep in the pantry versus a cold room or root cellar environment.

Providing Cooled Space

It is possible to build a very well insulated small building and use an air conditioner to keep conditions ideal for food storage. This is not the cheapest way but if you truly utilize something like that you might save a lot of money by buying in season and eating far past the usual time.

During the very hot times of the year, you may not be able to store some foods so well without running the AC a lot.

Utilize A Dehydrator For Further Easy Food Preparation

I love the food dehydrator. It makes it easy to put back some foods and store them in a small space. I highly recommend getting one if you don’t already. Some things can be air dried on a wire or screen rack, but it is nice to have the fan and heat for drying things like mushrooms.

I just feel that dehydrators deserve some recognition for easy to use devices to put back food without jars and the canning process. It can also be done in an apartment or other small space, so it is a great option for urban preppers.

Digging out a larger cellar

If you find that you would like to go larger with your root cellar ambitions, you should consider the lay of your land. In some cold areas, you can dig back into the side of a hill and create an excellent food storage area that will stand the test of time.

Consider hiring some help

While you can dig out your cellar, a tractor with a backhoe attachment can do it in little time at all. If you know someone with a machine see what they want in payment to dig your cellar.  You do not need a huge cellar to store a lot of food. a 5 x 8 ft root cellar that is laid out well with shelves can hold 30 bushels of produce so don’t be tempted to go really big and cause yourself a lot of work and expense for space you will never fill.

I found this picture of a root cellar on the Creative Commons. I thought it was impressive. Notice the wire fence around the entryway. This is a good idea if you have livestock. A few animals could clean out your root cellar in little time. Plan on a good door or fencing to keep out animals. A door is going to be better, but you still may want to block some of the area around your cellar from animal damage.

Always double check for underground lines before digging. You don’t want to hit water, power, fiber optic cables, etc. 

Camouflaging your root cellar during SHTF

You may want to disguise your food stash during a long emergency. There are a lot of ways to do this with the goal being for the entryway to look very much like it’s surroundings. Cutting limbs and laying debris down can help. Using a brown or camo colored tarp as a base and laying things on it can make it easier to deal with when you have to get in next, and it provides a solid base.

Best Books On Root Cellaring

There are some great books out there that can help get you started on figuring out what you can and cannot store or designing the space you want.

Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables

This book is a classic and definitely one of the most popular and complete books you can get on root cellaring techniques and construction. Even if you get some of the smaller pamphlets, anyone that is serious about having a root cellar or trying to extend the harvest should have a copy of this book in their library. The book includes a lot of innovative ideas that will make you see just how many spots you may be overlooking that would be excellent for cold storage or extending the harvest somewhat.

Other small books and pamphlets that are helpful include:

Your land or living area is unique

Root cellaring is about discovering places on your property or within your living environment. The way land is shaped, the direction it faces, drainage, and more all play a role in determining what spots on your property are going to be best for root cellaring and food storage. Sometimes there are cold spots that you wouldn’t realize were great for food storage without doing some exploring.

Planning your garden

If you start root cellaring a lot, then you may start planning your garden around what stores best and make sure that you do a spring, summer, and fall garden if your climate is suitable for gardening most of the year. Cold frames and greenhouses can also help with fresh food production further into the year.

Remember that root vegetables are going to be your best keepers.

Extending the life of veggies in the house

Small things make a big difference when it comes to keeping veggies and fruits. Onions and potatoes keep well in mesh bags. Potatoes kept in your house should be placed in the coolest area of your kitchen and kept out of the light as much as possible to avoid them going green.

Do you have a root cellar? What tips do you have for extending the harvest? Are there varieties that you find are better keepers than others?

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  1. good article, as of this moment I am only able to use my garage for long-term storage. May I ask what hardy zone do you live in? are you able to plant a fall garden where you live? I live in Hollister CA ( for now…been saying that for years, want to move) Anyway, My hardy zone is 9b however I believe that our 9b does not get as cold as where you live. For the first time we have planted a fall garden. We are experimenting with broccoli, cabbage and spinach.

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