root cellar

Root Cellar: Preserving a Bountiful Harvest

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Introduction

A root cellar is a great place to store garden bounty, but you don’t need a “root cellar” to begin storing food. Most basements, pantries, and back closets will work in a pinch provided you know the basic principles of long-term storage. So, if you’re new to starting a root cellar, be encouraged. With each passing year, you will develop your own unique style and learn what works best for you in terms of long-term storage and how often you use certain foods from your garden. Today let’s talk about how to properly store all of our fabulous garden abundance.

root cellar

Every season has something wonderful to bestow upon us and teach us. In Spring, new life is sprouting all around us. The beauty of cheerful wings and bright flowers fill our hearts with joy. Spring is a delightful time to pick and preserve berries for jam. Gorgeous edible flowers adorn the landscape and can be dried for tea.

As the cooler spring merges into warmer weather, we bask in the warmth of the summer sun, and our worries seem to melt away. It’s the perfect season to collect, preserve, or dry the generous bounty mother nature provides. There is an abundance of herbs, peppers, scallions, tomatoes, and a whole host of various other vegetables to enjoy.

In the Fall, we get to reap the rewards of all our hard work. As the leaves are falling, our well-tended vines are laden with numerous varieties of squash. Beets and onions are ready to be pulled. We collect our apples and pears, eager to celebrate the season with spiced drinks and pies. We eagerly pile our fresh produce into our pantries, share it with friends, and allow the overflow to fill our root cellars too.

As the colder weather sets in and the days shorten, we gather with family and friends. Old man frost makes an entrance, and we string up lights to illuminate the darkness. Through the blisteringly cold winter, we are sustained by endeavors practiced earlier in the year. Even during the bleakest and snowiest times of the new year, we get to open jars of homemade jam, salsa, or marmalade. With every spoonful, we are reminded of the brighter times of the year. With a bit of nostalgia, we enjoy our captured sunshine in jars and appreciate our good fortune.  

Now, more than ever, having a variety of delicious natural food on hand makes a lot of sense. Food preserving has become very popular as many people want to return to a simpler, more resilient, and nutrient-dense way of eating. Many of us realize that the highly processed foods available at the store just don’t stack up to what we can forage, grow and prepare ourselves. Plus, the food we consume means more to us when we know we’ve made it ourselves. So today, let’s learn how to properly store all of our fabulous garden abundance and talk about root cellars.

 

root cellar

The Practical Purpose of a Root Cellar

We’ve all heard of root cellars, but what do they actually do? A root cellar is a cool and dark room that is primarily used to store food underground. Root cellars were first developed by farmers in England and were later used by early American pioneers and settlers. Root cellars provided a way for farmers to retain and preserve much of their harvest through the winter.

During the winter months, making a trip to town wasn’t always an option, especially during severe weather and heavy snowfall. People had to create their own underground store of food in order to survive and thrive. Even in modern times, a root cellar provides an excellent overflow space from the pantry, or larder, as it’s known in Britain.

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The Benefits of Using a Root Cellar

You might be wondering, do root cellars really work, and what are the benefits? 

Because root cellars are cool and dark, they are ideal for storing food long-term. The underground nature of root cellars ensures that they maintain an even and ideal temperature. This is because the ground itself stays at a constant temperature when it is well below the frost line.

I like to think of my root cellar as an extension of my home apothecary. It’s a great feeling to know that I have what I need and regularly use on hand. Here are a few great reasons to have a root cellar.

Keep Harvested Food Fresh, Longer

Root cellars are an excellent place to store the fruits and labor of your harvest. Whether gathering from your own garden or an opportune sale at your local grocery store, you can store things like squash, grain, beans, onions, potatoes, and various other vegetables.

You can also house canned goods, condiments, oils, teas, wine & alcohol, dried goods, spices, baking supplies, and other main staples. Fresh food in a root cellar will last roughly 2 – 9 months, depending upon what it is and how it’s stored. Radishes, for example, can last quite a long time if stored in a box of dirt. Whole unripe pears will last about a month or two. Pumpkins and butternut squash can last over a year. Of course, properly canned goods can last for a couple of years.

Cellars Offer a Larger Storage Area for Storing Perishables

Through the growing season, my fridge is overflowing with fresh produce. For those of us that have a large harvest, we often run out of places to stash our goods. Having a large underground room is extremely helpful. Root cellars provide a great place to store perishables, as well as tinctures, supplements, herbal infusions, and fermentations. Having a root cellar is like having your very own walk-in fridge (without the need for refrigeration). .

Other Purposes

Root cellars are not only great for storing food but can double as a storm shelter. If you live in a place prone to tornados, then having a root cellar is an ideal solution.

You can also store items like soap, essential oils, salves, and other bath supplies. A root cellar is also ideal for storing seeds. For those of us that preserve and process our own food, a root cellar is a great place to store canning supplies, extra jars, and bulky equipment.

root cellar

How Deep Should a Root Cellar Be?

The best way to improve the shelf life of your produce is to keep the thermostat at or below 40° F (4° C). Now soil beneath the frost line has a more constant temperature. For this reason, the Farmers’ Almanac recommends making your root cellar 10 feet (3 meters) deep, depending upon your location. A well-functioning root cellar should reliably maintain temperatures between 32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (0° to 4.5°C). On a similar note, ideal humidity ranges between 85 to 95 percent.

Root cellars can be constructed from poured concrete, or if you’re inclined to do the job yourself, you can even use cinder blocks. You’ll need to have a concrete roof to support the weight of soil and vegetation above the cellar. It’s a good idea to build your cellar away from trees, so their roots don’t intrude upon your storage space.

You’ll also want to have an insulated door that goes into the cellar. Some people even have two doors, one at ground level and one at the bottom of the stairs going into the cellar. You’ll also need to have an adjustable air vent to prevent mold and optimize climate control. It’s a good idea to invest in a hygrometer and thermometer. Lastly, be sure to have a floor drain to protect your goods during heavy rain. When building your storage shelves, be sure to choose extra sturdy, thick wood.  

How to Root Cellar, Without a Root Cellar

Not everyone has the yard space to have their own root cellar, but even if you don’t you can still store food. All you really need is a dark and cool place with ample space. If you have a good-sized pantry, you’re off to a good start.

For those of you that have a large garden and/or a lot of food to store, you may want to consider converting a basement room into a cellar.

If you don’t have a basement, you can always utilize an unused room in your house. Just be sure to block out any light coming in from nearby windows. The hard part may be keeping the room cool, especially during early autumn. During the cooler and colder months, simply turn off the vents to that room, so you can keep your garden produce extra cool…plus you’ll save money on heating over winter, which is always a plus.  

Conclusion

If you’re new to starting a root cellar, be encouraged. With each passing year, you will develop your own unique style, even down to an art form. You’ll learn what works best in terms of long-term storage, and what food items you use most often.  

When planning your root cellar, think about what you would like to eat through the winter months. Any time we store food long term, we want to choose the things that we love to eat on a regular basis.

Wishing you an abundant harvest! 

Looking for more articles about gardening or preserving the harvest? Check out these articles:

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