The Great Root Cellar Debate – Above Ground Vs. Below


You might be asking, what is a root cellar? Wiki says a root cellar is “a structure, usually underground or partially underground, used for storage of vegetables, fruits, nuts, or other foods. “Dig a deep enough hole, and you’ll find that the ground is cool (and often moist). Root cellars tap into those cool, moist soil conditions and use them to store fruits and vegetables – like your refrigerator produce bin. But, that doesn’t mean all cellars are below ground. Yes, you can have an above ground root cellar.

Above Ground Root Cellars

Above ground root cellars are usually partly sunken with earth mounded on 3 sides and the door avoiding the direct sun. For a great resource on building a homestead root cellar, check out the book below by my friend, Teri, of Homestead Honey. Select an area with an existing window if possible, and use the window for ventilation. Fill the window with exterior grade plywood, and cut the necessary vent holes through the plywood. The plywood also blocks direct light.North facing corners work well, because you can leave the two exterior walls uninsulated, and only insulate the interior walls and ceiling. A north facing wall won’t gain heat from the sun. Use materials that tolerate moisture exposure.Insulating between the house and root cellar is necessary so you don’t heat the root cellar from above. You also avoid losing house heat into the root cellar.Your basement root cellar should have no standard heating or cooling. Insulate any ductwork or piping that runs through the ceiling above your root cellar (if any). Make sure vents or hot water pipes are well insulated so they don’t bleed heat into your root cellar. For additional food storage space, build shelving on the inside and outside of your basement root cellar for canned goods or other items. The area outside the root cellar can be used to store dry goods and canned goods if it is cool enough.

Above Ground Root Cellars – Enjoy Your Local Produce Longer

Roots and other storage vegetables require different types of storage conditions, depending on the vegetable. Roots require similar conditions to their outdoor growing conditions: a dark, moist environment where humidity approaches 100%. Imagine creating a space that emulates still being in the ground after a fall frost. It’s chilly, but not freezing, you’re surrounded by damp but not soaking soil, and it’s pitch black. All those things you’ve plucked from the ground like potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, rutabaga, winter radish, and so on need a root cellar with more or less those conditions to remain at peak harvest conditions while storing. Included in this damp, moist environment are other veggies — mostly brassicas — that are known to store well including brussels sprouts, cabbage (several kinds), leeks, kohlrabi, broccoli, and cauliflower.Flip to the other side of storage and you have vegetables that require low humidity (think: the inside of your winter home with low humidity and a chilly, dark closet), vegetables who would grow moldy if kept in a moist environment. And thankfully these vegetables do well in warmer conditions than the humid-loving roots. Vegetables in this category include your onions, garlic, shallots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, and dried hot peppers.If I had one bit of advice to share with gardeners, it would be to start with those roots easiest to store. It costs nearly nothing to put up a basket of onions for the winter, save some strategic space for curing them in August/September in your garage or barn. The biggest thing is to make sure your house is dry – so for southern growers that’s in an air conditioned space. We converted an oversized, underused double door closet into our dry cellar; it is notoriously chilly in this closet in winter, which will only increase the storage effectiveness for the food we store there. As the years go by, this will also be a great place to store our canned tomato sauce and other canned goodies, should I ever motivate to take that route (I think we will for tomato sauce as it’s a weekly ingredient in our family meals).Confession: last year we stored our onions in an old milk carton on the floor of our mudroom. It was low humidity and warmer temps (60s). and they did remarkably well, lasting well into February. This year I don’t think I cured them long enough and I can see some are already showing signs of improper storage, spots where mold is forming from high moisture. I’m sure like me, you have cut open a store-bought onion only to find it molding – yes, it happens to homegrown onions, too, if not cured properly. I don’t think I cured ours long enough before cutting off the stems this year. Lesson learned, the hard way. Ours aren’t ruined, but I am cutting off more than I’d like on many of the red onions, though we also have a huge crop, so a little loss for this learning is hardly crushing.We will be prioritizing our menu around vegetables that aren’t lasting as long as expected, and it’s looking like caramelized onions are going to be making a big splash sooner than later. This is all part of how we learn, and this concept of storing food is still a very new skill for us, and we have a lot to learn and hone, though we’ve learned so much already.Last year I also attempted to store our butternut and kabocha squash in the garage inside a large plastic bin, but we got bitterly cold before the Holidays and they froze. Solid. I had not read Root Cellaring a year ago, and also hadn’t done any research on how to store my winter squash and ended up ruining about half a dozen kabocha and butternut squash. Let’s just say I am sort of stubborn, and really love experiential knowledge, enjoying the path of self-learning even when it includes failures like my frozen winter squash rather than reading in a book. I’m a doer, what can I say. Now I know what happens to winter squash when it goes below freezing for a few nights.This summer, in an effort to feed ourselves deeper into Winter than ever before and ideally becoming more self-sufficient with each passing year, we built a walk-in closet in an unused corner of our oversized garage. This was just one step of many toward a more self-sufficient lifestyle. I don’t anticipate us every being fully self-sufficient, but the process of exploring food storage and the challenge of feeding ourselves for as many months as possible throughout the year drives our yearning to expand what is possible here in Minnesota.

If you’re used to popping into town to buy a pineapple in January, a long winter on stored produce can get monotonous unless you know how to make the most of it. Recipes from the Root Cellar has 270 different ways to use up every last potato, beet, cabbage, and turnip in unique and inventive ways. Knowing how to cook from the root cellar is just as important as knowing how to stock one. What’s the use in keeping all those things fresh if you cant make the most of them on your table?

Or In Your Basement Below Ground

If you walk down into a basement on a hot summer day, you know the cool, moist feeling that surrounds you. It is one of the reasons that basements, or a portion of a basement, can make for an excellent root cellar. Most full-depth basements will provide enough moisture and cool air to store vegetables for up to 3 months or more. These spaces are also perfect for storing all of your canned goods as well. Venting the space to provide a fresh exchange of air to the outdoors will help the vegetables keep even longer. It can be as simple as a small window vent, or a PVC pipe placed at the bottom of the space and vented out at the top.

Once upon a time, root cellars were the only way people had to preserve their food. These wonderful cold-storage areas became less common when refrigerators became affordable. Houses were no longer automatically built with a root cellar beneath or nearby.A root cellar is still a great way to store fruits and vegetables, though, especially when you need to store more than you have room for indoors. They will also keep the fruits and vegetables fresh without electricity. If your house doesn’t have one, you can still take advantage of nature’s “ice box.” All it takes is a shovel, a little elbow grease and a trash can.

Root cellars are just starting to come back in vogue. They are, in my opinion, one of the most important pieces of technology humans have ever created. They benefit from the steady temperature of the earth to keep food fresh. The Guardian produced an article in 2015 which talked about how rapidly the energy used for cooling will soon surpass the energy for heating, this is shocking. The energy use they are predicting will largely be used for refrigeration and air conditioning. Root cellars are part of the solution and can dramatically cutting this energy load.The earth tubes in this greenhouse will pre-heat cold air in the winter and pre-cool it in the summer, using the earth as a battery to transfer the ecological services of each season to the next season.The fresh air that is conveyed through the earth tubes will be injected into the below grade root cellar and waste, stale air in the root cellar will be sent to the greenhouse as supplemental winter heating and summer cooling.Radon can be an issue for earth tubes in homes and so I generally do not recommend them for that purpose. Greenhouses and root cellars on the other hand are a good application for earth tubes as I am not overly concerned about Radon in these spaces because the amount of time spent in them is generally a lot lower and they tend to be “leaky”. In a future article I will talk about how I access ground energy for houses which does not have the radon liability associated with it. Earth tubes are low tech, easy to install and will take very little energy to operate. In this application they temper the air and make sure that the root cellar never gets anoxic conditions.