You’ve worked your homestead garden and visited the farmer’s markets, and now you have all this produce. But where will you put all of it? Under the bed, in the pantry? Maybe it’s time to ask yourself, “Do I need a homestead root cellar?” We can help you answer that question with points to consider, other options besides a root cellar, and, yes, building a root cellar!
Every harvest season I struggle with space. I have vegetables and fruits on countertops, on the floor, in the pantry, in the barn, under beds, and even in my closet. Try as I might to preserve it all, there’s simply no way that I’m physically able to can, dehydrate, freeze, and freeze dry everything I grow or bring home from local markets.
Besides, there are some veggies and fruits I’d simply rather eat raw in the winter time. Things like apples, and carrots, and potatoes. What’s a homesteader to do?
Maybe it is finally time for a root cellar.
Do I Need a Homestead Root Cellar?
A gardener sees the value in eating fresh foods seasonally, as they ripen, because the flavor and freshness translates into amazing home-cooked meals as each month progresses. As Gerre Gettle reminds us in his book, Heirloom Life Gardener,
“…Prior to the 1960’s, most fresh fruit and vegetables were only available from April through November, roughly. When grapes were ripe, people ate grapes…Even the hardiest of vegetables weren’t looking so hot in the old root cellar by the time March rolled around.”
However, because we love fresh produce so much, we want to cheat the winter as long as possible by keeping those fall apples and early winter parsnips, crispy and raw. Setting aside a space on your homestead to store fresh fruits and vegetables is a wise endeavor. Even if you only factor in flavor, completely ignoring the superior nutritional content of raw food, fresh just always tastes better!
Saving You From Food Preservation Stress
An added benefit is that by using a root cellar (also called “cold storage”) environment, we can take a bit of the food preservation pressure of our shoulders every year. As Nancy Bubel talks about in her book Root Cellaring, it’s not as if we’ve given up on canning and freezing at our house.
Like Nancy, we’d miss those item – pickles, catsup, barbeque sauce – if we didn’t have them. However, a lot of the pressure of food preservation that descends upon us around August can be taken off our shoulders with properly root-cellared fruits and vegetables.
First Root Cellar Considerations
You can create a root cellar environment in your home, garage, barn or even buried in your garden if you’re not lucky enough to have an actual root cellar. The key factors to keep in mind as you’re reading up on this topic are:
- What space you have available in your home/garage for an improvised root cellar; or on your lot for an in-ground root cellar
- The average temperature in that space
- The ambient humidity levels in that space
Some produce is simply larger than others like pumpkins. Still other items are grown in bulk like onions. Consider your harvest carefully.
- How much of it will be preserved by some method like canning?
- What will be left to store in your cold storage?
- Do you have room in your garage to create a root cellar environment for what remains?
- Or enough room in an old freezer you’ve buried in your back yard?
Temperature and Humidity
Some produce simply isn’t suited for fresh storage, especially over several months. Each fresh item, from tomatoes to turnips, has its own requirements for humidity level and storage container or medium.
- For example, cabbage has a particularly strong smell that can be passed on to other items, so it should be wrapped in newspaper.
- While carrots do best stored in damp sand.
- Some items like onions and garlic last better if they’ve been cured in the summer sun for around two weeks before being placed into storage.
- Then there’s the ethylene gas produced in spades by the likes of apples and tomatoes that causes other items to spoil rapidly if placed near them.
- Some vegetables like parsnips need to be held in temperatures just above freezing while others like squash do better nearer regular room temperatures.
The bottom line is, don’t assume that all the items you want to store will play nicely together all winter, without first identifying their needs and accommodating them.
For most of us, unless we’re blessed to have an actual root cellar, this will mean getting creative with our storage space and having multiple spaces in and around our home dedicated to storing the harvest. We’ll be those hip in-laws with potatoes stored in the closet in the coolest corner bedroom. We homesteaders are cutting edge, I tell ya.
For further reading on root cellars and over-wintering fresh produce, please read Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables, by Mike and Nancy Bubel, and several other books on this topic—why read one book when you could read five, right?
I urge you to learn all you can about the requirements of preserving your harvest in its original form for as long into the next year as possible. If possible, go visit the root cellar set-up of every friend or even vague acquaintance that has one.
You can also check out the end of the article for more links that might be helpful. Root cellaring is not a long-term storage option but it is an extremely valuable one and worth researching well.
Basements as Improvised Root Cellar Environments
To keep your preserved foods in good condition for as long as possible, you’re going to need a cool, dark place. Provided they aren’t too damp, basements and cellars, are ideal places for stored food because their temperature is in partly regulated by the earth into which they’ve been dug.
If you have a handy basement room that has a duct for heat in the winter time, simply close that or stop it up in some way. Cover up any windows with reflective material and several layers of heavy blankets to keep out both heat and light.
If you’re concerned about moisture in the room you have available, there are commercial, 50 to 70-pint dehumidifying units available for purchase. You can also buy simple desiccant dehumidifiers that will reduce the ambient humidity with a highly absorbent material like silica.
Silica crystals can be purchased in the dried flower section of your local craft store. Silica, though it holds moisture in its crystalline structure, doesn’t become wet so you needn’t worry about creating a pool of water in your tray. Purchase silica crystals with humidity indicators that turn color once they’ve reached their capacity. Most modern homes that are regulated by central heat and air systems aren’t really in need of humidity control. However, humidity may be of concern for those living in older homes or in particularly humid areas like the American southern states.
Silica crystals can be purchased in the dried flower section of your local craft store.
Silica, though it holds moisture in its crystalline structure, doesn’t become wet so you needn’t worry about creating a pool of water in your tray.
Purchase silica crystals with humidity indicators that turn color once they’ve reached their capacity.
Most modern homes that are regulated by central heat and air systems aren’t really in need of humidity control. However, humidity may be of concern for those living in older homes or in particularly humid areas like the American southern states.
See the list of articles at the end for other improvised cold storage environment ideas. You can DIY a root cellar with some creativity!
Building a Homestead Root Cellar
What we don’t have we can build! If you have the space on your property and the legal right to do so in your county/city, I encourage you to at last investigate building your own root cellar. The place my husband and I began our actual planning of our root cellar was with the simple but thorough publication, Building a Homestead Root Cellar, by Teri Page and Brian Thomas (of www.homesteadhoney.com).
—>>>Click here to learn more about how to build a homestead root cellar<<<—
This book has some basic information about what a root cellar is, as well as what kinds of things can be stored in one. This beginner information is great, but my favorite part is the details of how they built their root cellar.
They give measurements, materials lists, cost assessments, time frames and so many other helpful tables and tools in this little book. They also talk about things they would have done differently – I love learning from others’ mistakes, so I make fewer of my own.
My husband and I are currently planning for our root cellar and so the excitement for it is fresh in my mind. Being able to store the harvests I work so hard for is going to make a world of difference to how my family eats, both fresh and preserved foods!
I know it will be a learning experience, but I’ve been learning for years as I’ve stored my harvests in random places. Our typical method with establishing a new system of anything is to start out with a rough DIY, and then move slowly into a more sophisticated arrangement.
It’s important to keep in mind that whatever we do, however imperfectly, is better than doing nothing at all. So, don’t stress; build the root cellar when you’re ready.
“Each fruit or vegetable will have its own particular temperature and humidity needs. Of course, in one root cellar, it is hard to please all the vegetables! And other than moving food from the back chamber to the front, you really don’t have much control over the temperature of your root cellar through the year.
“Don’t stress too much about it, and do your best, and each year you will find which crops do best for your cellar. Food may not store as long in non-optimal conditions, but it will still keep for months.”
– Page and Thomas, Building a Homestead Root Cellar