Root cellars use the earth’s natural properties to keep food fresh.
Root vegetables and hardy fruits are best suited to root cellars.
Root cellars need low temperatures, high humidity, and ventilation.
They save money and reduce your reliance on electricity.
You can build a root cellar in a basement or underground outdoors.
Most homes rely on modern refrigerators to keep food cool and fresh, but a traditional root cellar can be a reliable, low-cost alternative that requires little to no energy use. Done right, root cellars give you access to fresh produce year-round. If you’re passionate about DIY gardening and sustainable living, this guide will introduce you to root cellars and the advantages they can offer.
What Exactly Is a Root Cellar?
A root cellar is a traditional food storage area that uses the earth’s natural cooling, insulating, and humidifying properties to keep fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other items fresh. Root cellars are typically built fully or partially underground to tap into cool, moist soil conditions. It’s possible to add a root cellar either in the basement of a home or underground in an outdoor area. Building a root cellar costs about $7,000 on average, though the price can range anywhere from $500 to $25,000 or more depending on its size, style, location, and complexity.
What Can You Store in Root Cellars?
Not all vegetables store well in a root cellar, but you can significantly extend the shelf life of some items. Depending on the crops you store and the conditions of your root cellar, your produce can stay fresh anywhere from two to nine months. Items that store well in a root cellar include:
Root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, beets, rutabagas, and parsnips
Some leafy greens including cabbage
Hardy fruits like apples and pears
Homemade canned, jarred, or fermented foods
Bulbs of perennial flowers
Homemade wine or beer
Requirements for a Successful Root Cellar
There are a few requirements a true root cellar must meet to work properly.
Low temperature: Must consistently hold a temperature of 32–40 degrees Fahrenheit
High humidity: Must consistently hold a humidity level of 85%–95%
Ventilation: Inbuilt air circulation is needed to reduce mildew and mold
Dry location: Cannot be built in places with a high water table or nearby septic system
Control: Design should allow control of temperature, humidity, ventilation, and drainage
Accessibility: Should be close to your home and easily accessible
Cool temperatures slow the release of ethylene gas from crops and stop microorganisms from growing, while high humidity prevents the loss of moisture through evaporation. This climate helps to slow down withering, ripening, and decomposition. These specific requirements mean a root cellar won’t always work in the warm climates of the Southern United States.
Pros and Cons of Root Cellars
Building a root cellar offers a number of benefits, but also comes with some drawbacks you should consider.
Root Cellar Advantages
Save money: You save on utility costs compared to a refrigerator or freezer, plus you’ll save on our grocery bill and on the gasoline needed to get to the store.
Food security: You can store fresh food in a root cellar for months-long periods and have access to whole foods year-round.
Decreased electricity reliance: The food in your root cellar won’t spoil when the power goes out because it doesn’t require electricity to stay cool.
Root Cellar Issues
Learning curve: You need to research and experiment to learn the different climates within your unique root cellar and how to get the best results with different foods.
Maintenance: You need to keep your root cellar floor moist, deal with mold and mildew, regularly remove rotten or damaged produce, and manage pests.
Expensive to build: Depending on the materials you use, building a root cellar is a labor-intensive project that can take several weeks and cost thousands of dollars.
Where Can You Create a Root Cellar?
Depending on your location and local legal requirements, you can build your own root cellar or hire a team of local hardscapers to assist you with building one on your property. Check your local building codes before starting any construction. There are several root cellar design types to consider.
Basement House Cellar
Easily accessible from inside the home, a basement root cellar can be retrofitted to a corner with insulated walls built around it and an insulation system that brings cool air in and exhausts stale air out. Basements with dirt floors work particularly well to regulate the climate needed for root cellar storage.
Traditional Underground Root Cellar
Also called a hole-in-the-ground root cellar, this traditional design can be buried below ground or dug into the side of a hill. Typically accessible from the outside via insulated doors, some homeowners cover a root cellar hole with a garden shed for easy access in any weather.
The walls can be made from a variety of materials, including concrete, cinder block, wood, sandbags, or old tires. Whatever material you use, your walls and roofing need to be well-supported to avoid collapse. To ensure your safety, work with a local architect or engineer.
Other DIY Root Cellar Options
There are many different ways to design a root cellar. You’ll find instructions for DIY root cellars that involve burying a large barrel or metal trash can in the ground, as well as prefabricated designs that can be placed at ground level or partially above ground. Urban homeowners can create a makeshift root cellar in an insulated window basket or cooler on a balcony.
Research carefully to find the best option for your specific needs and local climate.
Who Can I Hire to Build a Root Cellar?
When it comes to building a root cellar, hire pros who are going to assist you with building an effective and safe cellar. Before starting the project, check out the local building codes and decide on which root cellar design is the best for your needs. You can hire a team of local hardscapers to build the cellar and call on a local architect or engineer to make sure the walls and roofing are well-supported.