Root Cellar a Low-Tech Way to Preserve Food

related: Root Cellar Chart

October 20, 2008
By Diane Wright Hirsch
Danbury News Times - Danbury, CT

I have been asked many times this year by reporters and others if more and more folks are choosing to can their own food this growing season.

Jarden Home Brands say they have seen an increase of 28 percent in the retail sales of their Ball brand canning and freezing supplies. Try to submit a question to the National Center for Home Food Preservation Web site and you will be told there is a four-week wait for responses. They too are experiencing a huge increase in business.

One of the reasons given for this increase is that times are hard and home food preservation is a way to save on the grocery budget. I'm not so sure.

That may have been the case years ago when energy was cheap. But, it is cheap no more and the cost of boiling a canner full of quarts of tomatoes for 45 minutes must be taken into account. (There are certainly other good reasons to do this -- having more control over your food supply and supporting local farmers if you use them as your produce supplier.)

Add up the cost of jars, canners, or, if freezing is your method of choice, the cost of plastic bags or containers and all that electricity you will need to run the freezer. Maybe if you have a very productive home garden and you are growing all you preserve, then some savings could be realized.

But, there is one method of home food preservation that will have very little impact on your electric meter. That is the use of a root cellar. Or, alternatively, your basement, outdoor storage cellars, garages or even outdoor pits.

If you store food harvested in the fall (from your garden or from a local farmer), you will be able to forego some of those more expensive fruits and veggies that are imported to your grocery store during the winter.


There was a time when you couldn't walk into your neighborhood super store and buy cabbage, apples and carrots during the dead of a Connecticut winter. There were no super stores and people went to the root cellar to get their cabbage. There was no central heating and basements had dirt floors and were really cold in the late fall and winter.

To be successful at this low-tech home food preservation method, however, you do need to pay attention to what you're storing and the conditions under which the produce is most likely to survive with best quality for several months. As with canning and freezing, you have to do it right or you'll end up wasting way too much food.

You can choose to store food in a basement storage room. This is the most convenient -- no trudging through feet of snow in January. Because most houses have furnaces which keep today's basements at 55-60ºF and dry, you may have to construct a separate room in the basement so you can insulate the inside walls; build in a vapor barrier to protect the rest of the basement and house from moisture; add humidity with pans of water or damp burlap on the floor; and provide ventilation through a window that you can open and close.

It may be simpler (at least before the snow falls) or more economical to store produce in insulated containers in sheds, breezeways or basement hatch entryways. Or, digging or building storage pits or earthen cellars out of doors. Snow may make these inaccessible at times. Special care must be taken to protect the storage area from poor drainage and the likelihood of curious rodents or other wild animals.


If you're growing your own late fall crops to put away in cold storage, consider the varieties you're choosing. A higher quality supply will come when you choose late maturing varieties of fruits and vegetables that have been allowed to grow late into the fall and fully mature. Delay harvest for as long as possible. You'll have the most success if you delay storage until the weather is consistently cold.

Produce that is going to be stored for several months must be in peak condition: free of disease and severe insect damage. Handle the produce carefully so that it is not bruised or cut. Leave an inch or so of the stem on most vegetables to prevent moisture loss and prevent infection.


There is no one set of ideal conditions for storing fruits and vegetables. In fact there are four: cold and moist (most veggies fit this category); cool and moist (potatoes); cold and dry (garlic, onions); and warm and dry conditions (pumpkins, winter squashes).

All produce must be kept in a dark place with a source of ventilation to help control temperature and humidity. Most vegetables will do best in temperatures that range from 32 to 40_F. Protect from freezing temperatures, and, of course mice and other pests.

Keep cabbage and turnips well wrapped or separate or other foods might absorb some unpleasant odors. Also, keep fruits away from vegetables. Apples, for example, give off ethylene gas which can influence the ripening process of nearby vegetables.


As with any type of home food preservation, the key to successful outcomes is to manage your supply over the long term. You'll need to watch your stored produce carefully so you don't lose the whole lot to spoilage, decay, sprouting or moisture loss and shriveling.

At least weekly, look through each type of produce and take out any with signs of spoilage -- no matter how small. You'll likely be able to salvage some for the dinner table. You can also adjust the environment if necessary.

If things are freezing, you need to warm things up: if sprouting, then you need to cool things down. Shriveling means there is not enough moisture while molding indicates too much.