We’re starting to think about how to safely preserve the summer harvest to sustain us in the long winter months – or in a food shortage. It takes about two days of power outage for everything in your spare freezer to go bad. Root cellars, a normal feature of old homesteads, keep root vegetables and other produce cool, dark and dry for long periods of time. (Here’s a list of what to store, how and for how long.) If you live in an old house you may be lucky enough to have an old root cellar. Clear out the cobwebs and the miscellaneous artifacts that have accumulated over the years and you’ll have a naturally perfect refrigerator. Otherwise, if you have a basement it’s easy to build a place to store root vegetables, squash and some other kinds of produce.
- Two 3” diameter PVC pipes
- 2 PVC valves (blast gates)
- Aerosol insulating foam
- “Green” wall board
- 2x4s (cedar is best)
- Old door from salvage yard
- Low shelves
- Choose the dampest spot; next to the sump pump is normally the dampest corner of most basements. This allows you to store crops in high humidity where they’re happiest.
- If possible, build your cellar on an exterior wall that’s below grade (underground) so you get the greatest contact with outside soil temperature. If you need to use a wall that’s above grade, use a north-facing wall that doesn’t get too much sun.
- Create ventilation by running two 3” diameter PVC pipes through the outside wall or casement. Slide a closed blast gate (valve) onto one pipe until it fits snugly against the end.
- For the other pipe, add an elbow and a length of pipe running down the inside so that it ends up about a foot from the floor. Add a blast gate to that pipe. Since cool air is more dense than warm, these two vents create a siphon. Anytime the air outside your root cellar is cooler than the air inside, the siphon will allow warm air to be drawn out and cool air to flow in. As outside temperatures fluctuate, you’ll get almost continuous air change while keeping the temperature as low as possible. If the temperature outside goes below freezing, close one of the valves to stop the siphon.
- Seal the wall around the pipes with aerosol insulating foam. This will fill in any gaps and cracks and, once it sets, does a good job of holding your pipes in place, too.
- Build walls out of 2-by-4s made of cedar or other rot-resistant wood for framing, and moisture-resistant wall boards – the sort used in shower stalls. Hang them by nailing a 2×4 to the ceiling, gluing another to the concrete floor with a bead of construction adhesive, then cut the studs to fit between them.
- Hang your wall board on the inside then stuff the cavities with insulation before hanging the outside wall board. Use aerosol foam in the cracks.
- Add low shelves (colder air sinks and warmer air rises) and a simple door, which can be rescued from a thrift or salvage yard.
If you install floor-to-ceiling shelves, you can store produce on low shelves and any emergency equipment and dehydrated meal buckets on higher shelves.
Your new root cellar is the perfect place to keep your emergency supplies tidy and tucked away.