A Guide to Root Cellars
Cellar at the residence of Robin and Barbara Norris, owners of Campo de Fiori, Sheffield, MA. This vaulted brick-ceiling root cellar, approximately 15 years old, was constructed into the side of a hill with gathered fieldstones from their property.
All summer we chop, marinate, grill and roast our way through the seasons’ produce—a frantic attempt to get our fill while barrels and baskets are piled high. Some of us go further: jamming, pickling, freezing and drying to carry the bounty through the short days and long winter ahead of us.
But there’s yet another way to preserve the fruits of our labor, a technique especially suited for the time-pressed home gardener or eager farm stand frequenter.
Root cellars are the ancient remedy for our busy modern lives. They save time and money and are, for the anxious among us, an efficient way to stockpile food for emergencies. But don’t think root cellars are just for Midwestern grandmas and apocalypse-fearing recluses. With a cool, dark space and a good amount of humidity you can effortlessly have juicy tomatoes in November and snappy squash in February.
Over 40,000 years ago, Native Australians were the first to take advantage the earth’s preservative qualities, burying their crops of yams for future use. Centuries later, Iron Age drinkers discovered that their immature wine ripened within the natural coolness of the earth. But it wasn’t until the 1600s that the English caught on, developing a walk-in cellar designed specifically for extending the freshness of fruits and vegetables. Soon after, of course, the technique took off in the New World, further developed into stone-lined cellars and hillside dugouts.
Historically proven, easy enough, a time- and money-saver … this all sounds well and good—but how do you actually set up shop? The trick is finding or building a cool and humid space, below 45° but above freezing. If you really want to go all the way, find a damp corner of your subterranean basement and drill a couple three-inch ventilation holes through the upper part of the walls. Build up a couple of inner walls to separate it from the rest of the basement and you’ve got a cool, well-ventilated and manageable space ready for the filling. For a simpler solution, a cool closet within your home, a wellinsulated attic or even an old, slightly ajar dresser drawer, will suffice.
It gets easier: Some people just dig a hole in the earth and submerge a covered garbage can. Information and specific plans are widely available online from a number of legitimate sources.
Now that you’ve cleared and insulated your space, start storing! Potatoes and apples do exceptionally well, although not always together.
Apples, along with stone fruit, tomatoes and cabbage, emit ethylene gas that can cause potatoes to sprout. To prevent this, store the apples on a higher shelf and the potatoes in a bushel on the ground. Other great keepers include beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, celery, collards, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, onions, parsnips, pears, pumpkins, radishes, rutabaga, sweet potatoes, turnips and winter squashes. Additionally, beans, nuts, wine, even smoked fish will find a happy home in your root cellar.
Vegetables are almost always best kept when harvested at the peak of their maturity, though storing methods vary with each crop. Potatoes and beets like a barely open burlap sack, or to be stacked in layers with newspapers in between. Carrots like sawdust between their layers and Brussels sprouts do best when left on their stem. Cabbage can be harvested with the roots still attached and wrapped individually in newspaper or in a bucket of damp sand. Winter squash should be cured in a warm, dry, well-ventilated place for 10 days then stored in the highest (warmest) part of the cellar. You can even store tomatoes for a few months if picked when green, kept on the stem and hung upside down in your dark cellar!
As you might expect, each fruit or vegetable also varies in how long it will keep. For apples, beets and radishes your storage time should be three months. Your squash, turnips, carrots, and potatoes should last up to five months. Even within the squash family, some varieties will spoil sooner than others, so you’ll want to eat them in that order. Get comfortable experimenting and researching different storage methods.
At the Garden we like to say that every season is an opportunity to prepare for the next. With a root cellar, you can make prolonged use of a second planting and take advantage of fall’s farm stand squash without worrying about waste. While you may still feel compelled to make pumpkin butters and pear jams, to pickle onions and freeze collards and kale, you can do so at your leisure, leaving plenty of time for raised-bed planning and seed catalog skimming.
For beginner, intermediate and master classes on food preservation, container gardening, seasonal maintenance and more, visit BerkshireBotanical.org.
Cellar at Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA: This vaulted red-brick root cellar is believed to have been built by the Shakers in the 1880s. It was constructed into the hill used as a ramp for hay wagons to gain access to the top of the barn—no effort or space was ever wasted.