“Have you ever wondered how Grandma ever functioned without electricity? … Let’s start with root cellars. We had one out on the ranch. It had been dug down into the ground about 7 or 8 feet. The sides were reinforced with cement. It wasn’t the fine quality we have today, oh no! There were all these chunks of rock sticking out of it. Gravel wasn’t crushed in those days.
At one time it had actually been white-washed but in my day it was just gray. There were shelves built all around the sides with a sort of counter at the back. I imagine the room was probably 8 feet wide and 10 or 12 feet long. The roof was constructed of heavy timbers that looked like railroad ties. Outside the roof was mounded over with several feet of earth to keep it cool and to prevent rain from leaking through.
… Well, folks, root cellars were used as refrigerators back in the good old days. Daddy told me that when his mother was alive that spooky place was as clean as a whistle. Nary a spider lasted long there let alone a mouse. She had what was called a ‘pie safe’. She would have these big baking days when she would make a dozen pies, mostly cream pies of one flavor or another. She kept them ‘safe’ from any vermin that might venture to risk its life there or perhaps hungry passersby. The pie safe looked like a screen cupboard.”
Grandma did just fine without a refrigerator. If the power is out, I have alternative heating, lighting, cooking and could do just fine except for the lack of a refrigerator and freezer. Yes, we’ve planned for that and have a back-up generator but that will only work for short-term. Is it really possible to have a permanent solution which doesn’t require energy, only a little research, experimentation and planning? Can I preserve some of the harvest to be eaten fresh through the entire winter months? Absolutely!
Let us begin by reviewing some basic principles of “root cellaring.”
Each of our personal situations varies greatly. You may live in an apartment, condominium, tract home or on a large piece of land. Take the principles you learn and work to apply them in your personal circumstances.
Root cellars should be cool (ideal is 32-40 degrees), dark, humid and ventilated. There are some outstanding reference books worth reading if you want to invest in a traditional root cellar; Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables, The Complete Root Cellar Book: Building Plans, Uses and 100 Recipes, $10 Root Cellar: And Other Low-Cost Methods of Growing, Storing, and Using Root Vegetables (Modern Simplicity), and Root Cellar Handbook: A No-Fluff Guide To Planning, Designing And Building Your Food Preservation Cellar.
Garden Row – We enjoyed amazingly sweet carrots in mid-February which my father-in-law dug fresh from his snow-covered garden. He simply covered his row of carrots before the hard frost with a very thick layer of straw and a black tarp held down by bricks to prevent the ground from freezing and the moisture out.
Buried Freezer – Select a shady spot or one on the north side of the home. Take an old chest freezer and disable the latch to ensure no children accidentally get trapped inside. You need one foot of drainage on all sides and on the bottom. Dig the hole one foot larger than the freezer. The freezer should sit just below ground level. Line the hole with gravel or rocks for drainage. Place a small ventilation pipe in each side of the freezer to allow for good air flow. Position the freezer so it opens like a chest. Pour gravel in the space around the sides of the refrigerator.
Cover the top of the freezer with a large rubber mat, board or some material to protect from water. Cover with bales of hay, straw or leaves to insulate. Apples, Asian pears, beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, potatoes, rutabagas and turnips store well in a buried freezer.
Buried Barrel – An underground barrel is a reliable old favorite. Once again select a shady spot. Dig a hole large enough to place the barrel in at a 45-degree angle with the bottom of the barrel top at soil level. Place rocks or gravel in the bottom of the hole under the barrel. Put the barrel in the hole and cover with at least two feet of dirt by mounding it up. Layer the vegetables between hay, straw, leaves, etc. inside the barrel making sure to have a good layer of insulation on top. Cover barrel with thick layer of insulation and a board or something to keep insulation in place.
These photos are a modification using a metal garbage can buried straight up in the ground. It is positioned in a shady area and works very nicely.
Hidden Root Cellar – Older homes have some really creative features, many include some type of root cellar. I was helping move a friend into an old home and discovered a wonderfully creative potato cellar. The door was camouflaged with wood paneling making the entrance nearly invisible. The small door opened up into an small insulated space under the front porch concrete stairs. It was a large recessed cupboard with easy access. These photos do not do it justice.
Wood-Box Cellar – Dig a hole about 2’ x 2’ x 4’ feet (or larger) and construct a wooden box to put in it. Line the box with mesh hardware wire to keep out rodents. Place a layer of leaves, straw or moss on the bottom then add your vegetables. Place 3-4 inches of additional insulation material on top of the vegetables and set hardware cloth lined lid on top. Place bales of straw or hay on top to insulate it.
Window Well Cellar – One year we decided to use a window well on the north side of the house to store our potatoes and winter squash. The vegetables were placed in plastic milk crates and stacked in the window well. We placed a large sheet of OSB on top of the window well and insulated it with bales of straw. We placed a darkening curtain over the window. It worked well except that it allowed some light which reduces the storage life of the potatoes.
Plastic Tote – A simple solution is a Rubbermaid tote. Layer the potatoes, beets, or other root crops in sand, pine shavings, straw, leaves, or any other appropriate material. Do not allow the vegetables to touch each other. Place the lid on the tote and store it in the basement, garage, or even on the pantry floor. It does a great job of extending the life of root vegetables.
Consider what options are available to you. Don’t allow living in an apartment or limited finances prevent you from storing fresh vegetables for cold winter months. Knowledge concerning basic principles of root cellaring and a little creativity is all it really takes.
Consider these books for your prepper reference library: