When I was a kid every house in our town had a root cellar. The builders back then knew that people wanted and expected them. My husband, M, also had a root cellar in his childhood home as did everyone in the neighborhood. I don’t really understand why the these marvelous rooms aren’t being built into every home nowadays.
The autumn is creeping up on us fast and, if you have a vegetable garden you’re thinking about what to do with all the wonderful produce you’ve grown this summer. Even if you don’t have a garden you may have access to a farmers market. Either way you can take advantage of fresh produce without the grocery store prices or GMO vegetables once you know about root cellar basics.
A root cellar is, in simple terms, an underground room or even container that has the idea temperature, humidity, and air circulation to preserve fresh vegetables for months. In this post I’ll explain the set up for a room.
First you need to consider the temperature of your root cellar. The ideal is between 32° and 50°F. This is because the cooler temperatures slow the release of ethylene gas. This is the gas that causes produce to go bad. The ideal placement for a room is in the northwest corner of your basement.
Humidity is another important consideration. Most produce stores best in high humidity; about 85% – 95%. Due to the way they’re constructed most root cellars will naturally be high in humidity but you should purchase a hygrometer (which measures humidity) so you’ll know if your root cellar has the optimum humidity. If the floor of your cellar is gravel or earth you can increase the humidity by sprinkling water on the floor. If it is not, you can pack your produce in dampened sawdust. If the humidity is too high you can increase ventilation or put buckets or barrels of rock salt in the room.
Ventilation is crucial as well. Without proper ventilation the ethylene gas would build up and cause all the produce you store to go bad quickly. It also helps you control the temperature in the root cellar. You should have at least one inlet vent and one outlet vent but, of course, you could have more. The inlet vent should be placed near the floor and the outlet vent should be high up. The vents can be open and closed to maintain temperature and allow the escape of the ethylene gas. If you do not have shelves built in the room you should store produce an inch or more above the floor to allow for air circulation.
Arrangement of the produce you store is also important. Allow room between items for sufficient air circulation. Foods like apples, pears, and tomatoes, which produce a lot of ethylene gas, should be stored up high, preferably near the outlet vent. Strong smelling foods like cabbages should be wrapped in newspaper to prevent other produce from absorbing the odor. Canned foods should not be stored in your root cellar as the high humidity can cause them to rust.
Surprising items you can store in your root cellar are tomatoes, placed in a single layer in boxes, cucumbers wrapped in moist or waxed packaging, and cauliflower wrapped in its own leaves.
Rodents can be a real problem. Wire mesh should be placed over all vents and any other point of ingress. Keep an eye out for any signs of rodents getting into your root cellar and block their points of entry. A door that seals very tightly to the floor is a good investment.
It is important to keep an eye on the produce you store. Check everything regularly for any signs of spoilage. Removing produce that has begun to go bad will help prevent bacteria from spreading to the rest of the food.
Root cellars have been used for thousands of years. There is evidence in Australia of food being buried more than 40,000 years ago. This is a form of root cellaring. In England walk-in root cellars started to become commonly used in the 1600’s! You can keep your summer bounty fresh for months if you use a root cellar and store the produce properly!