How this ancient method of preserving food can help you live a more eco-friendly and off-grid lifestyle

The root cellar is the perfect addition to any gardener’s or homesteader’s home, especially come late summer and early fall when we begin to preserve our harvests.

Root cellars aren't a new invention, but with the increase in home food growing, they’re making a comeback. Not only because we are eating more of our own food, but because it can also help us to reduce our expenses, empower ourselves to have a significant amount of food storage for the future, and not have to rely on electricity.

Root cellars are designed to keep our food from freezing through the winter and keeping it cool in the summer. It’s like having a mini-market in your own backyard and keeps you from wasting a season’s worth of food. If you’ve been looking to transition into off-grid living or lower your carbon footprint, it might be time to swap the fridge for a root cellar.

What is a root cellar?

Root cellars are essentially cold, dark and humid caves named for their ability to store root vegetables. Throughout the years, folks have built root cellars into hills, in the ground, or have transitioned their deep basement areas into cold storage.

It may feel a little inconvenient to have to go outside to grab your food, or go deep into the basement for supplies, but having that homegrown taste year-round is worth it (plus, vegetables can last for months when store in a root cellar).

What can you store in a root cellar?

apples in cellarPhoto by Markus Spiske on UnsplashYou can store fruits and vegetables, alcohol (like beer, wine and cider), fermented foods, cured meats, cheeses, grains and nuts, and anything that you would otherwise put in your fridge.

Some veggies don’t store well next to each other. High ethylene producers—like apples, plums, pears and peaches, plus vegetables like tomatoes and cabbage, emit gases that can cause other produce like potatoes to spoil. Cabbage and onions can also emit odours that taint the flavours of other vegetables and fruits. In this case, you can place the high emitters up on a higher shelf by an air vent or exit to move the gases away from the lower stored produce. You can also keep root crops in loose soil or sawdust to insulate them from the gases.

Temperature and humidity of your root cellar

A well-insulated root cellar can keep your food 40 degrees F cooler than summertime temperatures outside, which is considerably different than even a basement temperature, which can still be too warm for storing foods. Any temperatures above 45 degrees F can cause sprouting or spoiling of foods.

The temperature near the ceiling of your root cellar is always warmer, so that’s where you would want to store your produce that tolerates warmer temperatures, such as onions, garlic and shallots. It’s also important to keep humidity higher in a root cellar, otherwise the fruits and veggies can shrivel. Normally, if your root cellar is underground, it will naturally have high humidity.

Because of the high humidity in a root cellar, avoid storing dried foods or canned foods with metal lids as they can rust. These are better off in a dry pantry area, also shielded from direct sunlight.

You can find the ideal temperatures and shelf life for crops here.

There’s a bit of a learning curve when starting a root cellar (and some maintenance), but once you have the hang of it, you’ll barely store anything in the fridge. Just remember to ventilate it and limit access to light in the cellar.

If you’re looking for a natural and eco-friendly way to store your favourite foods, root cellars are a great way to preserve your homegrown harvests, reduce electricity costs, connect you to your roots, and help you go a little off grid while you’re at it.