Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Before refrigerators were commonplace in American homes, root cellars were the way many families stored their harvested food for the winter. From the 18th century through the early 20th century, root cellars helped preserve potatoes, squash, garlic, carrots, onions, cabbages, kale, beets, Brussel sprouts, apples, and other crops.
Typically a below-ground excavation, the root cellar was usually located adjacent to the house or barn. Sometimes these storage areas were just a few feet square in size, and, other times, they were large enough for an adult to stand in and move around.
This type of cold storage doesn’t have to be a thing of the past. There are many advantages to having an energy-free, low-cost place to store your harvest over the cold weather months. But what if you don’t have a lot of space? Are there any options for cold storage?
Here are 10 root cellar alternatives that really work.
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1. Bury a Trash Can
A buried trash can doesn’t take up much space and serves well as a root cellar. Either a metal or plastic trash can (with a lid) can work, but some homesteaders prefer heavy plastic since metal cans can rust fairly quickly.
First, drill some holes in the bottom of the can. Then, dig a hole large enough to hold the trash can, place the can upright in the hole. Fill in around the can with dirt and straw. Then, layer your root vegetables in the can with straw. Close the can with the lid and more straw and cover the entire area with a tarp. Here’s a video that shows the easy and inexpensive process:
2. Use a Bucket
You can also go a step easier – and smaller – by burying a five-gallon bucket to use as a root cellar. After digging the right-sized hole for your bucket, follow the same process as with a trash can. Check out these instructions from Mother Earth News.
3. Sink a Cooler
Another root cellar alternative is to bury an insulated cooler. Watch this video to see how easy the process is:
4. Repurpose an Old Chest Freezer
Or a refrigerator on its side. This alternative root cellar requires a bigger and deeper hole than the previous ideas. Still, it does the double duty of holding your harvest and saving the landfill from another old appliance. Be sure to layer your produce with straw inside the freezer or fridge.
Check out this video for instructions:
5. Build a Pallet Root Cellar
Many businesses give away their leftover pallets. You’ll need six to eight pallets for this project. You can view the steps in this video series. Part one is below:
6. Make a Zeer Pot
People have used clay pots for thousands of years to store food. All you need are two clay pots (one smaller than the other), sand, and duct tape. This video shows you the simple steps to creating this mini root cellar.
7. Construct a Springhouse
8. Make a Storage Clamp
Clamps are holes you dig below frost level, and all you need for this root cellar method is some level ground and some straw to store your harvest. Use hay in between each vegetable and cover each layer with straw. Topping the straw with wood or a tarp can help keep out pests sand moisture.
This video shows how to use this method for potatoes:
And this video shows how you can create a potato clamp in a raised bed.
9. Store Food in Your Garage or Shed
You also can use your detached garage or outbuilding as a root cellar. The main factors to consider are temperature, humidity, and ventilation. This article explains the how-tos.
10. Use an Unfinished Basement or Attic
Dark and cool is the best environment for a root cellar, and sometimes you can put a part of your home to work. You can store your produce in wooden crates or cardboard boxes that you place on shelving units in an unfinished basement or attic. This article offers information on the best temperature ranges and other conditions for this root cellar alternative.
Check Your Stored Veggies Often
You can’t just store your root vegetables and then forget about them until spring. You’ll need to check on them regularly for signs of spoilage.
The sooner you remove a moldy or rotting vegetable or fruit, the better the chance of saving the rest of the stored food. Keep in mind the old adage: “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel!”
Here are some other tips for root cellar food storage, no matter what methods you use.
- Since you’ll be checking on your veggies throughout the winter, it’s a good idea to choose an easily accessible location.
- Check your produce for damage before you store them. Veggies with nicks and dents in them will spoil more quickly than unblemished ones.
- Fill your root cellar as late in the fall as possible.
- Chilling your produce in the refrigerator before putting it in the cellar gives it a leg up in the cold storage process.
- Shake off loose dirt from your fruits and veggies rather than washing dirt off before storage.
- Mark your spot. Leaves or snow can make finding your alternative root cellar a challenge. Use a metal plant stake or another weather-resistant marker to help you find your stash.
- Root cellars may not be an option in some warm, humid environments. The cellar must be able to hold a temperature of 32 degrees to 40 degrees and a humidity level of 85 to 95 percent.
- Areas with a high water table or a nearby septic system are not suitable locations for root cellars.
- Choose a root cellar location that is a good distance away from a large tree. Not only can tree roots be hard to dig through, but growing roots can crack the cellar walls.
- It’s a good idea to use both a thermometer and a hygrometer to measure temperature and humidity in your cellar on a frequent basis.
For more information on root cellars and how to get the best results from your cold storage system, you might want to consider this book: Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables by Mark Bubel and Nancy Bubel. The easy-to-understand guide offers advice for building a root cellar and storing food for the best results.
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