When you can't dig a traditional root cellar, there are still above ground root cellar type options that will allow you store fruits and vegetables longer.
For those in cold climates – there are a number of above ground options that can help you store your harvest without processing.
For those in warm climates – sorry, the physics are not in your favor, unless you have a spring house. The good news is that you can still eat local year round, and we have tips for that, too.
How Root Cellars Work
The goal of a root cellar or other long term food storage area is to create conditions that extend the shelf life of stored food.
In a traditional root cellar in a hole in the ground, it is cool and damp, with no direct sunlight.
The ground surrounding the cellar acts as a constant temperature heat sink. Below roughly three to four feet, the ground maintains a fairly steady temperature (roughly 50-60 F in most areas).
This steady ground temperature helps keep the root cellar cool.
Root cellars need air circulation. Fresh air drops in at night to help lower the temperature in the cellar, and stale air gets vented out. This removes excess ethylene gas generated by certain produce that prematurely ages the produce.
No air flow at all = rotten produce.
This is why burying an old fridge or freezer in the dirt with no ventilation is a bad idea.
Traditional root cellars also have dirt or gravel floors. This helps moderate humidity levels. Most produce prefers fairly high humidity to keep it from withering and wilting. Think of the conditions in the crisper drawer in your fridge.
For a printable guide to storing over 30 different fruits and vegetables, as well as more information on building a root cellar, see the post “Root Cellars 101“.
How much does an above ground root cellar cost?
The cost of an above ground root cellar varies widely. If you build a sandbag root cellar yourself it can be as little as $500 but most will cost $2500 to $25,000+. If you want to earth berm, which we recommend, it will add even more cost especially if you have to bring in fill. Adding earth berm to an above ground root seller provides insulation from heat and cold, and moves the interior temp closer to ground temperature, still warm in Arizona or Texas but in many areas much cooler.
One way to reduce the cost is to consider using the above ground root cellar as both a safe room (storm shelter) and a root cellar. That might get you some funding from FEMA, see more in our related article: Safe Rooms Checklist for New or Retrofit Construction
Consider FEMA Safe Room Funding
Some states will have FEMA reimbursement for new construction or retrofit of a Safe Room or Tornado/Storm Shelter (a below ground or above ground root cellar could potentially be both). Funding info: https://www.fema.gov/emergency-managers/risk-management/safe-rooms/funding
The Hazard Mitigation Grant will reimburse $2000 to $20,000 depending on where you live or 75% of the project whichever is LESS.
How do we get close to root cellar conditions above ground?
How can we get close to these conditions?
One option is a walk in cooler, like the one my friend, Amber built in South Carolina. You can read how to build your own in the article “Build Your Own Walk In Cooler with a CoolBot Controller and A/C Unit“.
Another alternative is a true above ground root cellar, with earth mounded around a structure that sits above ground. Folks build these out of cinder blocks, old tires, or pour concrete structures.
They don't have as much earth around them so they don't insulate as well as a standard root cellar, but they work fairly well. They can also do double duty as a storm shelter. My friend, Colleen, covers building an above ground root cellar in her ebook listed below.
For those who don't have the time, space, or inclination to build a separate structure, you may be able to repurpose space you already have available.
Above Ground “Root Cellar” Style Options for Cold Climates
Think about areas around your home that stay cooler, but don't freeze. These are prime targets for your food storage space.
There are also many crops that store well without the moisture of typical root cellar.
Dried shell beans, dried produce and herbs, bulk grains, pumpkins and winter squash, onions and garlic – all of these store well in cool, dry conditions.
Garages and Outbuildings
If you have a garage or outbuilding, you may be able to adapt it for food storage.
You want to buffer your produce from temperature swings. You can do this by storage in coolers or insulated bins if your building is not insulated.
If your building is insulated, adding a second layer of insulation won't hurt (as long as there is ventilation).
Note that any chemicals in the air (such as gasoline fumes) may be absorbed by fresh produce in open bins. Keep that in mind when you are planning.
We have an insulated garage attached to the house, which I refer to as the “seasonal fridge”. We usually don't see freezing temps inside the garage until nighttime temperatures dip into the single digits.
If you have an outbuilding with a dirt floor, you can dig into the dirt to make a more accessible in ground storage than burying things out in the yard.
In the book Root Cellaring, they discuss digging in a used metal storage locker. This would protect from rats and mice and provide good ventilation. Buried storage would also be better for root vegetables.
Hanging bags or baskets also help prevent rodent access, but leave the produce more exposed.
Easy Apple Storage
When the local apple picking season is wrapping up, the boys and I hit the orchard.
I sort through these apples to remove any that are bruised or blemished, as a single damaged apple really can spoil the whole bin. We pack the apples in old coolers or heavy duty cardboard boxes and place them in the garage.
We store boxes on metal shelves to make them harder for rodents to access and use them first. The coolers are stored at ground level and used later.
We leave the cooler spigot open and leave the lid propped open about 1/4 inch to provide ventilation.
I check the bins regularly to remove any apples with signs of spoilage. The best keepers easily last until January or later.
Porches or Decks
If you have an unheated porch or attached deck with high clearance underneath, you may be able to put it to work as an “above ground root cellar”.
Watch out for pests, such as rodents. Heavy duty plastic storage buckets will deter mice and bugs, but rats can gnaw right through plastic and you must protect your storage with metal.
If you combine two layers of protection, say plastic buckets inside a metal garbage can, you can keep food more accessible for you and less accessible for them.
Remember, rodents can cram their bodies through any openings they can get their heads through. If they find their way into your stash, you must take measures to control them and keep them out.
See our post Best ways to get rid of mice in your house and garage for more information.
Inside the House
Attics, pantries, bedrooms, stairwells – all of are fair game for food storage. As mentioned earlier, look for areas of the house that are not heated or are minimally heated.
Closets on exterior walls in minimally heated rooms could get very close to actual root cellar conditions. Hiding some squash in a box under the bed may work well for you. Just don't forget you put them there or the smell of rotting squash will remind you.
Last year I tucked our squash and pumpkin along one side of the stairway from our basement to garage while I waited for other space to become available.
One of our readers shares:
I don't wash off storage produce until I am ready to cook it. This leaves the protective exudates on and really extend shelf life far beyond store bought squash of all kinds.
Cukes turn yellow and seedy, but taste fine and remain juicy for quite a while. Just brush off leaves and the crumblier soil once squash is cured.
I also pack them in 5 gallon paint strainer bags to keep fruit flies off. I tuck small ones in a napkin and pack them together so the skins don't touch. Several small ones will fit into one paint bag.
I take large fan covers, line them with a torn open paper sack and set my ventilated “trays” so they get air circulating under them.
I pack squash in one or two shallow layers and set them over some flattened cardboard boxes where they will stay out of direct sunlight, traffic and get good air circulation.
We put a few bricks under the tray for air flow, and the temperature stays around 62F and 67F.
Visit page 2 for warm climate ideas from southwest Louisiana.