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Root Cellars 101 – Root Cellar Design, Use and Mistakes to Avoid

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In this article we'll talk about 5 basic things you must include in a root cellar design, plus 10 tips for fruit and vegetable storage. There's also a printable storage guide for over 30 fruits and veggies, and links to additional information at the bottom of the post.

A root cellar is a great low-cost way to store food – not just root vegetables, but other fresh produce, too. They require little to no energy to use and very little maintenance.

You can build in a root cellar when your home is under construction, but it’s also possible to add a root cellar to your basement, or build one outside your home.

root cellar with squash and root vegetables on shelves, canning jars on right

What is a root cellar?

Wiki says a root cellar is “a structure, usually underground or partially underground, used for storage of vegetables, fruits, nuts, or other foods.

Dig a deep enough hole, and you’ll find that the ground is cool (and often moist). Root cellars tap into those cool, moist soil conditions and use them to store fruits and vegetables – like your refrigerator produce bin.

Building a Root Cellar

There are five major elements that a root cellar requires:

  1. Ventilation:  Some fruits and vegetables give off ethylene gas, which can cause other produce to spoil. Also, a tightly sealed cellar will increase the risk of mold. Make sure fresh air can get in, stale air can get out, and air can circulate around the produce.
  2. Earth-shelter:  The soil insulates and maintains a cooler temperature. A packed earth floor or gravel floor is better than concrete for keeping moisture (humidity) levels higher.
  3. Humidity:  A high humidity level of 80-95% keeps produce from drying out. Humidity that is high enough for produce may cause canning jar lids to rust, so be sure to check lids and rotate stock if you store canned goods in the root cellar. Too much humidity can be a problem also, so try to keep it below 95%
  4. Darkness:  Light can trigger sprouting, so if you have a window in your root cellar, keep it covered, and don’t leave the lights on.
  5. Shelving/Storage bins: Wood shelving and bins are naturally antibacterial. Wood also conducts heat more slowly than metal, and doesn’t rust. Avoid treated wood, and stick to those that are naturally rot resistant.

Types of Root Cellars and Natural Cold Storage Options

Natural cold storage options include (click on any item in the list to jump to more information below):

All of these keep your food cool. These earth sheltered fruit and vegetable options work best for those in cooler climates, where the ground temp is naturally cooler.

Warmer Climate Options

You may not be able to store things like we northerners can, but the Above Ground Root Cellar post will give you some ideas of what you can store, plus tips for year round food production so you always have fresh, local food to enjoy. The Coolbot makes it very affordable to use a standard AC unit for refrigerated fruit and vegetable storage.

Check out the related articles

10 Tips for Fruit and Vegetable Storage in a Root Cellar

Key storage tips to remember:

  1. Late-maturing crops store better than early maturing crops. Specific varieties also store better than others. Watch for varieties that are noted for good storage quality.
  2. Check fruit and vegetable condition at storage time. If you note any damage on produce, use those items first. One bad apple or onion can spoil the whole bin, so it’s good to regularly inspect produce during storage, too.
  3. Cure the vegetables that need it before storage. Vegetables that require curing include onions, garlic, winter squash (pumpkins), potatoes and other root crops.
  4. Most root vegetables store best in the root cellar if they are wiped off rather than washed. Wipe excess dirt off of carrots, beets, rutabagas and turnips and store them in lightly dampened leaves or straw. Use fresh leaves each year to prevent potential pathogen buildup. Fresh sand and sawdust will also work, but are messier.
  5. If you have a muddy garden at harvest time, it’s okay to wash, but make sure dry up excess moisture (and cure if needed) before storage to avoid rot. Humidity is good, water on the surface of fruits and vegetables is not.
  6. Less-than-ideal conditions shorten storage life. Try to get as close as possible to target temps and moisture levels. Use different areas of your storage for crops that are a best fit, such as storing carrots and beets lower (colder) and tomatoes and winter squash higher (warmer). (See Fruit and Vegetable Storage chart below.)
  7. Store fruits that give off ethylene gas away from produce that can be spoiled easily by ethylene gas. You can also wrap fruit that produces excess ethylene in newspaper to contain the gas.
  8. The odor of strong smelling vegetables, like turnips and cabbage, can be absorbed by fruits and other vegetables. Store them away from other food and where the odor cannot waft into the house.
  9. Do not allow fruits and vegetables to freeze. They will get mushy and rot. 
  10. Track temperature and humidity to measure your root cellar performance. Don't open the root cellar unless you have to, unless the entry is protected. Letting heat in or very cold dry air in will reduce the storage life of your fruits and vegetables.

Fruit and Vegetable Storage Chart

This chart gives preferred temperature and moisture ranges for root cellar storage of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Adapted from the University of Missouri Extension OfficeClick HERE or on image below to download Printable PDF version of Root Cellar Storage Requirements.

Root Cellar Location – In the Basement or Buried Outside?

By default, the word “cellar” means “underground”. A big part of why root cellars work as well as they do is that the earth remains at a relatively constant (cool) temperature.

Underground temperatures vary, depending on your location. Closer to the equator, it may be cooler than air temp, but still isn’t likely to act well as a root cellar in Canada. At the opposite extreme, you have arctic permafrost, which the native folks use to store whole animals.

Retrofitting a Root Cellar in an Existing Home

The easiest option for building a root cellar is to section off a part of the basement for your fruit and vegetable storage. Old dirt floor basements without heat are great for maintaining proper temperature and humidity levels (be sure to insulate between the house and root cellar).

Add a Root Cellar to a New Home

Many new homes have a small concrete exterior porch. Typically this area has 4ft footings and is filled under the porch with dirt. You need to put a foundation wall under it anyway, so why not put this area to good use?

To turn this under porch area into a root cellar, have the builder put in full footings, an insulated exterior grade access door from the basement and two 4 inch vent holes. Add concrete slab on top as normal. This area could also be a wine cellar or safe room. It will cost more but not a lot more, also it might qualify for FEMA funding.

Add a switched light and rigid insulation on the ceiling of the root cellar. Insulate the walls to the home. Do not insulate the outside walls exposed to soil. If possible get the builder to skip insulating around that area on the exterior of the root cellar concrete.

Our porch root cellar measures about 6'x8′. It provides plenty of room for our stash of root veggies, plus gives a nice sized porch above. Locating the root cellar outside the footprint of the home allows the root cellar to maintain cooler temperatures more easily than a cellar located within the house.

"root cellars 101" test over table piled carrots and beets

Building a Root Cellar Outside the Home

For an exterior root cellar, similar rules apply – have good ventilation, keep it earth sheltered and dark. A north facing door is preferred, to avoid sun beating in and heating your cellar up.

Try for at least one to two feet of soil covering the root cellar. Consider a pre-made option such as a septic tank or large pre-cast culvert. Otherwise use materials that are rot resistant and can stand the weight of wet soil. We do not recommend shipping containers.

How much does a root cellar cost?

The cost of a root cellar varies widely. If you build a underground sandbag root cellar yourself it can be as little as $500 but most will cost $2500 to $25,000+. The more soil there is insulating the root cellar the closer you get to ground temperature.

One way to reduce the cost is to consider the 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. This applies to new home construction and retrofits.

Traditional Root Cellar

This is what most of us think of when we hear the phrase “root cellar”. There are insulated doors that lead down into the earth. It’s dug down or into the side of a hill.

Walls are concrete, cinder block, or more creative materials like old tires. You need to make sure the roof and walls are well supported to avoid collapse. Engage an architect or engineer to ensure your safety.

Earth Berm Root Cellar

Above ground root cellars are usually partly sunken with earth mounded on 3 sides and the door avoiding the direct sun. See the Above Ground Root Cellars post for more information.

For a great resource on building a homestead root cellar, check out the book below by my friend, Teri, of Homestead Honey.

Select an area with an existing window if possible, and use the window for ventilation. Fill the window with exterior grade plywood, and cut the necessary vent holes through the plywood. The plywood also blocks direct light.

North facing corners work well, because you can leave the two exterior walls uninsulated, and only insulate the interior walls and ceiling. A north facing wall won’t gain heat from the sun. Use materials that tolerate moisture exposure.

Insulating between the house and root cellar is necessary so you don't heat the root cellar from above. You also avoid losing house heat into the root cellar.

Your basement root cellar should have no standard heating or cooling. Insulate any ductwork or piping that runs through the ceiling above your root cellar (if any). Make sure vents or hot water pipes are well insulated so they don’t bleed heat into your root cellar.

For additional food storage space, build shelving on the inside and outside of your basement root cellar for canned goods or other items. The area outside the root cellar can be used to store dry goods and canned goods if it is cool enough.

Barrel in the ground for (Zones 6-9)

The size and depth depends on the zone you live in. A simple bucket, with holes drilled in the bottom and top, buried level with the soil with a bale of hay as an insulating cover will work into zone 7 and possibly into zone 6 depending on cover and conditions. The colder and hotter zones require the bucket or barrel to be deeper, and more insulation on the top to avoid the freezing surface temps.

For more information on zones see: Plant Hardiness Zones & Microclimate – Creating your Best Garden

Barrel in the ground for (Zones 3-6)

Buy one 55gal large heavy duty garbage can, and a 32gal smaller garbage can that fits inside the larger one (with an inch or two gap). Both the larger garbage can and the smaller one need holes in the bottom.

The inside can needs a cover with vents / screen. Cover exterior holes with screens to keep rodents out. It also needs significant insulation above it (over it). Bales of hay, or piles of leaves can insulate it.

Prepare a hole that is deeper than the large garbage can, with rocks and gravel in the bottom to create a simple French drain. If water drains well, you will need a small amount of rocks and gravel. If you have clay or your soil doesn't drain well, you need to go deeper and wider so your underground storage barrel doesn't turn into a water hole.

Another trick is to dig a very deep, large hole next to the garbage can hole and fill that hole with rocks. The deeper hole acts as a drain for your shallower garbage can root cellar.

Once you have the large garbage can in the ground and secure, lower the smaller one into the larger barrel. Store food in the small barrel.

When you need access, grab from the top or pull out the smaller barrel. This makes it easier to reach food the bottom. There are many variations on this.

stored potatoes

Root Cellar Ventilation

Improper ventilation is one of most common mistakes that people make when designing/installing a root cellar. They build their underground food storage airtight to keep things nice and cold, and everything spoils.

This is bad because some foods give off ethylene gas, which speeds ripening (and rotting). A root cellar that is too airtight may also build up excess humidity, leading to mold and mildew.

How should you ventilate your root cellar? Use two vents, about 3-4 inches in diameter. Place the vents so that one is near the top of the root cellar to exhaust stale air and ethylene gas. The other vent should be run down to near the floor, to drop in fresh air.

Four inch PVC vent pipes should be adequate for to up to around an 6ft by 8ft room. A larger room like a 8ft by 10ft should have even larger vent pipes or more of them. Make sure to put mesh screen on the outside of the vent pipe to keep mice and other small animals out. Also vent pipes should be angled or curved so rain, snow or debris can't fall into your root cellar.

Ethylene Gas

As fruits such as apples and pears ripen, they give off ethylene gas. Ethylene gas decreases the storage life of some produce. Ethylene gas can cause sprouting, decay, mold, yellowing, shrinking, toughness, softness, bitterness and other damage.

To combat spoilage from ethylene gas, segregate fruits and veggies that produce excess ethylene gas from those that are easily damaged from ethylene gas. This is a good idea for your refrigerator produce bins, too.

Fruits and Vegetables that may create excess ethylene gas include:

Apples, apricots, avocados, ripening bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe, citrus fruit (not grapefruit), cranberries, figs, guavas, grapes, green onions, honeydew, ripe kiwi fruit, mangoes, melons, mushrooms, nectarines, okra, papayas, passion fruit, peaches, pears, peppers, persimmons, pineapple, plantains, plums, prunes, quinces, tomatoes and watermelon.

Fruits and vegetables that may be damaged by excess ethylene gas include:

Asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, cucumbers, cut flowers, eggplant, endive, escarole, florist greens, green beans, kale, kiwi fruit, leafy greens, lettuce, parsley, peas, peppers, potatoes, potted plants, romaine lettuce spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, watercress and yams.

Root Cellar Lighting

Light exposure is the enemy of food storage. Every time I see people lining up their canning jars or spices on open shelves, I cringe. It looks beautiful, but light bleaches out the color and the nutrient value of foods.

In the root cellar, light exposure may lead to sprouting and green potatoes. If you’re venting through a window, cover the rest of the window. If you have a light in your root cellar so you can see your food storage better, don’t leave the light on when you’re not using it.

A hunk of burlap drawn over bins of potatoes or fruit will allow ventilation while still blocking the light. A single high lumen incandescent or LED light (switched on exterior) should provide adequate lighting (unless your room is really huge) and, if for some reason your storage gets too cold, you can use an incandescent light to introduce a little heat (if you keep fruits and vegetables covered).

Humidity and Temperature

A high humidity level of 80-95% keeps produce from drying out. The soil will provide some humidity.

Keeping track of temperature and humidity is important. You can track with a humidity with a hygrometer, and temperature with a thermometer like a Digital Hygrometer Indoor Thermometer. If you use a simple unit you will need to track temp/humidity using a paper and pencil.

Because you don't want to go into the root cellar except when you need to electronic monitoring might be an option. The Govee Thermometer & Hygrometer has a simple display AND can synch via bluetooth and can track 20 days.

The sensor and an app on your smartphone from Govee or SensorPush will record up to 20 days of temperature and/or humidity swings you might not catch because you only go in the root cellar when you need to.

Root Cellar Humidity – Keep Things Moist But Not Wet

Checking the fruit and vegetable storage chart, you’ll see that most store best with fairly high humidity. If you have a dirt or gravel floor in your root cellar, you’re in luck, because the natural ground moisture will help keep your produce damp.

Produce will give off some moisture on its own, but if you note that your produce is shriveling, your root cellar is probably too dry. Take a tip from the grocery stores, and try a little misting action with a spray bottle. Avoid getting any area too wet, as that can lead to standing water and potential mold growth.

In dry environments a shallow pan, tray or shallow bucket of water can increase humidity. Be careful with this option, as it can attract pests or result in bacteria or mold growth.

pumpkins and squash

Root Cellar Shelving

Shelving should allow airflow and add storage area. Keep a gap between the shelving or storage bins and wall to encourage air flow. Remember to check the Fruit & Vegetable Storage Chart and keep produce that likes cooler temps lower and food that like warmer temps higher.

root cellar storage with root vegetables in leaves

Recommended Root Cellar Books

The best resource we have found on root cellars is the book Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Bubel. No matter what your location or how much space you have, the Bubels are likely to have a root cellar option that will work for you.

The book contains detailed explanations of how to store vegetables and fruits without electricity with specific temperature and humidity recommendations for each variety. There are also good photos and diagrams, which I really like.

The Complete Root Cellar Book is more recently published, and also received good reviews.

For a detailed explanation of garlic and onion storage see:

You may also want to check out our full list of gardening articles and food storage information, including:

Originally published in 2010, last updated in Feb 2020.

root cellar

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120 Comments

  1. The red and white buckets have leaves in them, packed around layers of carrots and beets. I have also tried packing carrots in sawdust and sand, but have found leaves to be the cleanest option (very simple to brush off the root) and they also hold enough moisture (but not too much) so the carrots stay hydrated but don't rot.

    Because we don't go through a huge amount of potatoes, I lay those out in trays on the shelves along with the onions and garlic. I keep the potatoes as low as possible because they prefer cooler temps. Last fall all shelves and half the floor space was full (this photo is from an earlier season – 2007, I think).

    1. leave the green tops on the carrots and layer them in dry straw,not hay,but straw, they stay nice and clean and no mold like you might get with leaves.

      1. Carol Flett’s link? It wasn’t back in 2010 when she left her original comment, so odds are her site has been hacked and it’s redirecting. Thanks for the heads up. I’ve deleted the link,

  2. Hi Carol. Thanks for stopping by. I haven't been on THL too much lately – just too far behind in everything! I hpe you had a successful gardening season.

  3. Awesome post! I have been researching this very subject lately. I live in Florida though and have very few Root Cellar options. 🙁 Great post!

  4. hmmmm…very different environment. I imagine heat and moisture are the biggest problems. If you figure something out, please let me know. Your growing season goes pretty much year round, no? So even if you were only able to keep foods a bit cooler using earth sheltering it would probably help. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  5. Laurie, this is so good. I'm trying to be patient as it will probably be at least a year before we can afford to build the root cellar which will go into the side of the mountain behind our house. I'm wondering, can you section off a small area with a wall and put in extra ventilation so as to do fruits such as apples in the same root cellar? I'm also thinking that I could keep some of my dairy cultures in there – especially if the electricity were to go out. What do you think?

  6. Amy – I'd say yes to fruit and veggies in the same cellar, just not in the same bins, especially if you ventilate properly. You've got the book, so you've got detailed recommendations for the type of cellar you're looking at building.

    If you hit the temperature range you're looking for, keeping cultures in there should be no problem. Before electricity, a spring house was often the preferred option, but I'm sure folks made due with whatever they had available. The only way to know for sure will be to try it. Mine tends to stay a bit warmer than ideal, so I haven't tried it. Also, there will be an assortment of microbes associated with the food in storage, so they may influence the composition of your cultures.

    I do keep cultured veggies (my sauerkraut) in small (1 gallon) crocks in my canning pantry. I bring up one crock at a time, put a quart of it in the fridge and the rest in the freezer (to keep it live but dormant). I've still got kraut packed in good condition from last fall. (Which reminds me, I need to bring up another crock this week.)

  7. Thanks for clarifying about the fruits and veggies – that makes sense. I got my book back from my friend and thumbed through it and had seen a plan with a separate room but didn't get to read about it so I began to think it might be necessary to have two areas, but I'm glad to know that separate bins and good ventilation is all that is necessary. If I put the cultures out there, they will be sealed with lids – I'll do the actually "culturing" in the house, but would like to store them out there once they are done.
    Thanks for all the help on the root cellar! Happy Mother's Day!!

  8. Ideally separate rooms would be preferred, and since you're building new you may be able to put in a partition at minimal cost, but the ventilation is the biggest factor. If you've got a way to get that gas out you should be okay.

    Happy Mother's Day to you, too, and thanks for stopping by!

  9. Another useful post Laurie. We have been teetering on whether or not to stay in our (suburban) home and build a root cellar, add solar or wind backup, or move out to a more remote location that already has these things and a plentiful supply of water, but you make a cellar look so good and easy… Making decision tougher. lol.

  10. Every decision has its good and bad side. My husband and I are debating moving, too. We love our home and our neighbors, but it's really tough being apart during the week (he works in a nearby city two hours away). There are no easy answers, especially in these economically uncertain times.

    The root cellar was one of the best and easiest things we included in the house. I love it!

  11. My dream is a root cellar. But alas we live in a very cold climate and the cellar would need to be very deep and then we will have water issues. There is no sloped land on our small lot, and the water table is high. Any ideas?

  12. How cold is "very cold"? Are we talking permafrost? The ground temperature stays relatively constant, no matter what the air temperature. Here's an example: http://www.duanesworld.net/duanesworld.net.sensors.htm

    An insulated area above ground will buy you extra time in storage, too, especially in cold climate areas. We keep apples in the garage until it gets well below freezing outside.

    You should see if you can find the root cellar book at your local library (If you don't care to buy a copy). They include a lot of different options for storage with minimal energy inputs, above and beyond what we normally think of as "root cellar".

  13. What a fantastic & informative post! I'll be bookmarking it for future use! We'd love to add a root cellar, but first we need to regulate our food production and grow enough to make it worth the while 🙂 (Our potatoes were gone before the month we harvested in was out.) But I would definitely love to store more food rather than canning and freezing so much. Thanks!

  14. What a great root cellar…and your photos are awesome…a great list as well. Unfortunately, living on the west coast, root cellars are not common…wish I had one…but too much rain.

    Have a great week.

  15. Thanks! Our winters can be rough, but there are some advantages to living in the upper Midwest.

  16. What do you know about options for root cellars in the south? We don’t have basements because of the water table and my house sits on a slab on the ground, so there is no crawl space. What are my options? I’d love to learn more about this!

    1. Angel – I don’t have any experience with southern conditions and I haven’t been able to find a good resource on the subject (if one exists). You want to use physics in your favor. Even with high heat and humidity, the ground stays somewhat cooler. Possibly not cool enough that you could have a full blown root cellar, but maybe enough to buy you some storage time. If you could build a storage area that was earth sheltered or very well insulated, even above ground, but with a floor that was gravel (not insulated), that storage area should stay cooler. Think old-fashioned spring house, where they had thick walls and a stream running through the floor. You also want to make sure to include ventilation that draws from bottom to top to carry away ethylene gas, which promotes spoilage. It might make sense to have your intake run below ground level (if you can, or have it run through a mound of dirt) to cool the air before it enters, and vent near the top to pull off the warmest air. I haven’t tried anything like this because of where I live, but that’s the direction I would take. Good luck!

    2. Rather than a root cellar, you may have to do more than one planting but in smaller batches. In the south, you have the advantage of an extended growing season which would make storage a non-issue.

  17. This is great for your location. However I live in the low country of South Carolina. We have excessive ground water. It is only cool from late October to early March.
    Any suggestions?

  18. I put front porch on my parents house, The walls are block 9′ tall and the floor is concrete. The ceiling of the root cellar is metal decking with concrete poured on top to make the floor of the porch above. The exterior is about 2′ out of the ground. I have an insulated exterior door going into the basement of the house. I haven’t vented it yet because I wasn’t sure what i needed to do. It gets alot of condensation on the metal decking on the ceiling year round. Your post says 2″ pipe one high, and one low. With my foundation only sticking 2′ out of ground should i run one pipe as high as i can get it and other pipe down about 18″ so it’s not too close to the ground? Or should i run an elbow and pipe down the wall for the lower pipe so it’s closer to the ground?
    thanks

    1. The wall penetrations of our root cellar are at the same height. What’s different is that one of the penetrations is connected to an elbow with a tube that goes down to near floor level inside the cellar itself, and one is a straight shot in near the ceiling of the cellar. Does that make sense?

      I talked it over with my husband, and we both agree that if you have the option 2 1/2 to 3 inches might be a better size for the ventilation pipes.

      1. Yeah this makes sense. I didn’t put the size of the room in there but it’s around 8×12. I will put the vents in and try it. do you cap the intake off when it’s hot out? I live in central PA so our summers are pretty hot. Also do you think i will have trouble with freezing in the winter? It gets down around 0 plus the wind chill in the winter?

        1. I have never had freezing issues here in Wisconsin where it is much colder, although my vents are 2 inch diameter. (I still don’t think you would freeze with larger vents. I keep it open in summer just to avoid stagnant, musty air building up. I haven’t work with them in a warmer climate such as PA, so you might need to experiment and see what works for you.

    2. you can use a central plastic pipe to the outside with a vent cap to keep bugs out, run it in and turn down with a elbo go almost all the way to floor. Do this on each end of room. on outside put a foundation vent in center of room above ground,,,use the holes in the block and go down into the room. cut out the block and use the holes to vent through. the foundation vent should be one that will close automatically in very cold weather. my root cellar is 20 ft long and 8 ft wide. it is under a outside porch with concrete, we insulated under the concrete and put treated plywood under it to protect the insulation. works very well as we made 3 ft wide 8 ft long frames with rat wire stapled to the bottom, set it on 8 in blocks and went all the way down the 20 ft side and across 8 ft end. we store 20+ bushels of potatoes in this been with shelves above on all sides. a solid wood door opens from basement into this. Use 3 lights on ceiling with switch on outside of cellar, we have used the left over potatoes for seed for 5 years now. also store seeds for green house here also..with out venting we had a bad mold problem,,,after installing vents mold went away in a few weeks. good luck with yours

  19. You say in your article that “onions, garlic and potatoes” like “drier conditions” but then the list of conditions says potatoes like “cold and moist.” Can you please clarify?

    1. You’re right, I should correct that. Thanks for mentioning the disagreement. When I first wrote the article, I was thinking about my mom’s basement, which would get super wet at times. This was bad for storage. Potatoes do need a certain amount of moisture – more than the onions and garlic – or they’ll wrinkle up, so I should take them out of the mention with onions and garlic. They can’t be too wet, or they will rot.

  20. Love your site and info. Being single mom with 3 kids, homeschooled, and keeping a backyard garden, (300 sq. ft). Preserving, drying everything I can
    Urban farming my son calls it.
    I wish I could build a root cellar, below or above ground. Haven’t the manpower or knowhow or $ to do. But I learn from you and do what I can do! Thank you so much!

  21. Hi, I am trying to build my homestead. I have a tornado shelter that I hope will double a root cellar (it’s large enough to stand comfortably in, and has built in shelves. It does get rather moist in there though. I notices your comment on how a good root cellar is moist and cool, so I am hoping that’s good. There is a drainage hole in the floor to allow any water that gets in when it rains or something out, and an air vent on the top that the wind does go through.

    As for the rain comment, the door to the cellar does not overhang any of the shelves, when it rains sometimes water seeps in around the side of the door where the hinges are, the shelves themselves have never actually gotten wet.

    Also, what is the best way to store apples long-term? I know that cold storage is good, but I thought the coolness of the cellar was good for that, why do you store yours in the garage? How long before they start to shrivel?

    Thank you.

    1. Since my garage is cool (I live in Wisconsin), keeping apples stashed there in a cooler basically acts as a root cellar extension. Because our root cellar vents are a little smaller than I would prefer (and it would be a real hassle to try and punch a bigger hole in the concrete), I keep the apples separate because they produce a lot of ethylene gas, which can cause sprouting and spoilage of other root cellar items. (This is why the chart says, “Do not store with veggies”.) Optimal storage conditions are listed in the chart. The commercial apple orchards I know around here use large coolers with precise moisture and temperature control to extend shelf life.

      Our garage is attached and just a few steps from my kitchen, so it’s also convenient for me to store the apples there. I use it as cool storage all winter long for a number of items, like kombucha and other beverages. To access my root cellar I need to trot down the stairs and a doorway or hallway or two. My apples usually keep until at least March if stored at the end of October, if they last that long. If they start to get soft, there’s always applesauce or fruit leather or dried apples or pie…

  22. How do you gain access to your root cellar and can you elaborate more on how you build the structure its self.

    1. There’s an exterior grade door between the root cellar, which is outside the building envelop, and the rest of the house. The structure itself is simply reinforced poured concrete.

  23. i have root cellar in the basement of the old houes we bought 3 years ago, so I feel blessed- now I just need to eliminate the little mice that find their way in and decimated my apples last year!
    I am writing to tell you that i lost my entire potato crop this year: First, it was reduced by about 60% due to vole damage. I was amazed, as last year was a huge harvest and no vole damage although I saw evidence of their tunnels. But then, I was curing them on the porch before I brought them inside, and we had an unusually cold night here in the mountains, and it did go below freezing. I thought they were okay. But now I have a bucket of mush where once were potatoes. I am heart broken! My purples and blues are all gone!!

    1. That reminds me of the winter we tried to store the potatoes in my in-law’s boat house because we were building this house. They looked okay, but when we cooked them, they were unpleasantly sweet.

  24. I was okay with all the info UNTIL I got to the list where Endive (Escarole) was listed. FOLKS these are 2 different plants! Do your research! Endive is sometimes called Chicory, but NEVER EVER is it Escarole. Both are in the lettuce family. However Endive (Chicory) can be used in coffee, but Escarole is not. Escarole is used w/beans or in soup.

    1. Begging your pardon, but other sources would indicate otherwise. For instance – http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/endive.html :

      “Endive, commonly popular as escarole, is a green leafy-vegetable with a hint of bitter flavor. Nevertheless, this well-known salad plant is much more than just a leafy green; packed with numerous health benefiting plant nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin A, etc.

      Botanically, this perennial herbaceous leafy plant belongs to the Asteraceae (daisy) family, in the genus, Cichorium, and is closely related to chicory, radicchio, and Belgian endive (witloof). Its scientific name: Cichorium endivia.

      Endive is native to Asia Minor region. This cool-season crop requires well-drained fertile soil to flourish. There exist two main cultivar varieties of endive: curly-endive (Frisée, cichorium endivia, var crispum) with curly narrow leaves, and Escarole or scarole (cichorium endivia, var latifolia) with broad leaves. Escarole leaves feature spine like-dentate margins (dandelion or lettuce like) with thick stalks. Its leaves feature less bitterness than narrow, curly, intensely bitter-taste of “frisée” (curly-endive).

      Belgian endive or witloof is a popular winter season vegetable in Europe. It features smooth cream-colored leaves, compressed into a compact (bud-like) 10 to 12 cm long heads.”

      The post continues at some length, but you get the general idea.

      One thing I’ve learned about plants – it’s incredibly common for different people to use the same name to describe different species (which is why I always use the Latin names as well as common names in my wildcrafting posts).

  25. Great post!
    My husband and I are thinking of building a root cellar in our attached garage. Is there helpful information in the books you shared for that specific process or do you know of other resources that would help us in that endeavour. Thanks!

    1. I know Nancy Buebal’s books has ideas for turning just about any spots into storage. The others I haven’t read, but they are well rated and I suspect that they would also be helpful. Depending on where you live, you may also want to check out the post, “Build Your Own Walk In Cooler with a CoolBot Controller and A/C Unit“. Since you’re building above ground, you won’t have the natural thermal mass and lower ground temps to tap into. With the Coolbot and standard AC unit, you can still get very affordable cooling.

  26. A couple of questions, you picture canned food in your root cellar. I understood that the dampness in the cellar would cause the lids to rust prematurely and they needed to be stored somewhere drier. Do you have a problem with this? I read somewhere that peat moss is a good storage material, rather than leaves or straw, have you ever experimented with it? It’s something I’d have to buy, but I think it can be reused.

    1. On canned food in the root cellar – our root cellar tends to be a little drier than ideal. Not so great for storing veggies that need moisture, helpful for storing jars. We have a canning pantry as well, but needed more space. Even in my mom’s basement (which would get very wet in spring) and my grandmother’s basement (which we used to use as a root cellar because it was natural stone and stayed cooler and damper), the jars kept quite well for many years. My nephew ate some old canned goods that my grandmother had stored when they were cleaning out the basement that had to be at least 10 years old. The lids were a little rusty, but the seals were still intact. (I generally would not recommend this, but he didn’t get sick. He said the food was mushy but otherwise fine.) In our case, we rotate the jars every 1-2 years, and I have yet to see any signs of rust on lids.

      On the peat moss – given the controversy with peat bogs being overharvested, I prefer to stick with local materials. I’ve also noticed that during storage, bits of material from the root veggies are left behind in the storage medium, so I wouldn’t recommend reusing it from year to year. I suspect the bits of moss would stick to every crevice of the veggies, too – not unlike sawdust.

  27. Hi! We live off grid in SE Iowa. We are wanting to add a front porch/root cellar like yours to the north side of our house. I haven’t been able to find in the bubel’s book whether the concrete roof/porch floor should be any thicker than usual since it won’t be covered in dirt. How thick is your cellar roof? Also do you think it would be detrimental to put an insulated hatch in the middle of the porch floor, or would it be best to punch a doorway through the basement wall (although that process would terrify me). Also my husband really wants a concrete floor to prevent burrowing creatures. Did you install any wire mess under your rocks/ have you had any issues with animals? Thank you for your post.

    1. You builder should be able to tell you the specs on the concrete. Use of a prestressed slab can help overcome the inherent weakness of concrete in tension. Ours is just under 4 inches thick.

      You could put a hatch in through the porch floor, but the access would be more awkward and you’d need to do extra reinforcing in the slab. If you have a contractor with a clue, putting access through the basement should not be a problem. Get someone with good references.

      We’ve never had any issues with anything burrowing up from the floor. Critters simply don’t normally dig that deep, at least, not anything around here. The only issue we had was when a mouse got in through a vent pipe, but that was solved by putting mesh over the vents.

  28. The one question I haven’t been able to find an answer for is relating to the venting pipes. We have both venting pipes in, one to the floor and one flush to the ceiling of the root cellar. However, I am unsure how far out of the ground to extend the vent pipes. Does it matter if they are extended to the same height, or should one extend farther than the other? We do have a heavy snow load most years – up to 5 feet cumulative or more depending on some thawing in between snow falls. I was thinking we’d keep them 5 feet out of the ground and watch that snow doesn’t build up above the level of the vent pipe.

    1. It’s okay if the pipes end near each other. The most important thing is to ensure that clear air flow is maintained, so your longer pipes and checking to make sure that they stay clear sounds like a workable solution.

  29. I simply cannot wait until I am able to build a root cellar. Next winter, we will be trying the barrel in the ground, as I intend on storing some root veggies through the winter as feed for the animals. Sure would be nice to have a root cellar though!

  30. A few years ago my father purchased his “retirement” home. A semi updated farm home on a small lake in MN. My question has to do with a room locathed in the basement, well honestly its located outside the basement walls. It looks like a previous owner busted through the exterior wall to make a closet and has lined the walls with cedar. I don’t think there is anything between cedar and dirt. I also know that there currently is no venting and I don’t know about humidity levels. My question is if the parameters were to meet the standards listed, would the cedar be a benefit or detriment to the storage of raw food?

    1. That is a challenge. You need to confirm the exterior (dirt, cinder-block etc) you also need to see if you can figure out what is under the flooring and how the ceiling is built.

      Add a thermostat that can track temp over time so you can see if the space freezes or temp swings too much. Assuming there isn’t any major problems, you would need to add insulation to the door and the entire wall adjoining the home, to keep the root cellar cool (isolated from the house). Check the thermostat again

      Also you would need to add ventilation somehow; probably two 4″ PCV pipes for vent from above. Dig down penetrate ceiling put pipes through and then heavily seal around the penetration. One pipe goes down to the floor the 2nd up near the ceiling (well secured screens on either end for rodents)

      If the walls are dirt and floor is dirt and siding is just cedar that is probably ok. If the cedar has weathered, or if the cedar is still raw it may impact the “smell” to some stored foods till it dries some. some moisture is good, too much is bad, too dry is bad, no airflow is bad, too much is bad – which is why the 4 to 6″ pipes get fresh air but not too much.

      We have shelving made from cedar decking material as our shelves for canned goods. The larger shelves are ripped plywood. Shelving matters, so draw it out.

      All the best in your project.

  31. We just built a root cellar into the hill bordering our carport concrete wall. All walls are concrete with 2 feet of dirt on the concrete roof. Only two sides are just concrete. The floor is dirt (crush). This winter, the coldest in the root cellar has been -2 Celsius (28.4 F) when it was our coldest outside at -17 Celsius (1.4 F). My question is should we still insulate with rigid foam the two interior walls that have no earth around them outside? We have not tried a summer yet (it gets very warm here) as it was built this last fall. Would insulating make it warmer or keep it a cooler/consistent temperature in the root cellar? The door is smaller and there is no direct sun on those walls. Long story for a question of to insulation or not to insulate. It does have a six inch vent out of the roof and a 6 inch vent into the carport about a foot and a half up from the ground.

    1. If you’re hitting temps below freezing in the cellar, insulation is a good idea. You should insulate on the outside of the outside, not the inside. Ideally, you want to cover the structure in dimpled foundation membrane to channel water away from the structure instead of into it (and prevent mold), and then layer the insulation over the top of the membrane. You’ll need some sort of protection for the insulation. That might be enough to keep it from freezing, but be aware that cold air temps can penetrate up to four feet into the ground, so you’re likely getting some exterior temperature bleed through the roof.

  32. Two questions: (1) How would wire closet shelving (plastic over steel) perform in the cellar? I wouldn’t think rust would be too much of a problem since they are coated; and they would provide significant ventilation around the food. (2) In segmenting the cellar into two rooms (1 fruit/1 vegetable), would a concrete floor for the fruit segment reduce the humidity enough? Also, what about separate vents?

    1. I wouldn’t expect the closet shelving to rust out right away. I’m sure you’d see some corrosion over time, but it would likely be years before it became a problem.

      There are a lot of variables for each installation, especially when it comes to local climate, so it’s impossible to say for sure. I do know that fruits used to be stored in earth floor cellars, so I don’t think a concrete floor is necessary. If you want to segment into two rooms, I think separate vents would be a good idea.

  33. My home was built with a collar under a 4×12 concrete porch underneath the roof, the cellar has 4 block walls with poured floor and ceiling.
    Problem is it’s on the Southside of the house and never gets cool until late December and if 70° by late May depending on the weather.
    Any affordable ways to keep it cooler all year?
    I garden and want to store more vegetables and being on a tight budget I want to buy 50lbs of potatoes but a 20lb bag won’t keep for long and grow eyes and spoil before using them up.
    I plan on putting a door in the middle of my cellar(36″ wide, perfect for 32″door and frame)and have my home canned food in one side and potatoes ect in the other half

    1. Without knowing your yard layout – and space, here are some suggestions. Add shading to the southeast corner. This could be a large tree (or trees) farther away. Smaller fruit trees again blocking (shading) the area that gets too much heat. Other blocks could be adding an outbuilding that is storage/chickens that would permanently shade that location, add rows of mid-ground cover like grape trellis, high flowers, raspberries, or other vining flowers or fruits. Basically get something to shade. Also ensuring ventilation during low temps will help (pump in cool air with 6″ pvc with screens to keep pests out) one vent low and one high to allow convection (make them so you can cap them during the heat). You can also insulate the inside of the root cellar to keep the heat out on the “hot wall” or all walls (but be careful to ensure ventilation if you do a lot of insulation). Alternately if you have the money, you could consider a cooling system using an air conditioner similar to the walkin cooler design https://commonsensehome.com/build-walk-in-cooler/ (it would be a bit tricky as you would need to create positive and negative air vents/ducts).

  34. We had an approx. sized 12 by 8 foot outbuilding on our farm that was always around 40 to 50 degrees. It was made of brick facing east west. It had two windows facings north and south on the sides. It was between the house and two out buildings. Large trees sheltered from direct sun light. A cistern laid behind it. When we pulled up the cement floor to see how it was constructed about 120 years ago, we found the entire floor was covered with leather shoes/boots and empty glass medicine and beer bottles. That was it. And it was always cold even on 90 degree days. You had to take two steps down into it to reach the floor. We always kept a sweater/outer coat inside the building to keep warm when in it.

    1. It sounds like you may have been blessed with an old fashioned spring house, where the cool water underneath it helped to keep the building cool. I wonder if back in the day, the leather and bottle arrangement was designed to hold and trap the spring water?

  35. You might not be able to help me, but I thought I’d ask. I have a client that would like to have a root cellar built on her property, separate from the house. Her architect drew up a design that was partially underground, and partially above ground, with concrete walls and floors. The owner hated the idea and said she wanted as little concrete as possible. She would like “a hole in the ground with a dirt floor and wood walls.” We have contractors who can do the actual work, but we have no idea how to go about designing this and how little of concrete we can use to build it. Any ideas at all would be a huge help. Thanks.

    1. If the woman wants a hole in the ground with a dirt floor and wood walls, you could build her one, but she probably won’t like the price tag or look of it. I’d opt for the concrete myself, due to durability, but I know some people have their minds set on a specific thing and there’s no telling them any different.

      The same rules apply no matter what your building material – proper ventilation, earth shelter, dark, humid and some sort of storage.

      If you’re opting for wood, choose something that is naturally rot resistant to extend the lifespan of the cellar. (Avoid any chemicals you wouldn’t want in contact with wood.)

      Make sure your roof and sidewalls are sturdy enough to hold the weight of the earth on top of them and snow accumulation (or rain accumulation, if the soil becomes saturated). The old earthen cellars were made with very thick wood – which isn’t readily or cheaply available now.

      Any exposed areas should be well insulated to minimize heat transfer from the air. You don’t need to insulate the walls and roof that are fully underground, but watch near edges so don’t have heat bleeding in.

      Make sure you check out the lay of the land and plan for drainage. You probably want to use dimpled black plastic foundation cover on the exterior of the building, or something similar to route moisture away from your wood. The old timers would heavily coat the exterior with tar.

  36. Hi there,

    I see beautiful things going on here about a cellar. I am currently building one at my house in – ground in my backyard and I have a question?! Would that be a good idea to store my wine into?.
    Any help will be appreciate it.

    Thank you
    Giani

      1. Thank you Laurie for your advice.
        Yes all walls are built properly and they are all retaining walls, floor is concrete 12” tick and in the center a 4×4 square that will be paved and drain in the center. I have 4 vents coming down for cold air in and 3 vents in the ceiling for hot air going out. I am building a storage on top of it. Hope everything works out well.
        Thank you again!
        Giani

  37. So I’m building a 5×8 root cellar in my basement and was curious what to use for the walls and ceiling. Would Durock unfinished be appropriate. I would of course have 6mil vapor barrier and use foam sealant around the floor perimeter. Just curious what others have used. Green board makes me very nervous as I’ve seen continued high humidity lead to mold.

    Thanks,
    Alex

    1. Since our is outside the building envelope, we have raw ICF form exteriors and unfinished concrete, with a moisture resistant particle board cap and concrete porch floor for the ceiling. Generally speaking, any moisture resistant materials should work, but I’d be a little leery about greenboard, too.

  38. Hello, I’ve found your article and the comments to be incredibly helpful in learning about the structure of both old and modern root cellars. I currently live in an old (1896) city home, with a dirt floor basement. It was shut-up for quite a long time, with water seepage causing mold and even moss growing on some of the walls. We have attempted to treat the mustiness of the area, and added a dehumidifier about a year ago. I am interested in taking a portion of the space and converting it back into what was I’m sure a root cellar/storage area long ago. Given the history of mold, I am hesitant to store any food in the space currently. Do you have any suggestions for how to approach reclaiming the space for food storage? Thank you for continuing to respond to these comments years after the original post! 🙂

    1. Mold is a problem, moss in general is not. Airflow is the trick. It is very likely the original design allowed airflow into and out of the basement (low feed) like in the diagram in the article. Venting and fresh air are critical. The dehumidifier will help but not eliminate the problem as the walls are likely continuing to add moisture. It was likely sealed up completely during remodeling reducing airflow and not allowing humidity to balance with outside air.

      If you really want to try to use the space, you are going to need to be very careful. I might consider boxing off an area. Insulate above and walls into the rest of the house but leave the floor exposed, and vent it well to the exterior creating the convection). Depending on the space and your location you might want 4″, 6″ or even 8″ screened venting (so no bugs or critters get in). But I cant recommend that because of the mold risk, especially with food storage. If you decided to do anything with the space you should get it mold tested (or get kits) and test regularly. Mold can pop up FAST. Mold is stubborn and its not easy to tell the difference between relatively safe and very dangerous mold.

  39. Wondered if you had any thoughts on building a root cellar with access from floor of a shed building? I want to make it accessible from my craft/wood shop that I’ll build but we also live in the PNW where it is wet and we seem to live in a dry area as far as water table goes but we haven’t lived here through the rainy winter. Snow is occasional. I do like the ICF ideas and have done a bit of research with waterproofing those. Our property is flat so I don’t have inclines/hills to work into. Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. ICF would be counterproductive for a root cellar, since you want to tap into the ground temperature, not isolate the storage from it.

      Any chance you could find someone local who has a root cellar and see if they have any moisture issues? With black dimpled membrane on the outside of the cellar and somewhere for the water to go, it should be okay, but I’d definitely talk it over with a couple of experienced local contractors, given the location. If they are familiar with basement work, a root cellar should be similar.

  40. Hi Laurie, I love what you’re doing, your informative material is helpful and practice. I signed up for your newsletter but am not too savvy on computers and didn’t realize i was basically signing a subscription which at this time I really and truly can’t afford. I can’t seem to find the unsubscribe option anywhere….help! I really like your blog it reminds me of mother earth news with so much great information, but I’m gonna have to pass as I can’t afford the subscription at present. Thankyou

    1. William – good news – the only one who pays for your email subscription is me. I have to pay to maintain the email service, but it’s completely free for subscribers. I do sometimes send out emails that have products for sale in them, but purchase is always optional.

      If you still want to unsubscribe, I can do it for you, or you can use the link at the bottom of every email. Just let me know what you decide.

  41. I tried building a root cellar a dug a hole which filled with water after a few days.My whole property is flat and would have that problem no matter where I dug.I also have very untusting nosy neighbors so above ground won’t work either. I really would like a solution for the underground problem but until I can find it it will be a lot of work for nothing. And the trash can won’t work because it will either fill up or just pop out of the ground.

  42. I want to know if you can build a root cellar in northwest Florida (Zone 8b). Our property has a slight hill on it and we could dig into that, but I’m not sure if the cellar would be cool enough. A cool room in the basement is not an option as I am looking for ways of keeping resources cool without the need for power. Any advice?

    1. I checked a soil temperature map for north Florida, and I’m seeing temps in the 80-90F range near the surface. I don’t know how deep you need to go to get cooler temps, but if you do a search on “soil temperature (you location)”, you should be able to get better data and possibly data for different depths.

      My suspicion would be that you can’t easily get deep enough to get cool enough, but I’m not 100% certain.

      My friend, Paula, shared her experience keeping local produce on the table year round here – https://commonsensehome.com/above-ground-root-cellars/2/

  43. We’ve recently built an outdoor root cellar partially in the ground. As I’m just moving my canned goods in, I’m noticing droplets of water on the ceiling. We have a dual chamber, but the hygrometers that we got are not accurate. Is this normal moisture in a root cellar? Your help is greatly appreciated!

    1. It sounds like you may need to work on air circulation, especially if you want to store your canned goods in there. With water droplets coming off the ceiling, those will rust.

      Many foods need higher moisture conditions to keep well, but you have to balance that with enough air movement to avoid excess condensation. Too much condensation leads to rot.

  44. How do you store things like garlic and onions that prefer humidity of 60-70% in the same cellar as the rest that want a higher humidity of 90-95%?

    1. I keep the moisture loving veggies closer to the ground (earthen floor) and the ones that want it drier about waist height. Some people segment their storage, but we don’t have that much room. Our potatoes would like it a little cooler and damper, but we work with what we have. The preferred temperature and humidity levels are starting points, but the produce will keep outside those ranges. Maybe not as well, but it still works.

  45. This is an amazing article. It helped me a lot renovating my basement root cellar. Thank you. Greetings from Lithuania 😉

  46. I was going to use a old broken chest freezer with Styrofoam coolers in it And in a unheated garage to store vegetables. Any ideas on how it would work and what vegetable limitations it would have?

    1. It depends. You make no mention of where you are, what the temperature range is in the garage, or whether or not you have ventilation to the coolers and/or freezer.

      I’d say start experimenting and see how it works. Get a thermometer for in the garage and one or more for inside your freezer so you have some data to work with. You might want to snag one that does relative humidity, too.

      Make sure there is airflow into and out of the freezer and coolers. Watch out for temperature extremes in either direction, and build up of ethylene gas.

  47. Would you think it ok to dig a root cellar under my shop? The shop is 32′ X 18′ with a concrete floor. I’m only looking for about 6’x8′ of space. I live in zone 7, Tennessee.

    1. Hi David. This map from the Library of Congress indicates soil temeperature4s at a depth of 20 inches between 61F and 49F. with most of the state tending towards the high end of that range. Deeper should be cooler, but I’m not sure how cool you can get. You may want to check with your local cooperative extension office, or a land and soil conservation office, as they may be able to offer more insight before you start digging.

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