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dear gayla: the root cellar of our dreams?

historic root cellar, MinnesotaDEAR GAYLA: I wanted to write immediately, because if anyone would understand this latest mad urge, it would be you. Oh help me, please, but I want a root cellar in the very worst way.

a series of letters to a friend

‘DEAR GAYLA’ is how each installment of occasional “out-loud” letters to my garden-blogging friend Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl [dot] com begins. If you want to backtrack, here are links to the first and second letters in our series.

The latest longing for a way to store my garden produce properly overtook me last week, when I was looking for images of roots (as in those ant-farm-like diagrams of a cross-section beneath the soil surface of the prairie).  One of the “autofill” suggestions that appeared when I started typing r-o-o-t into a Library of Congress photo-archive search was the phrase “root cellar,” and I could not resist.

Suddenly, down the rabbit hole into underground repositories of yesteryear I went, touring historic root cellars around the United States that had been surveyed as part of a Historic American Building Survey for the National Park Service, I believe.

I couldn’t help myself; I started clicking on them, imagining carrots and beets, cabbages and apples, potatoes and parsnips and who knows what else all happily tucked in their respective corners. Of cellars like this one, in the state of Washington:

Historic root cellar, state of WashingtonOr another, on the North Bank of Sailor Gulch, near Boise, Idaho:

Boise, Idaho, historic root cellarOr this one from Yuma County, Colorado:

Historic root cellar in Yuma County, COSurvivalist websites, of course, are full of root-cellar (and bunker!) plans, but I was thinking something prompted less by a gloom-and-doom sense of worry than by my hopes for a fruitful year ahead, you know?  I want something romantic, like this one in Minnesota that even has a charming path leading to it, maybe (seen in full up top):

Historic root cellar, Minnesota

My 1880s-vintage basement, with an unmortared foundation, might have been good for root cellaring at one time in its long history, when the now-cement floor was still dirt and the stones were more stable. But it’s none too inviting at this point. A dungeon, really—and I dare not actually introduce edibles to the resident mix down there, which right now is mostly small, furry and four-footed (well, plus the occasional snake in summer).
I do have a substantial bulkhead leading from it to the outdoors, and I suppose that could be lined with animal-proof mesh and turned into a repository, but it’s not big enough to stay just above freezing in a deep coldspell, I fear. I’d have to crack open the door to the rest of the basement to try to adjust it, and that would be a real loss of heat inside. Not ideal. The other tricky part, of course, is that different fruits and vegetables prefer different temperatures and humidity levels. Lots to learn.

Apparently the primary keys to success are temperature, humidity and also one I didn’t think about: ventilation. Cold air from outside needs to drop down into the cellar, and warm air needs to rise, in a sort of ongoing siphoning motion. I’m studying up on how to do that in “Root Cellaring” by Mike and Nancy Bubel, which I just bought a copy of. (I’m giving a couple of copies of it away this week; see the box below.)

In case you’re interested, Gayla, I gathered some article links from among the scraps I’ve read these last days, before my copy of “Root Cellaring” arrived (note: that’s an Amazon affiliate url).  The stories I bookmarked:

Looks like I am going to have to dig a really big hole (which reminds me of this doodle by my friend Andre Jordan that had nothing to do with vegetable storage, but rather with marriage rockiness, I think). Of course I could always just pile it up in a mound…like in this wacky and wonderful 1942ish Farm Security Administration graphic:

1942 Farm Security Administration food storage graphicBe sure to toggle through the stash of root cellar photos over at the Library of Congress. There are even architectural drawings for many of them. Wonderful—even though they were documented in their long-past-prime condition and could use a little TLC to be put back to the test.

Speaking of which: Are you feeling inspired, or energetic? Will you and Davin and Molly be down to help excavate anytime soon? Frost is leaving the ground gradually…please hurry!

More soon.

M.

giveaway: ‘root cellaring’ book

by mike and nancy bubelI’M READING “Root Cellaring” by Mike and Nancy Bubel, and maybe you’d like to read along with me. Two extra copies I bought will be up for grabs to winners chosen at random after entries close at midnight Monday, March 25. To enter, answer this question in comments below:

Do you stash any homegrown or farm-market produce into the fall and winter, and if so, where?

I mostly freeze things in soups and such, and store produce such as garlic, onions and potatoes in my insulated but unheated barn until around mid-December, then move things to the coolish mudroom in my house.

Good luck to all–and more on food storage later, when I study up a bit further.

(Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links earn me a small commission, which I use to buy more books for future giveaways.)

  1. Laura says:

    Haven’t done to much in the way of storing the harvest, other than canning/freezing. Haven’t had way too much of anything the last couple years. Hoping to expand the garden and growing season with a greenhouse addition this year. Really interested in a root cellar – since our basement isn’t ideal either. Thanks for the story & links! [and giveaway :)]

  2. Emma says:

    We freeze our own raspberries and blackberries. The garlic and eggs from our laying flock are stored in a well-insulated but unheated mudroom/pantry/laundry room. Our potatoes, onions, carrots and squash go into the small dirt-floored cellar beneath the log house part of our hybrid home (the conventional part is built on a cement pad). But a root cellar – that sounds like a wonderful idea!

  3. Amy says:

    sadly I don’t stash anything, as I have no place to put it! However I too dream of a well stocked root celler one day.
    I loved this article and will be sharing it with a friend who has the intention, space and means to build a cellar of her very own soon. Thank you Margaret!

  4. Lee Stecher says:

    For lack of a root cellar at this time, I freeze and can, plan to have a root cellar in the basement of my new tiny home I am planning.

  5. teresa says:

    Have no where to store anything now, but I do happen to have the perfect place to build one. Been trying to talk my husband into it for several years. Maybe a book would help…..

  6. Wendy Rosen says:

    Well, we also suffer from root cellar envy. But last year my husband, veterinarian, brought home his company’s discarded paper records cabinet. It’s got six long, deep drawers. We set it in our carport, in Auburn, WA, and …stored several varieties of onion, potatoes, beets, garlic

  7. Steph N says:

    I stash winter squash and garlic in my kitchen, because that’s really the only space in my apartment for it. They still last the better part of the winter, thankfully.

  8. Cindi says:

    I store garlic and onions I grow. I put them in mesh bags that fruit comes in and place in my unheated basement. They do good enough to get me to next spring. I have stored acorn and butternut squash also.

  9. Connie says:

    Store winter squash and garlic in a room in our house that is partially underground and not heated. Also keep a crock in same room that stores homemade sauerkraut. My husband and I always point out root cellars to each other if we see them when driving in the country. We both dream of constructing one, just another aspect of wanting to be less and less dependent on grocery stores.

  10. Marty says:

    I would L-O-V-E a root cellar! I would love this book. In the meantime I store potatoes, squash and onions in my basement, and I freeze collards, kale unblanched and use them in soups during the winter.

  11. Linda says:

    I freeze a lot of produce, can vegetable pickles, dry a few herbs and keep potatoes, onions and winter squash in an unheated porch. I’ve thought about putting together a root cellar for years.

  12. Delinda T says:

    I mostly just freeze and can my fruits and veggies. I dry my herbs and also a variety of peppers. I have dreamed of having a root cellar for quite some time. We just bought 30 acres of wild & natural property. I have many plans for several gardens and animals etc… There are also many hills that would be perfect for a root cellar like the the romantic Minnesota root cellar with the charming path leading to its door.

  13. Deborah L says:

    When I first moved into my house (built in the ’30s) I wondered what in heck they had done to the part of the basement underneath the front entryway extension. What were those strange holes drilled into the foundation block? Too small for dryer vents, and wrong part of the basement anyway… so I filled them in with cement. (To be fair, they were major mouse portals.) Many years later, after I started growing vegetables, I bought the Bubels’ book… and, of course, realized that my basement had had a very handy and functional north-facing root cellar with proper ventilation. So this summer I will bore the holes back out again and fit vent pipes back into their proper places (covered with hardware cloth this time). Everything else is good to go, if I can just keep the mice out… sigh… Lord knows where they are getting into the basement now, but getting in they surely are.

    In the meantime, I have had good luck storing potatoes and onions underneath the bed of an unheated back bedroom.

  14. T W says:

    We have primarily canned and frozen our produce so far and would like to learn how to store out roots crops long term.

  15. Jenetta says:

    I have kept onions from our garden in our basement food storage room that’s just a little too warm to call a root cellar!

  16. Teaspoon says:

    All I managed to put up from last year was spinach, which grew at a truly alarming rate. I think there’s still one 1 cup packet left in the freezer wanting to be added to some lasagne. I want a root cellar in the worst way–we have an unheated attached shed that will do for a month or two, but it quickly gets well below freezing and stays that way. In December and January, we can often freeze leftovers faster in the shed than in the freezer!

  17. Laura Schlaikjer says:

    I tend to freeze everything since I have not had much luck overwintering squash in the basement. Hubby would kill me if he found butternuts in a closet… I do store onions and garlic with good success.It’s all cement down there, so not the perfect food storage are. I would love to find the best way to store tomatillos. I have a great harvest every year, but most of it rots before I can use it.

  18. Sharon says:

    I cannot imagine storing garlic and onions in the garage….how do you keep the vermin away? I have a very cool area under my mountain cottage in Cana, Va, and can do my mason jarred canning produce there, but other than that, I cannot imagine storing fresh produce. We have lots of snakes and mice and I am always using mothballs and such beginning in Spring for snakes under there, as well as around perimeter of the cottage.. I have always dreamed of having a root cellar…..just like the one pictured. There is one I saw in Valle Crucis, NC, under as ascending road and it is sooooo beautiful.

  19. Russ Turner says:

    Having no safe storage facilities for my potatoes I par boil then frezze them in meal size freezer bags. I would just love to have a root cellar.

  20. Kathy s says:

    Wine doesn’t count I suppose? Haha. Mostly have just stored squash and garlic in my basement but would love to do more. My parents always did more and I didn’t appreciate it much as a kid but now I sure do!

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