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Rooting for Root Cellars

July 30, 2009

Root cellars are awesome, if sometimes a little scary. When I was growing up, we’d always visit my great-grandmother’s house out in the country. It didn’t have a basement, it had a dirt cellar (no kidding, dirt floor, partial-dirt walls, no windows, single bare lightbulb). I never went down in the dirt cellar because it was too scary. It had creaky, ladder stairs (the kind you can see through) and it was really dark and smelled musty and it always seemed like it could harbor snakes and mice and rats and scary things.

Little did I know how important that root cellar was to human survival. Today we’ve got freezers and refrigerators to keep our foods cool, or rather, cold, and dark. But they are small, expensive, and energy-intensive. Root cellars use the natural temperature regulation of the earth (below the frost line) and darkness to keep veggies sound and slow the process that causes food to spoil and rot.

My dream house not only includes a big kitchen with a chest freezer and a walk-in/butler’s pantry. It also includes a root cellar (not to mention a summer kitchen). If you’re growing your own food, a root cellar is the most practical and least energy intensive way of preserving food through the winter. Or, if you’re really ambitious, until it cools off enough to can it.

I’ve always thought it would be really cool if urban developers would build root cellars underneath their underground parking garages. It would be like basement storage: each tenant/apartment would get a dark little room and a key to store whatever food they wanted from their rooftop or community gardens or CSA shares. Isn’t that a lovely idea? Too bad you’d have to run all the way downstairs to get something, but still. It could work!

The nice thing about root cellars is that you can go “shopping” in your own home. Need some potatoes or onions for a recipe? Oh wait! You’ve already got them! A quart of tomatoes? Yep! It’s down there! Garlic? Squash? Carrots? Cabbage? Daikon? Apples? Cantaloupe? All just a few steps away. Of course, whether you have these things in your root cellar depends on whether you grew them yourself (or picked them up bulk from a farmer).

Root cellars are not all play and no work, however. They need to be visited regularly (daily, even) to check for spoiled veg to discard and to make sure temp and humidity levels are right for each kind of fruit and/or veg you are storing. Have no idea what environment is good for what produce? Check out this article, which gives basic info on how and where to construct root cellars and what goes where.

There is also this intriguing article posted nearly a year ago on the New York Times website about urban root cellaring.

Then, there’s TompkinsPrepared and IthaCan, the brainchildren of residents of Ithaca, NY and its county, Tompkins, both of which seek to educate residents (and the rest of us!) about food preservation, self-sufficiency, and preparedness. Here is a great article on installing a root cellar in your basement, and nother great 11 reasons to have a root cellar.

If some of you out there are maybe thinking that root cellars are a little over the top, that canning is unnecessary, that keeping a garden is just a hobby, I ask you to think not about crazy “the apocalypse is iminent” survivalists, but the common sense, down to earth people who think that being self-sufficient is better than relying on other people for your continued existence. I’m not saying people should stop frequenting grocery stores or farmers’ markets or throw out their freezers and read by candlelight. I’m just saying that it’s nice to know that if anything were to happen (Northeast blackout of ’03, anyone?), you’d be prepared.

Maybe it’s just the Girl Scout in me (seriously, I made it to Cadettes, people), but preparedness and self-sufficiency give a big sense of security in a time of economic, and in many places around the world, political turmoil. It’s like, you’d rather not have to rely totally on yourself for all your food, or for that matter, energy production, but it’s a good idea to know how to take care of yourself if ever you had to.

Knowledge is power, people. Maybe that’s why kitchen illiteracy is such a big deal right now. You can’t eat healthily in today’s world if you don’t know how to cook.

I’m getting better at the cooking thing. It’s not hard when you’ve got fresh ingredients on hand. Which is why a root cellar would be so nice.

It’s going on my wish list, that’s for sure. And yes, you CAN put a root cellar on your wish list, just so long as your wish list includes a little house with a basement and a bit of land to garden, like mine does.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. snapdragons permalink
    July 31, 2009 7:38 AM

    I loved this entry… it’s exactly the kind of cozy, slightly-crackpot thing I go for 😉 Sparks and I are going to plump for a freezer and freeze stuff in preference to canning, though he does know how to can and did it last summer. Fortunately, we live in an area that doesn’t get power outages… so far.

  2. vintagejenta permalink*
    July 31, 2009 7:41 PM

    Hey! It’s not “slightly crackpot” if you’re a historian, right? Right? 😀

    I like freezers, too, but from an environmental standpoint, they are pretty energy intensive. I’ll save them for green veg in particular, and leave the fruit to canning and the root vegetables to cellaring. Some day, anyway.

  3. August 1, 2010 6:45 PM

    We just completed our Root Cellar a few weeks ago. The garden has started producing and the canning has just started for us. If your interested check our blog out at

    We are Off Grid and run on Solar and we really enjoy our place.

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