How to build a Root Cellar for Food Storage


Dan's GardenDan’s Garden (Photo credit: Travis S.)

This inexpensive root cellar is user-friendly from its construction to its maintenance.

Learning how to build a root cellar will help your family preserve and store food during the winter season. Not long ago, just about every family in the world’s colder climes had one of these harvest keepers for food storage — a root cellar. Nestled inthe earth — and away from the heat of the kitchen — a root cellar maintained a temperature just above freezing and provided practical food storage for root crops, apples, meats and cabbages throughout a long winter.

Of course, the heyday of the homestead food storer ended a good while ago. When folks gained access to refrigerators and supermarkets, the root cellar was pretty much forgotten. In fact, by the time I was a lad, all the root cellars in our area had long since been abandoned. The deteriorating structures were used only by us youngsters as “secret” forts.

Nowadays, though, there’s been a revival of interest in practical, inexpensive ways of preserving food. More and more people are rediscovering the wisdom of constructing a place to store unprocessed, homegrown edibles. And, even though building a root cellar requires a fair investment in labor and materials, the finished shelter uses absolutely no operating energy and demands no maintenance or upkeep.

The root cellar shown in the Image Gallery was built by my father, Ted Roberts, in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. Dad started the project by excavating an 8-by-8-by-20 foot cavern using a backhoe.

The bottom of the cellar was lined with sand for drainage purposes. When building the walls, though, Father laid a concrete base that had an upwardly protruding inner lip. The L-shaped foundation would both support the weight of the cedar log walls and brace the base of those rounds against the tons of sideways “cave-in” pressure the earth-banked structure would be exposed to.

Every cedar log was peeled and then cut square (on each of two opposing sides) in order to make sure that the vertically stacked timbers would all fit snugly in place. The ceiling cedars were notched where they rested atop the wall logs so that — like the concrete base lip — the horizontal beams could help brace the cellar’s sides.

Father outfitted the front of the root cellar with double doors, which were separated by an air space to keep out the cold. (He used an acetylene torch to cut the rustic-looking hinges and hasp shown in the photos.) The storage house is also wired for electricity. When especially cold nights bring temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero, the cellar’s incandescent light warms up the inside temperature a few degrees to make absolutely sure that the put-back food doesn’t freeze.

With the assistance of Dad’s “emergency” heater, the finished cave stays a few degrees above the ice-up point throughout the entire Wisconsin winter. And it holds its even coolness during warm March thaws — when mourning cloak butterflies migrate over gray snow — and through surprising and stark May blizzards. Around midsummer, the earth-sheltered space warms up to about 55 degrees, but winter-stored crops are gone by then, and there are fresh vegetables in the garden.

A root cellar will eventually pay for itself by allowing its owner to store up food that is either homegrown or practically free for the picking at harvest time. For just one example of economical food hoarding, let’s consider apples. If you gather five or ten bushels of unblemished red fruits late in the growing season (when they’d otherwise only fall and rot on the ground), the inexpensive edibles will keep for months in the cellar and provide you with a winter’s worth of fresh fruit for juices, eating and cooking.

A root cellar is also a good place for storing your game, smoked meats and cheeses. Such food shelters offer complete protection from basement mice, marauding raccoons and other pests. (I know of Alaskan homesteaders who find root cellars to be their only sure protection against food-stealing brown bears!) My mother even uses her cellar to store the huge potted ivies which decorate her patio in warmer months but cannot live through Wisconsin winters. The plants survive the cold season in the root cellar in a naturally dormant state. The crop holders are useful in summer, too for storing wine, live fish bait and other products that profit from a cool, protected environment.

All in all, it’s plain to see that folks who want the independence of being able to eat their own fresh, home-stored food will find that the notion of building a root cellar is an idea whose time has come…back.

3 thoughts on “How to build a Root Cellar for Food Storage

  1. This is an older post, but just wondering:
    How about the water table there? I live in a VERY low water table area: soggy ground a lot. Would this work there?
    And do you perhaps have some plans for this root cellar? The description is great, but I’m a novice and need pictures at the least in order to build something similar.
    Thanks! I have all flat land ( great for using, but not so much for having a great root cellar!) I recently saw a property where they found a “hobbit-like” root cellar built into a hillside….ENVY!

    1. Our water table is pretty low so we are able to do this. If you have a high water table, depending upon the height you may be able to add some kind of drainage, and build up your floor to accommodate it. But to be honest your best option would be to do a hobbit style. You do not want unneeded water in the floor as it will cause rot and fester plant disease.

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