To live sustainably, we have to learn how to use the sun’s energy in real time – the way people used to do it before we began to depend on the super-charged sun power of fossil fuels.  Some solutions are high tech like solar panels and some solutions are low tech like root cellars.

Doug and I participated in a root cellar tour sponsored last Saturday by The Driftless Folk School.   We’ve been studying the root cellar Bible — Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Bubel, but we wanted to see some actual root cellars in action.  The tour of four functioning root cellars centered around the Soldiers Grove area of Southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.  We journeyed through deep, winding valleys where economic development is scarce and natural beauty is abundant.

This simple system stores a lot of good food.

We started at Lauren’s house.  She has been organizing root cellar tours for several years now.  She led about a dozen of us root cellar pilgrims across a snowy field to the system she and her family of four use – an old refrigerator buried in the ground, which has been keeping food cool through the winter without electricity for the past five winters.

Lauren and her husband chose the nearest north-facing slope.  They punched drain holes in the bottom and added a vent pipe to the top with a can over it to keep rodents out.  To get it cold inside, they open the door on cold nights until everything inside is chilled, and then they shut it up.  As the temperature drops, they cover it with a tarp and as the winter deepens, they top that with straw bales and another tarp.

In January, Lauren says it takes about half an hour to dig out their food, but she loves the thrill of bringing in tasty apples, potatoes, carrots and celeriac throughout the winter.  If this system interests you, find out when your community has its dead  appliance pick up day.

 Then we carpooled to Jim’s place.  Jim built his root cellar into the steep slope near his house five years ago.  He dug into the hill till he hit rock then poured concrete walls.  The roof is insulated by rigid foam panels with rocks and sod on top.

Jim decided to expand the traditional antechamber into a full-sized room, thinking it could double as a guest room.  It seemed a little too bunker-like to feel inviting to me.

I think this produce is a lot more comfortable here than I would be.

The root cellar keeps vegetables well.  He has had beets last a year and a half.  But the design has problems.    Serious amounts of moisture condense on the walls from May to October.   Warm air hits the cooler walls, and the walls start to run with water.

In retrospect, Jim wishes he would have insulated the walls and let the floor be the heat sink.  Root cellars take tweaking, but the basic principles of trapping and insulating cold air for food storage are pretty easy to create.

Our third stop was a really well-functioning root cellar built under an old farm house. 

The vent system.

Allan put two feet of recycled Styrofoam into the space between the ceiling of the root cellar and the floor above.

He built in twice the amount of vents recommended and is very pleased with the way it breates.  He manipulates his vents to draw in cold night air in the fall and bring the temperature down to close to freezing.  When it hits zero outside, he closes the vents completely.

Excess moisture is not Allan’s problem.   Most vegetables stored in root cellars need humid air to stay crisp.   Sometimes he brings in wet burlap or spritzes the floor with water.  He likes to see moisture just beginning to bead on the ceiling.

He built his shelves of cedar split rail fencing and some marine plywood he salvaged from old concrete forms.

There were a lot of good-looking rations in this 10 feetx20feet space: cabbages, Brussels sprouts, along with the usual roots.  He stores his carrots in layers padded in between with the carrot tops to keep them moist.  Allan also stores lots of apples.  He says Empire and Ida Red are good keepers,  but the area orchards are taking out their Empire and Ida Red trees and replacing them with Honey Crisp. 

The last root cellar we visited was also dug into a hillside.  The antechamber was made of stone salvaged from the foundation of an abandoned house, while the interior chamber was made of concrete brick.  Buckets of leeks were waiting to take their place  with the apples and potatoes already tucked away inside.

Doug and I are planning to build our root cellar off the back of our garage.  Our original plans involved building it off the basement of the house for easier access.  But out basement will be all used, warmed space, and it seemed problematic to insulate the root cellar well enough.  We will have to step outside to access it, but we will be keeping he path to the garage shoveled, in any case.

Here are some interesting links where you can learn more about cellaring:

Have you got your own root cellar or fuel-efficient cold storage tricks? 

(to see a great root cellar built in a different climate, check out Joanna’s submission in the comment section!)

4 replies

  1. Thanks for this great input, Joanna.
    I especially love the tires filled with dirt to build thermal mass around the structure.

    • Hi Tyler,

      Our root cellar is dug into the side of a hill, but the top was just covered with a few feet of dirt. The part of the root cellar that is below the frost line is not insulated. That way the natural and steady cool of the soil keeps it cool and steady. The top, which is not so well insulated and which would be warmer in the summer and colder in the winter is insulated.

      Hope this helps with your project.

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