Art & Science of Root Cellaring
Old timers were smarter than we think. Their understanding of root cellaring as an art or science led to the construction of simple outdoor root cellaring techniques and eventually the root cellar itself. Their mastery enabled them to subsist in very harsh climates.
In 1998 when Tourism Elliston Inc. embarked on a root cellar research project, it was those “old timers” who supplied all the information for all the research. During the restoration of 42 root cellars in 2000 and 2001, those same “old timers” showed us the “tricks of the trade” in root cellar reconstruction and construction.
Personally, I obtained first-hand knowledge and experience which no doubt heightened my interest in root cellaring and root cellars. I experienced first-hand a root cellar pride that was developing in Elliston, leading to the community establishing itself as The Root Cellar Capital of the World.
This information piece on root cellaring and root cellars is long overdue. Two excellent books on the subject, The Complete Root Cellar Book by Steve Maxwell and Jennifer Mackenzie and Root Cellaring by Mike Bubel provided me with many ideas and the structural plan to present this piece as a resource document for Tourism Elliston Inc. Rex Chaulk, one of those “old timers” of Maberly, recently stated that he “could still teach Calv a few things about root cellars.” Who am I to argue? Hopefully, this piece will entice more people to undertake the art of root cellaring.
A root cellar is a structure built underground or partially underground and used to store vegetables, fruits, and other foods. Root cellaring is the art or science of preserving any type of food supply. The origin of root cellars and root cellaring is probably lost in history. No doubt from the earliest of times the human race would have had to practise some form of root cellar preservation in order to subsist.
Certainly early settlers to North America brought their root cellaring expertise from England and particularly Ireland. The potato was first introduced to Ireland in the mid 1500’s and probably around 1588 in England. The potato became the main staple vegetable and was brought to North America by the earliest of settlers. Turnips and carrot were also introduced during the same time period. Root cellars were now required to preserve those vegetables over the winter months and into the summer months before the next harvest.
In the United States, the earliest recorded use of the term root cellar is found in an ad which advertises a farm house, near New York City in 1767. In Newfoundland, archeologists have found remnants of root cellars in Cupids dating back to the early 1600’s. The first reference in print to an Elliston root cellar was in 1846.
MOST COMMON CELLARS
Hill side cellars are constructed into the side of a hill and are usually constructed in areas that have a lot of rock and cliff. These cellars dominate Elliston’s landscape. A hold is dug out into the side of a hill and the outer walls are constructed of rock (hence the term rock cellars). In early days, the roofs were constructed with wood, but by the late 1920’s cement replaced wood in many cellars.
Cliff Side Cellar
Closely related to the hill side cellar is the cliff side cellar. These cellars were built in areas where there were one or more high cliffs. The cellar was built right into the cliff and the outer wall or walls were constructed of rock and the sides covered by sods. Several good examples of this cellar can be found in Elliston. This type of cellar was more rodent-proof and low maintenance compared to the others.
In the absence of hillsides and cliffs, the ground-up cellar was popular. In areas where you were unable to dig down due to rocks of cliffs, cellars were built from the ground up. Cellars were usually constructed with wood. Sides were also built with a close knit rock formation and mortar or cement used sparingly to seal any holes and make the cellar rodent-proof. The roof and sides were covered with sods. Many cellars of this type exist in Elliston.
Loose soil lends itself to the construction of this type of cellar. This cellar can be constructed by merely digging a hole in the ground. The recommended depth is 6-8 feet allowing enough room to be able to work easily in the space. A small shed is usually built over the hole and the hole is covered and insulated with a hatch cover. Accessibility down to the cellar is usually by ladder. Very few hatch cellars exist in Elliston.
WHY PRACTISE ROOT CELLARING?
Back before the age of refrigeration and the easy accessibility to vegetables and fruits from all over the world, it was absolutely necessary to have some form of root cellaring to preserve food. Cellars were the key to subsistence.
In the 21st century, with all the modern technology and accessibility to food, why should we have root cellars? There are several reasons why we should continue in this direction. Root cellaring is a way to store crops without using energy. The once humble root cellar is making a comeback since it is environmentally friendly. Using and storing local produce reduces the need to transport food from long distances. Root cellars, as storage facilities, reduce energy used to haul, process, and refrigerate food in the usual way.
Root cellars can give us a sense of food security. In the event of a natural disaster or a shortage of a certain crop, our stored food can always be available to us. By having a root cellar, we can avail of tasty local products and organic products with no additives and no outside energy input.
Root cellars can save us a lot of money. Buying vegetables in the height of the season means buying some quantity at a cheaper price. Watching vegetable and fruit discount specials and stocking up can practically pay for the cost of your cellar over a period of time. If you grow your own vegetables and store them in your own root cellar, it will bring a sense of pride each time you visit your cellar and bring the product to your own kitchen table.
Good preservation in a root cellar depends on achieving four essential and vital features.
- Temperature Range — 0° – 5°
Temperatures cannot dip below zero degrees Celsius in the winter months, nor climb above five degrees Celsius in the summer months to achieve optimum result for most vegetables. Potatoes, carrots, turnip, and parsnip all do quite well within this temperate range.
- Controlled Ventilation
For best results you need two vents—one to let fresh air in and the other to let stale air out. Most cellars in Elliston, however, only have one vent and this will require more attention. Galvanized metal pipe is ideal for ventilation and will not rust. Vent screens are necessary to keep rodents out. In the spring and summer it is also important to use a fly screen to keep insects and flies out. Vents should have a metal gate to control the flow of air.
This is what your household refrigerator lacks and is equally important as temperature control in the preservation of fruits and vegetables. The ideal cellar should have humidity of 70-90 percent. Most root vegetables will last 6-12 months providing that the right humidity and the right temperature are maintained. Temperature and humidity control can also be managed by proper ventilation (for example in very cold and wet, humid weather you should close your vent).
Select a spot with good drainage—sandy soil locations are ideal. Otherwise, this could lead to excess humidity which will lead to mould and sprouting. If you are building a hill side cellar, try to find a location that is easily accessible.
ROOT CELLAR MANAGEMENT
How you manage your root cellar is the key to preservation. There are a number of storage options which depend on what you are storing and the design of your cellar.
Three storage options are available to us. Executed skillfully, with attention to detail, vegetables and fruit could have a much longer lifespan.
Temperature and humidity control for different types of vegetables and fruit is, as we know, the key to keeping produce fresh. It is important now that we focus in on the role the skin plays in the preservation of all vegetables and fruit. As in humans, skin is the protective piece. Skin varies in thickness in all produce. Any breakage in skin will cause the product to decay and deteriorate in a shorter time. You can have the perfect cellar, but if your produce is bruised, dented, scratched, or broken, it will not last long. The digging of vegetables, more often than not, causes them to become damaged. Vegetables and fruit, when stored, should be treated like eggs—do not dump out large quantities into open bins.
What can we do with damaged produce? This is where graded storage techniques become important. Separate the cream of the crop from the blemished. Store the smaller, damaged produce for immediate use. The larger and better produce are best for long-term storage. Graded storage works best with portable bins rather than a permanent bin. Stack your bins with the inferior produce on top for immediate use. Remember to never wash your produce and selected vegetables need curing before they can be stored.
Separating vegetables and fruit from others is another good management technique. It will extend produce storage life. Different foods have different optimal storage conditions—some cooler, some warmer, some moister, some drier. Humidity in a cellar varies from the bottom to the top. This is why it is important to have at least two hygrometers in a cellar. Vegetables that need different humidity levels can be separated from the top to the bottom.
Separation of some fruits and vegetables is necessary because of flavour transfer. Onions stored close to apples could drastically change the flavour of your apple. Imagine eating an “onion apple!”
Some fruits and vegetables give off a colourless, odourless gas (ethylene) which could cause other produce to either ripen prematurely and spoil, or cause sprouting. Store on separate sides of the cellar or have two distinct cellar compartments. Cellar division makes great sense. Two or three divisions in your cellar would take care of humidity and temperature differences. Create insulated walls and doors for each division and make sure each division has a controllable vent. No Elliston cellar has divisions of any kind; yet, because of the skillful control of humidity and temperature, produce lasts 9-12 months.
Crop Specific Storage Containers
The bulk of root cellars have permanent bins. Different vegetables are stored in separate bins.
Stackable bins also work well especially for graded produce; portable, stackable crates work well if you want to take produce to market. Stackable bins or portable crates also prevent less damage compared to dumping a lot of produce into a large bin. It also makes it easier for us to conduct periodic examination of our stored produce. Permanent bins, on the other hand, give us the advantage of storing vegetables in large capacity. Hanging shelves also works well for some vegetables and fruit. Nearly all of Elliston’s cellars have permanent bins. Some were constructed so that the boards could be taken out and dried off during the summer.
TAKING ADVANTAGE OF FROST
Root cellars are built to keep frost out. However, frost can be used to our advantage while some vegetables are still in the ground. Frost can improve flavour in many vegetables and fruits; while prolonged exposure to frost can cause severe damage to produce. One or two frosts boosts sweetness a considerable amount. Several hard frosts improve the flavour of beets. Light frost gives cabbage a notable improved flavour. Don’t even think about digging up parsnips until at least one good frost. A moderate frost improves the flavour of both carrot and turnip. Fruit is much more delicate; however, some thick-skinned varieties of apples, such as Granny Smith, could do with a light to medium frost. The principle of stored starches converting into sugar creates a tastier produce.
SIMPLE OUTDOOR ROOT CELLARING
Some people might not have the location or means to construct a root cellar. Many vegetables can do quite well outside for several months, even with a hard frost. Some vegetables can also be kept outdoors during the entire winter period providing proper insulation is followed.
The organic blanket, the trench silo, the hole-in-the-ground cellar pit, and the garbage can cellar are four outdoor techniques whereby vegetables can be stored right in the garden and at minimum cost.
The Organic Blanket
At the end of the growing season, make an organic blanket out of clean straw, sawdust, and/or leaves, and nestle the vegetables under this blanket. This technique is highly successful in areas that have a mild winter (-4C). Only certain vegetables can be stored under this blanket. Vegetables that can take a mild to medium frost are the best candidates, such as beets, parsnip, cabbage, carrots, and brussel sprouts.
The Trench Silo
Long-keeping root crops are most suited for the trench silo. After you dig up your vegetables, leave the tops attached. By using a shovel, dig a trench. The recommended depth is 6-10 inches and the recommended width is 18-24 inches. Vegetables should be replanted close together in the trench. Soil should be replaced around them. Place another 6-10 inches of soil above them. Temperature and humidity levels below ground will preserve your vegetables. Vegetables replanted in a trench silo (small pit) are better protected than just using an organic blanket. How low the temperature can drop depends on the amount of snow covering and the soil type. Dry, sandy soil is ideal for the most effective trench silo.
The Hole-in-the-Ground Cellar Pit
This was probably the key to the survival of the human race. Root pits are simple and economical to construct, but they also offer a certain amount of inconvenience. This technique works well if certain essential principles are adhered to.
- Have good drainage, sandy soil is recommended
- Select a slightly elevated location
- Dig deeper according to severity of winter temperatures
- Flare sides to keep soil from caving in
- Line bottom and sides of hole with straw or dried leaves (protects vegetables from soil)
- Cover hole with a wooden lid at least ¾ inch thick
- Cover lid with soil
- Mark your spot in case of snow
The biggest challenge is keeping water out of the hole-in-the-ground cellar pit.
The Garbage Can Cellar
The garbage can cellar can meet the challenge of keeping water out. A galvanized metal can is the desired type. A hole is dug slightly larger than the can and the can is then set inside the hole. A lid should then be placed on top. It is important to pack soil all around the can. It also certainly helps to place a piece of styrofoam on the top of the can to act as a good insulator. Long-lasting root cellar crops will keep well even during cold temperatures. Wood barrels, if water tight, can also serve the same function.