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Most people don’t use root cellars anymore. Even in my area where people live a simpler life and grow large gardens full of food, root cellars aren’t as utilized as one might think.
On a national scale, however, root cellars are coming back en vogue.
With the growing popularity of modern homesteading, people desire more and more to grow their own food. Unfortunately, many are unable to grow year-round, and must find a way to preserve their homegrown goodness if they want to enjoy it during colder months.
People often begin by freezing more of their own foods. When freezer space becomes an issue, they start dehydrating produce.
Getting more serious, they learn to water bath fruits and tomatoes, and then move on to pressure canning.
There is, however, a much quicker and easier way to preserve many foods.
Root cellars solve so many problems when it comes to having the time to can, the power to dehydrate, or the space in the freezer.
What newer seekers of self-reliance are also discovering are the other benefits root cellars have to offer.
After all, who can justify the cost of building (and space for) a root cellar that’s only going to hold some vegetables from harvest through the fall? Perhaps a bit of the winter?
What on earth would you use it for during the other months of the year? Anything? Or would it simply remain empty? Useless?
It doesn’t have to. If you want to utilize your root cellar for multiple uses throughout the year, you can.
Root Cellars Extend Your Harvest Time
My harvest is so hard and so fast, that there is no way I could keep up with it if I had to harvest, prepare, and immediately process/preserve each crop. Many things would simply freeze waiting their turn–even if I went as fast as I physically could and didn’t sleep.
Let’s say I had 5 water bath canners, 5 pressure canners, and 5 dehydrators going 24 hours a day. It still wouldn’t be possible to keep up and get all the preservation done before the freeze.
What most people don’t realize is how valuable their root cellars are at this time.
My #1 goal at harvest is just to get it out of the ground and protected. Then I’ll get it processed.
I don’t have to pull, prepare and process 100 quarts of beans in one day and do the same for 100 quarts of corn the next day.
What many people don’t realize is that even though you’d never keep corn and beans (and other crops as well) in a root cellar for any amount of time, it can be a life saver to put them in during the harvest. When the freeze comes, I’ll get all these harvested and into the root cellar first and foremost. After that, I have a week or two to pull them out and can/freeze/dehydrate just as fast as I can.
If you’re following what I’m saying, then you realize how much simpler life just got for a family like mine. I don’t have to have everything processed by the freezing time. I just have to have it harvested–which generally takes a couple days. For me, that means peas, beans, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc. For other families, it will mean other produce that probably won’t last long in a root cellar, but can stay there for a few days or weeks while processing takes place.
Root Cellars Store More Than Root Vegetables
Generally speaking, we think of the root vegetables when we picture the inside of a root cellar–potatoes, carrots, beets, etc. In my experience, however, there are other things that last just as long–and sometimes longer–in the cellar.
We keep apples, tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini, gourds, and watermelons in ours. Gourds and zucchini often last until the next spring. We order 80 pounds of oranges each December. Oranges that don’t get eaten fresh or canned usually last in the cellar for quite a while as well.
I’ve heard other people have success with pears, but we sure don’t. I’d advise you to talk with a neighbor that still uses a root cellar to see what they have success with. If you don’t have access to an experienced neighbor, experiment with small amounts of various crops that you think would work for you.
Cabbages, parsnips, garlic, various greens, celery, turnips, and many other crops could all be good options for you.
We braid our onions and keep them in the pantry, not the root cellar, but if you’re just starting out this might be a good option for you.
Using A Root Cellar To Force Crops
The first crop we can hope to get around here is asparagus in May. If there is rain, we may find mushrooms. In June we could possibly start to get rhubarb. It won’t be until July until anything else is available outside for fresh eating.
This makes for some really long winters.
With the aid of a root cellar, however, many crops can be forced early and then brought out. The aforementioned asparagus and rhubarb are just two of them. Of course I’ll have to return them to the ground each year and won’t be able to force the same plants for a couple years, but it’s so worth it to have fresh asparagus in April, often when there is still snow on the ground.
I feel that (at least in this area) this is a lost art. It’s not the easiest gardening you’ve ever done, but totally worth it when you can discipline yourself to stick with it.
Root Cellars Can Help Overwinter Sensitive Perennials
Many crops that are perennials in warmer areas could never make it through one of our -30° F winter days. For example, our artichokes wouldn’t stand a chance. However, I can bring a crown into the cellar and often overwinter it. This gives me the opportunity of getting a plant into the ground every year instead of starting it from the seed with the chance of not even getting a harvest each year.
This year I will also overwinter some of my flowering plants. Again, this should save me from having to grow them from seed and hopefully also give me bigger plants next year.
Use Your Root Cellar To Save Seeds You Otherwise Couldn’t
All those biennials in your garden that freeze and die every year before they go to seed? You just might be able to hibernate them in your root cellar over the winter so they will flower and seed for you the next year.
This is an excellent skill to learn for those who want to save their own heirloom seeds.
A Root Cellar Full Of Meat
I currently don’t have a scrap of meat in my root cellar. But if you cure your own meats, a root cellar makes excellent storage for it.
A Root Cellar Full Of Dairy
I know a lot of people who make their own dairy products on a continual basis. I’m not that person. I don’t think I could ever be that person.
When I do those things, I do them in big batches. And I don’t think I do any cheese at all from the time we plant to the time we harvest. If we want homemade cheeses during this time, it better be already made.
Root cellars are perfect for storing cheeses, and are an especially good place to store cheeses that must be aged.
A Good Root Cellar Is A Good Wine Cellar
If you keep any kind of spirits, for pleasure, for barter, or medicinally, you’ll need a safe place for them. Root cellars are perfect.
A Proper Root Cellar Can Be An Emergency Shelter
There are never tornadoes in Idaho.
Well…until there was one. It was less than 5 miles away when it touched down.
If you live in an area with tornadoes, it’s a good idea to have your root cellar built to withstand tornadoes. If you’re like us and don’t think it can happen to you, it’s a good back-up to have just in case it does.
Tornadoes aren’t, of course, the only thing you might need your root cellar for one day. There are other acts of nature and natural disasters that you may want to ride out in a shelter in the future. Keeping that in mind when you build your root cellar could one day save your life.
A Cool Place On A Hot Day
This probably seems silly to anyone reading who is on the grid. But I promise you, if you don’t have air conditioning or fans, it won’t seem so silly.
You likely won’t have any produce in the cellar during your hottest months.
In the heat of July when your only options to cool off are in the shade, in the river, or in the cellar, you’ll be pretty content to find that empty cellar and have a siesta during the warmest part of the day. Just make sure your shelves are wide enough and long enough when you build.
You’ll be glad you did.
Getting Your ROI On Your Root Cellar
Even if you build your own root cellar, you’re going to have a heavy cost. Paying someone else will run you a few thousand dollars. You’re going to want to plan carefully to get the best return of investment you can.
Plan for your root cellar to be working for you all year long. If you’ve got fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and plants in there all year, it’s continually in commission.
Consulting the proper resources will tell you what you need to also make your cellar function as an emergency shelter. If your shelter saves just one life, this alone will make it worth even the highest of costs.
Help Maximizing Your Root Cellar’s Worth
Are you hoping to build your own root cellar? Not sure where to start, or just want to watch someone else go through it? Check out Teri Page’s Building A Homestead Root Cellar.
For more information, read, Building A Root Cellar.
What else do you (or would you) use a root cellar for?