creating a root cellar in a city basement

Our basement has been a source of aggravation for me for awhile now. It’s not finished, has a very low ceiling and a cement floor, and somehow, a full bathroom. It also contains a boat load of junk, enough cardboard to function as a shipping company, our laundry machines, chest freezer and other various house necessities, like the furnace and hot water.

We also try to store food down there – not just our canning preserves and a few shelves of alcohol – but produce like squash, onions and garlic. Since we have lived in this house, we’ve just put the produce downstairs, thinking it was a cool, dark place and that it would just miraculously function as a root cellar, preserving the veggies for a long time.

Well, it hasn’t done that. We lose a decent amount of produce to the compost pile – squishy squash and soft, moldy onions. Something isn’t right down there when it comes to the storage of veggies. So I made two goals:

1. Finish the simplifying project I started last fall by finally doing a complete overhaul of the basement’s contents as well as a new layout that optimizes the space and gives us room for food storage, laundry, general storage and a work area for Mark. 

2. Figure out what the heck is stopping us from being able to use the basement for storage of whole vegetables and rectify it. (Is it the produce? It is something I’m doing? Is it the temperature or humidity or light?)

I ordered a book from the library called Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Bubel, which seems to be the go-to text in the world of root cellaring and homesteading. It’s comprehensive enough that I’ll probably purchase a copy myself.

It covers everything from digging an actual classic root cellar into a hillside to modifying small spaces and awkward city basements. I am considering the option of turning our unused basement shower into a makeshift root cellar/cold storage for produce. (For the record, I would not remove any of the functionality of the shower for any future owners of this house, since I’m banking on the dream of having land of our own some day.) There are other options, such as building cold boxes to surround basement windows and using the steps between the basement and the dorothy doors out to the yard. Once I see what kind of space we’re working with when the extraneous crap gets removed, we’ll know better what option works for us.

I also realized that I need a hygrometer as well as a thermometer to determine what the humidity levels are in the areas where I’m going to store produce. Since the authors correctly point out that produce is always changing and undergoing its biological processes, heading toward rot and decay, it’s important to make sure the environment around the vegetables does everything to retard that process that it can.

I’ll probably also use this book as a guide for exactly how to store what type of vegetable or fruit. I think one of my big mistakes is grouping everything together, when each item has an optimal storage method, etc. I will also look into using those white styrofoam picnic coolers to create sand boxes, essentially, for some of the foods. Might be kind of fun to go down to the basement in the dead of winter with a little sand shovel and go digging for a turnip.

Have you ever experimented with cold storage of produce or root cellaring? If you’ve got any tips, share them in the comments. I can use all the help I can get!

  • Jonelle Cosgrove

    We’ve been watching Alaska: The Last Frontier non-stop lately (making me want to find 400 acres of land somewhere and truly start from scratch and live off the land). The one young family (Eivin and Eve – whom seem to really have it together and are the best prepared when winter comes) has a root cellar under their cabin/house and the episode last night showed her having problems with mold. She had cabbages hanging and all root vegetables, etc in wooden crates. She had to go through and throw out a lot. She wasn’t sure if she put it down there while still wet/too damp or if she had another problem. They didn’t go into it too much but I’m guessing something wasn’t dry enough before she put it down there. But like she said, once you have mold, if you don’t eliminate the source quickly, you lose it all. She threw a lot into their compost pile as well. From what I could tell watching, it looked like she picked the cabbages in the rain or something and they weren’t dry enough when placed down there b/c she peeled a lot off of the heads. The goats and chickens were happy though….special food for them. :)

    We don’t have a root cellar….I’m not sure what I’ll do with my root vegetables…and we still need shelves for my canning. Its still in my crates from moving in the downstairs bathroom. Since we have a heated garage, we keep it 40-45 degrees and the potatoes my mother-in-law gave us in December are in the shop (old one-stall garage) b/c its cool enough. We eventually want to wall it off, add a fridge to the freezer out there for storage, put the laundry out there, and Ron’s work space separate from the garage. I don’t know where we’ll store other stuff. So far, thankfully, we haven’t had a mice problem or anything so next year (hopefuly when we have more to store) I may use the styrofoam coolers we have for storage so it doesn’t get too cold and my other crates. I have a few onions and potatoes in our kitchen pantry b/c it stays REALLY cold but come summer I’ll have to do something else b/c I’m guessing it’ll be warm… :(

    All that rambling…not sure how helpful that was….lol

    side note – not sure if you like kale or chard (think you mentioned before you did!) I found an organic mix (while looking for spinach yesterday) or baby kale, baby chard, and spinach with carrots at Sam’s Club. Just thought I’d share….figured I’d try kale and chard this way before buying some… :)

    • Joanna Taylor Stone

      Mark loves that show – and I’ve seen a few episodes that I enjoyed myself. (I really like that they are authentic country people – not Duck Dynasty rich posers.) I’m going to have to watch the episode where they deal with the root cellar.

      I did get a hygrometer so I can measure the humidity and temp in the basement, which will give me an idea if I have mold-encouraging conditions down there. I also spend a great deal of timing cleaning it out this weekend in general – I have about 6 boxes full of cardboard and 12 lawn and leaf bags of garbage to get rid of, plus even more stuff for a yard sale this summer. Clearing out that stuff will give me more room to expand and get some shelving together.

      Costco has great mixes like that too – and that’s where our membership is. We’ve found their greens last a long time too, probably because they are in a large cooler that doesn’t get exposed to the warmth of the store. In any case, we supplement from there when we don’t have enough greens coming in from our CSA, etc.

  • Jonelle Cosgrove

    oh, I forgot…she also put a root veggie in a crate of sawdust to keep….can’t remember what….

    and…do you collect rain water for the garden? Ron and I are going to be doing that…we’re discussing where and what way to collect (trash can, etc) tied into the rain gutters. We’re waiting to bury it under our back deck (wasted space under there) and my brother suggested getting a pump to pump it out.

    Just a thought. :)

    • Joanna Taylor Stone

      Right now we don’t collect rain water, but it’s on our list to get a rain barrel since our gutter set up doesn’t really allow for easy access. But it’s a great way to save money, since especially in a dry summer, it can get really costly using the hose to give a large garden enough ‘juice’! I’ll let you know if we figure something out!

  • Jonelle Cosgrove

    Just saw a clip the other night…she had carrots in the saw dust for storage. I think she had potatoes too but not 100%. I’m sure you could store a lot of root veggies that way.