While most of us aren’t going to move to an acreage to build out a homestead, there are tiny bits of the lifestyle that can help you save money, grow more of your own food, and feel self-sufficient. I long thought root cellars, a staple of older homes, weren’t possible living in the city, but it turns out, a root cellar is more a concept than a physical space—and you can create one in your home pretty easily.
You don’t even need to grow your own vegetables to get the benefit of a root cellar—it would allow you to buy goods when in season and less expensive, and store them for use when they’d be harder or more expensive to buy in the store.
Damp vs. dry root cellars
Table of Contents
The most fascinating thing I learned about root cellars is that you really need two spaces: one where moisture levels are kept high, and one where they’re tamped down low. For vegetables that grow in the ground, such as your root vegetables, they want an environment as close to being in the ground as possible. Cold, damp, and dark.
Meanwhile, your garlic, sweet potatoes, and squash want dry conditions and enjoy airflow. That’s your dry cellar.
Creating a dry root cellar
Your home, in all likelihood, is already close to a dry root cellar in winter. The heaters are out, but there’s likely a corner or closet that doesn’t get the heat, and is a little drafty. You might have a garage or outbuilding that will work, or an actual cellar. The conditions are just easier than they are for a damp root cellar, so as long as the temperature is 50-60 degrees F and the humidity sits around 60-70%, you’re set; your vegetables can sit in milk crates and be quite happy. You’ll want to check them weekly, but presumably, you’re raiding them for vegetables at least once a week.
Creating a damp root cellar
The hardest part of a damp root cellar is that you’re creating the perfect conditions for mold. It’s why actual cellars and outbuildings work so well. However, you can consider a partition in the garage, or an old refrigerator as the ideal space. You want to keep the air at 32-40 degrees F and the humidity as close to 100% as possible. One of the most ingenious ways I’ve seen this done is by Meg Cowden, author of Plant, Grow, Harvest, Repeat, who built a space in her garage with an open vent to the outside Minnesota air, which naturally keeps the well-insulated space at the right temperature and protects the rest of her garage from the humidity.
Most people outfit their spaces with wire racks or other easy-to-0clean shelving. (Wood wouldn’t make sense due to the dampness.) Instead of simply placing vegetables on those racks, though, you want to place them in bins or crates of sawdust, shredded newspaper, or sand. Remember, we’re recreating growing conditions. The medium, whether it’s sand or sawdust, should be moist, but not wet. You simply place the vegetables in the bins, layered with the medium. This will buy your vegetables many months of storage.
Again, you need to check in on your carrots and cabbage, etc., but one assumes if you’re going to this trouble, it’s to raid the storage often for eating.
Monitoring and maintaining the conditions
The nice thing is that we live in an age of smart tools that can help us monitor our root cellars and adjust accordingly. The first step is to get a thermometer and hydrometer. This is tricky since so many of them turn out to be unreliable. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the Smartbot hub, which measures both and reports back. Meross also has one that, so far, has worked well. You’ll want one for each of your root cellars. From there, you can create automations that turn on humidifiers, dehumidifiers or fans, the A/C, or just alert you that the conditions aren’t right so you can manually adjust them. You can even set reminders weekly to check the root cellar. And if you want to get really nerdy, you can connect the humidifier to a water source like the one you use to connect your washing machine or hose spigot.