Many old farmhouses had earthen floors; they were cool and damp in the winter, ideal for storing root crops, potatoes and apples. Sometimes, a small stream ran through the cellar floor, which provided a cooler for milk, cheese and other food and drink. Rural folk traditionally stored food in their home cellars or in outside root cellars. This changed when urban food production came into place after the “Great Depression” of the 30s along with central heating and refrigeration. You can still find root cellars in the hinterlands of Vermont. I call them The Underground Garden.
Elliot Coleman, in his book Four-Season Harvest says, “I think of my root cellar as a secret underground garden into which I spirit away many of my crops when winter threatens.” Many woodchuck gardeners used to have root cellars; I’m afraid it’s becoming a lost art.
I once had a friend who lived on the side of a mountain. He built a root cellar in the 70s on the hillside just south of his home. Easy access came from the gravel road, where he could drive his truck right up to the root cellar. The site was protected from the north wind and snow drifts. The door opened to the east, not the south where it would have received too much sun. My friend used the Scott Nearing simple stone construction method. First, pour concrete footings and then, using movable wooden frames, fill them with cement and rocks and let them dry. Then move the frames above the first-poured section and start again. It’s simple and practical “Woodchuck” technology.
Externally, the root cellar was seven-feet wide and thirteen-feet long, which translated to five-feet wide and eleven-feet long inside. He built a framed, flat tar roof and used orange foam board to give the structure additional insulation then filled in the sides with soil. Before you entered the root cellar, there was a mud room that provided an air-lock space between the outside and the cellar. This was why the structure was so long and why he could enter the root cellar with ease in the winter. Two half-doors swung in, then the main insulated door with two barrel bolts kept it shut. For ventilation, a four-inch aluminum pipe went through the top of the cellar. The pipe had a damper, just like those used with a wood stove. If it was too moist, the damper was opened all the way.
Timing is critical when using a root cellar because the temperature has to be cool enough to protect the vegetables. You don’t want carrots ripening in September when the cellar is still too warm. The key is to grow crops that ripen late in the season when the cellar has begun to cool down. The way to do this is to start opening up the doors in the evening and closing them in the morning. A rhythm of lowering the temperature starts in October and November. On a cold November day, a decision is made to harvest the root crops and fill up the root cellar, which now is the correct temperature.
For a family of four you should be able to store: eight bushels of potatoes, three bushes of carrots and two bushels of turnips and beets. Cabbage is tricky to store because the cellar has to be at the correct moisture level. Store cabbage and leeks closest to the mud floor where there’s more moisture. And make sure to leave the main root on the cabbage hanging up.
The right root varieties are also critical for storage purposes. Here are some hardy ones:
- Lutz Winter Keeper, a variety of beet
- Burpee’s Short and Sweet hardy carrots
- Nantes and Danvers carrots
- Gilfeather Turnips
- Green Mountain Potatoes
The root crops were stored in plastic milk crates. During the coldest times in winter, when there were seven days of sub-zero temperatures, a candle was lit in the mud room that kept the thermometer at 33 in the root cellar. If it had been colder, you know what would have happened.
In November, my friend made the last batches of apple cider. He would fill glass gallon containers to within 1/4 inch from the top and capped them. The sweet cider was unpasteurized. By then the temperature in the cellar was down around 35 degrees and the cider would keep all winter, believe it or not. Apples were not stored in the cellar because they gave off gases that affected the root crops, but they did store a five-gallon wooden apple barrel of vinegar.
One final note for all you cosmic gardeners out there. During the 12 holy nights right after Christmas, my friend placed his garden seeds in sealed containers in a box of compost in the root cellar. According to biodynamic gardening, burying seeds during the holy nights imbues them with cosmic life-giving forces. After the holy nights, the seeds were moved to the garden shed. Keep in mind, in nature seeds live in the earth, and just look how well they do in the spring—especially those weed seeds in your garden. Most of the seeds the public purchases stay up on the fifth floor of a seed building all winter.
Maybe we can all meet this winter in The Underground Kingdom. It would be a great place to see the many bins of potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips and cabbage and perhaps have a sip of sweet apple cider. Us Woodchucks call it, “Si dah.” It makes me thirsty just thinking about it.
image: Brenden F (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)