4 very simple do it yourself root cellar ideas!

The biggest challenge, at least for me, with gardening is preserving the harvest. It makes me sick to think of the amount of food I have let go to waste through not having these skills. Root cellaring is something I am looking at hard as it is a no impact way to store food. It uses the earth to maintain the freshness of the crops stored within.

Idea #1

Bury a 5 gallon bucket and cover it with a straw bale.


Photo via mother earth news


Idea #2

Build a root cellar from plastic drums

Another Barrel Design

Idea #3
Make it out of pallets
Pallet wood root cellar

Idea #4
A galvanized trash can. This is basically the same as the barrel one so I am cheating a bit.

Trash Can Root Cellar
Another Trash Can Root Cellar

Author: Nick-LaDieu

Webmaster of SaveOurSkills.com. Budding skill enthusiast and modern survivalist. When nick isn't plotting his next project he is probably running with his dogs, riding his mountain bike, or fiddling with his home theater.

  • Now, how does that work for high humidity/high water table areas? If I’m not mistaken, that’s one reason we don’t really have these cellars in the south. They just don’t work that well

  • Anonymous

    great question. I’ll put it out to facebook and see what comes back. My initial thoughts are a gamma sealed bucket could address your issue… BUT I don’t know

  • This is not a simple root cellar by any means, but this is an incredible example of an extremely well built one. This belongs to my friend Stella that I met through the Backwoods Home forums. I got to visit her home in Kentucky last year with my friend, and was amazed at everything there. Not only was it just a beautiful place to see, but to see what they have done and made is amazing. Stella is the fourth generation on her 100 acres, which in itself is amazing in this day and age. Check out this post about the root cellar, and look through the rest of her blog too. It’s well worth the read.
    The purpose of the trip there was not only to meet an online friend, but to make some videos for my friend Tammie’s blog and Youtube channel. Watch the two-part series on the McGuire Homestead that we filmed there. The history behind her place is as interesting as the way they live there now. http://www.youtube.com/user/TheUnusualFarmchick#p/u Tammie’s other videos are worth checking out too. Not to plug her stuff here, but she does some amazing things herself.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing chris. Also a note to the community… if your just trying to link up to someones cool blog etc that is GREAT! I want you to do it!

    The only types of posts that are spammy are selling of products… SO feel free to PLUG AWAY… thanks again and I’ll check out her blog

  • OK good to know. I’ll get links to mine and Tammie’s blogs. Would do it now, but I just had a friend pull in carrying donuts. Priorities ya know hahaha

  • I actually researched some more about it and high humidity/high temps are the worse possible conditions for a root cellar. 90 ft down would be optimal. I figured if I’m digging that far it better be for a well!

  • Anonymous

    my opinion would be to try a 5 gallon bucket approach with some carrots and just see what the results are. Worst case you are out some carrots… maybe even use store bought if you don’t want to use your own home grown.

    Then you can report back with the results

  • Humidity can be a good thing. It all depends on what you’re storing. If you want to store apples, pears, cabbage, turnips, rutabaga, etc, 80-95% humidity is ideal (provided you still have significant air flow, which is more likely the problem for most people). Of course if you want to store sacks of grain, you want the lowest possible humidity.

    If you look at old root cellars, you’ll often see them segmented into 2 or more “rooms” with a simple dividing wall, or ventilated in such a way that one side remains very dry while the opposite side is very humid. The latter takes some engineering know-how, but there are many examples out there to be seen. Those variable climate designs were used to suit the needs of different crops.

    The advantage of barrel cellars as suggested in the article become obvious. You can control the environment of each barrel separately, with their own unique micro-climates suited to the particular food being stored within.

    The down-fall of small scale root-cellars and barrels is that they are quite variable in temperature, humidity, airflow etc. The mass of a large root cellar makes these factors fairly constant. Getting that consistency without the volume and mass of a larger structure is much harder. Luckily, we have better materials than our ancestors. Humidity can be retained with ventilated bags (like you see used for produce packaging). We have more options for the thermal conductivity and insulative properties of the storage vessels.

    With high humidity, fungus can become a problem. Many people labor under the belief that they need only dig a hole and put stuff in it. For longer term storage, proper food prep is needed. Since I’m more familiar with apples, I’ll use them as an example.

    Some recommend individually wrapping each in a piece of newspaper and stacking them on wire racks so that air flows between them. This does work very well compared to throwing them in a pile or baskets.

    Others mix clean water with honey at a 4:1 ratio and spray the apples with the mixture. That seals in ethelyene gas (which many fruit give off during ripening, which causes other fruit exposed to it to begin ripening), and the honey is a powerful anti-fungal, resisting mold infections.

    As the old saying goes, “Don’t let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch”. Remove any bruised or damaged fruit before storage. Never store the “king” fruit with the rest of the crop. Don’t mix early and late varieties of the same fruits, as the old produce will accelerate the rotting of the new fruit.

    Many items are not introduced into the cellar before they’ve been seasoned. Onions for example should not be brought in until the stems are totally dry. This means waiting anywhere from a week to a month after harvest.

    You can also use the properties of one crop to reinforce the longevity of other crops. Storing sage, garlic and bay leaf will deter pantry moths (the bane of any root cellar), making your grain crops less susceptible to infestation. Store your rice in a bin, store your potatoes in the rice. The rice will keep moisture and light away from the potatoes while not leeching moisture from them, nearly doubling your shelf life.

    Preinoculation of certain types of molds, yeasts, and mushrooms can actually be a good thing. Those beneficial fungi can keep out the other fungi and bacteria that rot our food. Try starting some oyster mushrooms or white buttons in the cellar. The spores will get everywhere and grow where ever they can. But where they grow, toxic molds can’t get a foot hold. You’ll have turned a potential risk area in your storage into additional food.

    Root cellars are by no means absent in the south. They’re more common in the north because we have a shorter growing season, and thus a more pronounced need for long-term food storage. In the south most crops were stored in stone or mud buildings like root cellars, but they were primarily above ground and used for drying. That doesn’t mean they need to be built in that fashion, they just were in the last 200 years due to the development of canning and the crops grown in that region.

    You also mention a high water table. In the southern mid-west there simply weren’t many cellars of any type until recently (the last 100 years). The water table is the reason. Unless you where on a hill or one of the few elevated plains, the water table was very high. That part of the country sits on a fresh water aquifer that’s over 4,000 times the size of the great lakes, Urban developments, damming and industrialized agriculture have driven it down over 30 feet from it’s historical height (don’t worry, there’s still a small ocean there, it’s not running out any time soon). But that is yet another reason why there aren’t many old root cellars. By the time the water had receded enough for it to be feasible for many to build a cellar in the most populated areas, they had developed a food-culture that simply didn’t make use of the cellar. All the traditional holiday recipes called for dried, pickled, rehydrated, canned, or even frozen ingredients, as traditionally fresh wasn’t available during that time of the year. The south has longer seasons, but a much more pronounced tradition of eating seasonally.

    If you have a high water table, you can build above ground. High water tables usually mean lots of clay. You want 1′ of earth insulation all the way around the storage vessel. You could buy a pre-fabricated plastic tool shed, pack the interior walls with a foot of dirt from floor to ceiling, and wall it in with ply-wood. You can use buckets inside of barrels with an earthen insulation. Just keep them out of the sun. The idea there is commonly used in Africa and India where refrigeration isn’t available. The pot – inside dirt – inside a bigger pot model is ancient and effective. If the pots themselves are clay, the transpiration of water between the layers adds even more cooling. It’s so significant in fact, I recall seeing plans for whole house cooling systems using moist sand and clay heatsinks based on the same principals used in root cellars. A Third-world air condition system made up of nothing but dirt, no electricity needed, and it actually works.

    Here’s a simple test for you. Buy a small bag of onions. Keep one on your counter or in your pantry (wherever you normally keep onions in your house). Take another from the same bag and put it in a clay (not plastic) flower pot, cover the top with the drip tray that came with the pot, bring it out to the back yard and bury it 1′ under the ground. When the kitchen onion gets soft, or begins to stink, toss it out and dig up the other one. Look to see if there’s a difference. If it looks good, bury it again and come back in 2 days, and then another 2 days, and so on until it’s rotten. If there’s a big difference between the two onions (30 days +) I say it’s time to build a root cellar. If there’s little difference at all, your land may be too wet, too dry, infected with unfriendly molds or bacteria, so stick to using the fridge. There are many variables to consider when planning a root cellar, but nothing beats your own experience and observations when it comes to making the decisions in that design.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for all the ideas (insane libertarian wacko, too). Wondering where the fourth simple idea is? 😉

  • Anonymous

    1 – bucket 2 barrel 3 pallets 4 trashcan

  • I’ll
    back again for sure, thanks for great article 😀

  • I’ll
    back again for sure, thanks for great article 😀

  • My daughter told me to use a defunct chest freezer….cover the top with bales of straw in the same fashion…..and I think that’s just brilliant! it’s insulated and watertight

  • JMS

    I built a trash can root cellar following the basic design shown above. It works great except for one problem: There is alot of condensation in there and a couple of things are getting moldy. Any ideas?

  • Anthracitesnow

    I have not built one yet, but I am looking at something much bigger. But from reading about them, I would think that on your scale, if you were to build a new one. I would think that you could add a couple of vent pipes. ( 1″ or so) One placed down low for the in-take and one up high for exhaust. These would be external to your barrel type of containter and fixed so that critters can’t get into them. The barrel just needs to have the holes cut in it for the pipes to inter through and siliconed cocking to seal up the area around them. And maybe about 6″ of gravel and sand put in the bottom of the hole for drainage. a few small silts or holes drilled in the bottom should work. I think that if one looks at how the root cellars are made and ventilated, one should be able to make one of any size of scale with the same principles applyed.

  • Benito Burqueno

    I Simply dug a 4ft x 3ft x 3ft hole lined it with weed cloth and a tarp.and covered it with some plywood and grass clippings.it keeps my chili and corn good for a long time

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  • Abbey House

    Can you have a successful root cellar in Texas? The temperatures in the summer are well over 100 degrees–even the water from the faucet is hot.

  • Emily

    Hey, Nick, the first link for a trash can root cellar now redirects to somewhere else.

  • saveourskills

    Thanks. I’ll try to find some replacement content

  • vmfisher

    Just be sure to allow for ventilation. We did that once, not knowing what we were doing, and everything rotted because we didn’t ventilate it.

  • micah

    i made a cellar with the garbage can idea, here is what we did with ours: http://youtu.be/kswmrk_p5n0

  • kc

    If you have to ventilate your barrel/trash can won’t the bugs consume your food? Could you add kitty litter to the bottom of the barrel with a rack slightly above to hold your food off of the litter? Would it absorb the moisture without exposing food to outside pathogens & insects? I live in the S in a very hot, humid environment.

  • Mel Bell

    I’m in tx as well and would love to know the answer to this question.

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  • thundercloud47

    What do you do for ventilation? The root cellar we had when I was a kid was ventilated to prevent buildup of gases that veggies give off. Too much gas and your food will spoil quickly.