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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Root Cellar Part 1

A root cellar for fall and winter storage is a must for any latitude, even in the far south where cold-season temperatures may not reach a cellar’s ideal levels between 32 and 40 degrees F. But, the simple fact is, the cooler one keeps any food (with few exceptions), the longer it will last. And let us suppose that one has a working windmill, which, as is most often the case, barely provides the very basic electrical needs of a home. Wouldn't it be highly advantageous to place a refrigerator and freezer in the root cellar’s 55-degree winter environment rather than in the 68-degree environment of the house? A 13-degree difference (or more) would translate into a substantial reduction in required electrical output!

You may manage to equip your trib’ home with refrigerators and freezers, but what if the electrical source(s) you plan to use will not hold out? Therefore, for bulk storage under such unreliable tribulation circumstances, a large root cellar or two is a very wise choice, especially when they are not much more than glorified holes in the ground (i.e. not very expensive). If cellars can keep fresh foods edible for even a month longer than the case would be without them, while also providing better summer temperatures for canned and dried foods, cellars will be indispensable additions to all our efforts. But in mid-to-northern latitudes, you’ll get a lot more than a month in fall and winter, for many foods.

A root cellar and cold cellar are the same thing. It calls for high humidity of 80-90% in order to keep fresh vegetables from losing their moisture and shriveling up. A damp soil floor provides this condition best. A concrete floor will provide lower humidity, but this is a better condition for some fresh foods, not to mention dry goods. Some root cellars wisely include two rooms, one with, and one without, a concrete floor.

In cold climates, why not include four rooms: 1) for fresh foods that must not freeze: consider using insulated walls and soil floor; 2) for fresh foods that may safely freeze, and requiring high humidity in the warmer fall and spring seasons: consider soil floors and no wall insulation; 3) for fresh foods in well-sealed containers, and for dry foods: consider painted/sealed concrete floors and walls, with no insulation; 4) for fresh foods requiring some, but not high, humidity: consider an unpainted concrete floor. Having these different options will allow you to shift foods from one environment to another at any one time of the year, to achieve better conditions.

Although fresh foods won't go as far in arid lands, extending the life of dried foods will more than make up for the trouble and expense of building a root cellar there. And since arid regions are ideal for drying foods in the sun, there will be plenty of dried foods to store. Moreover, if you don’s mind wetting the cellar’s floor (and/or walls) from time to time, the cellar can attain some decent humidity levels for fresh foods. Gravel floors provide the best "humidifiers" in such circumstances, especially if the gravel is several inches deep so as to hold a pool of water at the bottom (you walk on a "dry" or unsoaked surface). You won't have to water as often with the deep-gravel method.

While the ideal root-cellar combination for fresh foods is low temperature and high humidity, the worst situation is not, as we might at first expect, high temperatures and low humidity. The worst would be high temperatures and high humidity because this combination is best for nurturing bacteria, mold and yeast. Therefore, ideal cellar conditions calls for high humidity only for its ability to maintain freshness. Low temperatures (above freezing) are then needed to counter the bacteria/mould problems created by high humidity.

If we arrange to lower the humidity level somewhat and sacrifice some freshness in the process, rot would be reduced also, perhaps creating a better survival situation. Indeed, the best combination for dealing with rot becomes low temperatures and low humidity, exactly what’s desired for dry goods not needing any humidity. But so what if an apple shrinks some? If rot doesn't set in while it shrinks, thanks be to the cold temperatures, the only thing it will lose is water. The nutrients will still be in that apple! When we are hungry, safe-to-eat shriveled foods will taste mighty awesome! And any dry food can be made wet again by wetting and/or boiling.

Having no lining in the cellar at all (i.e. just soil walls) would net higher humidity than, say, stone walls. But beware. A mere hole in the ground to act as a root cellar will allow rodents to get in and seize your treasures. If you could properly drape chicken wire on the soil walls, that would likely keep varmints out, but not the insects. And you definitely don't want to use insecticide in your cellar!! Stone, mortared walls are best, I think. Just make sure the walls lean a little outward so that they won't cave into the cellar during the wet season.

Understand that there is a difference between infected and shriveled. Moreover, there is a third condition wherein the fresh food will deteriorate under its own metabolism, rot or no rot, if not blanched/boiled. This is why foods going into cans or jars must first be boiled, even when going into vinegar, salt or sugar solutions where bacteria are killed without boiling.

For a dry cellar housing dried foods, a cheaper and easier alternative to stone or concrete walls is tongue-and-groove plywood and wood studding. To keep rodents with sharp teeth out, metal screening tacked to the plywood, and overlapped a good distance at the joints, would work fine. To keep the plywood from rotting, it should be sealed with an exterior-grade sealer, preferably the black-tar product used on the basements of homes (driveway sealer might work too). This tar should also keep out the ants and termites, but I'm no authority on that one. Take precautions with the toxic chemicals in pressure-treated plywood/studs; you should keep all dried foods in air-tight containers, anyway, and this will also add protection against mice and ants.

By using the studding method, you can easily insulate between some, or all, studs. If it becomes necessary to altar humidity/temperature. You might buy the insulation and install it anyway, whether you think you'll need it or not, as you can always take it out at will. But you won't likely be able to buy it in the tribulation.

The only drawback to the wood-wall method is that water may get in through the joints of the plywood, especially at ground level (near the cellar’s ceiling). But if you build a structure/pantry above the cellar, this threat is much reduced, and even eliminated if that structure is large enough to extend a few feet past the cellar walls. Otherwise, caulk the studs at the plywood joints before applying the plywood to them. Then caulk directly over the joints after screwing the plywood on. Finally, adhere a 4-inch wood strap to each joint using the caulk as a glue, and you should be as water-tight as Noah for the few years that you'll need the cellar. Frost and humidity in the outer soil can do a lot of damage, so screw everything, rather than nail.

Building a pantry over a root cellar intended for fresh foods will protect from freezing; the more northerly the location, the further out from all cellar walls this pantry (or garage) should span. But if you go too far, soil humidity won't be able to reach the walls. I would say that pantry walls three feet maximum from the cellar walls ought to be sufficient for the northern US. That is, if your cellar is 8 x 8 feet, make the pantry 14 x 14 (or 14 x 11 if it’s attached to a house). Keep in mind that this building, acting as the cellar’s roof, is an exceptional sun screen as well as a convenient storage area, in cool seasons, for dried, canned, and even some fresh foods.

Create a perfectly smooth ceiling in the cellar. The more protrusions there are in building materials (i.e. joists and beams), the more area there will be for condensation to form. This means more drips and puddles on your shelves and in your food baskets. You want humidity for fresh vegetables, yes, but in the air, not pools in the containers. If your ceiling structure consists of wood beams or rafters, nail unfinished plywood (definitely not pressure-treated) to form the smooth ceiling. Indeed, leave the plywood natural, and clean it now and then, by spraying a bleach and water solution, so that whatever drips do form won't transport unwanted molds to your foods.

The root cellar needs temperature-control pipes, which are a simple matter to install during the cellar’s construction (not so easy later). Because warm(er) air rises, put an exhaust pipe (6 inches in diameter) at the top of the room, going straight out the ceiling and into the pantry. Or, if that upper room will be heated, run the pipe outside and then upward to avoid the breeze. Screen the top opening of the pipe to keep pests out, and add a solid cover two inches above the opening/screen to keep out bird droppings and rain.

A second air pipe for intake, through a wall near the floor, will allow cold air to enter the cellar as warmer air rises out the exhaust pipe. But as the location of this pipe's exit through the cellar wall will be underground, the pipe will need to rise through the soil and into the atmosphere.

Of course, this intake pipe must reach the atmosphere outside the pantry, where it can catch cold breezes. Put an elbow on the upper end of this pipe, therefore, so that horizontal breezes come straight into the elbow’s opening. But don't glue, screw or tape the elbow on; leave it loose so that it can be turned. Point it north to receive the coldest air currents when you need them. Turn the elbow away from the north if you need to warm things up in the cellar, or if you need winds from other directions for cooling. If you position the intake pipe against the south pantry wall so that access to north winds is unavailable, it'll be your loss.

While in extremely cold or warm spells you can cap this pipe opening (e.g. with plastic film), don't forget to uncap it in due time because you need the constant air circulation in the cellar to remove air-borne molds. When you build shelving, do not let the rears of shelves contact the cellar walls, as this restricts air circulation around shelves and promotes molds on foods. Leave a 3-inch gap between shelf and wall.

When cold wind is blowing directly into the intake pipe, it will also force cellar air into the pantry if the exhaust pipe terminates there. The pantry will also cool, therefore, which may or may not be what you want so that it would be a good idea to provide a removable cap for the exhaust pipe as well. Or, even better, provide a permanent cap that is an adjustable vent so that you can dictate at any time how much it will be opened or closed. If this exhaust pipe can double as a water drain, for the times that you need higher humidity in the cellar, that’s using your noggin. No need to carry a large bucket of water down the stairs, just pour into the pipe from the pantry--but make sure the water pours onto the cellar floor directly, not first on the foods. Or just run a garden hose permanently into the cellar [duh].

Some root cellars are built into hills and buried on three sides with a normal, walk-in door on the unburied side. Others are completely buried and must be entered by stairs (often) accessed through a door in the ceiling. If maximum coolness is a priority, as it will be in the south, then bury the cellar completely. As an alternative to a ceiling entrance, a stairwell can be dug just outside a cellar wall with a landing at the bottom, where an insulated door can be installed leading into the cellar. Keep that door out of the sun, of course, and away from the hot summer breeze.

Much of the information I am using here is from the book, "ROOT CELLARING" (Mike and Nancy Bubel, Rodale Press). Their latest books can be obtained from http://www.amazon.com. Though not intended for tribulation survival, I have been able to get a good bit of pertinent information. The authors claim that with proper management and air conditions, the following foods (in the upper latitudes of the US) can be enjoyed in the following months:

"fresh endive in December, tender, savory Chinese cabbage in January; juicy apples in February, crisp, fresh carrots in March; and sturdy unsprayed potatoes in April--all without boiling a jar, blanching a vegetable, or filling a freezer bag" (page xvii).

For tribulation survival, it is not necessary that we have "tender," "savory," and "crisp" vegetables. Therefore, under the same climatic circumstances, we could have the above-named vegetables one or two months later and still be bouncy-pleased. And if this is the sort of success story that Mike and Nancy got with exposed plants, imagine what we could do with plastic containers, plastic bags, and dried foods in the same cool conditions. We should easily be able to sustain ourselves with crops alone until the next harvest. Yet, we could plan to store foods that last much longer than vegetables in the first place. In all, the authors say that they could keep 33 different vegetables in open storage, and that spells variety on top of survival.


It is important to harvest vegetables at their peak, "neither underdeveloped nor past their prime," for best longevity results in cold storage. It is also important to treat them all with special care because the slightest bruising invites molds and bacteria, and these then spread to others vegetables. As soon as you see a rotting or molding section of any vegetable, get rid of it. Slice off the bad part and eat the rest, or throw it into the compost heap. Inspect cellar foods often.

For trib' survivalists, the longer into the winter or spring we can eat our produce, the better. Therefore, it is important to time the final harvest for the latest possible date. As well as planting vegetables as early as possible in the spring to be able to eat them as soon as possible in late spring or early summer, plant a sizable crop later than usual so that their peak arrives only in the nick of time before the killing frost. This late crop will represent your fresh supply of food in winter, so don't skimp.

Plant lots of cool-weather crops in this later phase, not just because they can survive some frost and thereby last longer in the soil than other vegetables, but because, as any good gardener knows, many cool-weather crops taste better after frost has nipped them. Among these are parsnips, salsify (also called "oyster plant"), kale, Brussels sprouts, collards, and Chinese cabbage.

Moreover, rooted vegetables (e.g. potatoes, carrots) can safely stay in the ground past the first frosts too. Every vegetable has its unique period of growth, and you'll need a good book on gardening to know the lengths of each one in order to time their harvests as late as you can. Take into consideration that vegetables planted later than normal will grow slower in the cooler months of fall than the books indicate. Have a garden expert with you in the tribulation!!! Take him on board for free. (All you Christian gardeners without money of your own to buy and build a tribulation refuge, others who are without your skills might give you a room in exchange.)

Some factors in the gardening department add to storage life. For example, potatoes grown in sandy soils last longer in storage than those grown in heavy soils. According to studies, both fruits and vegetables grown in soil with high potash levels store better and longer than others. Wood ashes, which should be in abundant supply for most trib' survivors, are a good source of potash. Manure is also a good source of potassium. So store the ashes all winter long where the wind won't blow them away, and any manure your animals provide can be collected at the first thaw, but don't over-dose your garden soil. You might think that adding fertilizer generously is good, but while you get larger yields, high levels of nitrogen will increase the rate at which some vegetables age, even after they've been picked, thus reducing their cellar shelf life.

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Oklahoma Preppers Network Est. Jan 17, 2009 All contributed articles owned and protected by their respective authors and protected by their copyright. Oklahoma Preppers Network is a trademark protected by American Preppers Network Inc. All rights reserved. No content or articles may be reproduced without explicit written permission.