Storing vegetables like onions covered with peat moss or sand in plastic totes is one way to replicate root cellar conditions. Credit: Courtesy of Edwin Remsberg

Root cellars help to preserve certain kinds of produce for months and months through the winter. However, building a root cellar involves a certain amount of space and resources that are not available to all homeowners. Luckily, there are DIY solutions that will mimic the preservation properties of a root cellar, if you are willing to be a little creative.

When most people think of a root cellar, they usually envision a large underground room that acts like a natural refrigerator, often with an entrance somewhere in the yard separate from the house.

“Using the proper storage conditions, the purpose is to slow down that respiration and make the crop last as long as possible,” said Jason Lilley, sustainable agriculture professional at University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “As we cool temperatures that respiration slows down and for root crops those we keep our humidity high that prevents that moisture loss.”

However, Lilley said that people should first rethink what they consider a “root cellar.”

“If you just think about the different climatic conditions around your house, you can find small spaces that are big enough to store whatever type of produce you may have in the ideal conditions for storage of those crops,” Lilley said.

Lilley said that the first thing is to understand that there are a few different categories when it comes to produce that can be stored long term in root cellar-like conditions. First is produce that prefer cold temperatures, ideally between 33 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit, like carrots, parsnips and beets. The second category is produce that likes dry and warm conditions, like potatoes and winter squash. Finally, there is the category of produce that like a mid-range temperature, between 40 and 50 degrees, and dryer humidity, like onions and garlic.

Once you know that, you can scope out different areas of your house that mimic those conditions of temperature and humidity.

“I think it’s a little bit of a feeling,” Lilley said. “You’re really trying to keep the temperature ranges in mind. Is it cool but not freezing, is it warm or is it that middle range of I want to have a sweatshirt?”

Lilley said has found a sweet spot in his basement, around his furnace.

“Next to the furnace that stays around 55 degrees and it’s pretty dry in the winter,” Lilley said. “That we leave our winter squash, or potatoes, and onions and garlic out in the open just in that space. We put the onions and garlic a little bit closer to the furnace than the potatoes and squash.

A DIY “root cellar” with plastic totes and strategic placement in a basement. Credit: Courtesy Jason Lilley

For cold-loving crops, he keeps them in the basement’s bulkhead.

“That’s where we keep all our carrots and root crops,” Lilley said. “I put them in a Rubbermaid tote and put sand, wood chips or peat moss in with those crops and that will maintain the humidity really well throughout that season. Without it, they’d be a lot more likely to dry out essentially.”

With this strategy, Lilley said you have to make sure your totes have ventilation.

“The produce also gives off certain gases that encourage produce to break down,” Lilley said. “We want to make sure those gasses can leave the space with the rubbermaid totes. I’ve cut little windows out of those and taped in some screening. That’s good enough to get that air flow.”

If you do not have extra space in your house, you can get even more creative by mimicking root cellar-like conditions by burying containers outside, though this only works for those crops that do not need extra dry conditions.

“[You’re] taking advantage of the ground temperature which is the key concept of the root cellar, [whether it’s] basement, out building or buried trash cans,” Lilley said.

Lilley said he once experimented with the latter, burying clean, new trash cans in the ground and covering it with straw and leaves.

“When I wanted [produce], I would go out, grab straw bales and move them out of the way and everything would be not frozen, [but] nice and cold,” Lilley said.

The options for containers aren’t just limited to clean trash cans, either. Lilley said that he has seen people bury a number of things with built-in insulation, like coolers.

“As long as you do a really good job of removing the freon from a refrigerator, that [can work] well,” Lilley said. “Anything that has some level of insulation is really beneficial, in addition to insulation from straw bales of hay over the container to further insulate it.”

However, Lilley said that the one thing he didn’t consider at the time was access.

“When we got a little bit of snow, I was very reluctant to lay down on my belly in the snow and get a couple of carrots for dinner,” he said with a laugh. “Spring came around and dug a bunch of mush out of the ground. It does work but you really want to think of your proximity, ease of use and how close that is to the kitchen.”

Lilley said one of the keys to troubleshooting your DIY root cellars is to make sure you are checking on them frequently as well as removing any compromised produce.

A DIY “root cellar” with plastic totes and strategic placement in a basement. Credit: Courtesy Jason Lilley

“If you go down and you start to see that some of the crop is rotting or breaking down it’s really important to take those individual fruits or vegetables out of the bin,” Lilley said. “That will significantly slow down the spread of the breakdown. Keep an eye on what’s happening and make sure it keeps clean and keep notes on what’s working well and what isn’t.”

You also want to watch out for rodents.

“Whenever you can elevate your storage off the ground and use some sort of preventative structure, that will go a long way to prevent rodents,” Lilley said.

Another thing that could impact the effectiveness is the type of crops you are trying to store.

“When you’re looking at your seed catalogs you really want to look for storage varieties of the different vegetables,” Lilley said. “That’s pretty key. Some varieties are designed to just mature quickly and they don’t necessarily set the skin or have the qualities that the produce needs to last for a long time in storage.”

Pay attention to how well your system works so you can improve next year.

“You really want to pay attention to how well these crops are lasting,” Lilley said. “Maybe I should try a different space or a different type of container next year ,or maybe things work really well and I want to take records to remember what I did.”

There are advantages to these methods. It is cheaper, mobile and doesn’t take up as much space.

“To me it’s a convenience thing to walk down into my basement and to not even have to put on a sweatshirt to go grab that produce in the middle of February is really nice as opposed to having to keep a path snowblown all the way to the outbuilding all the way out to grab a few carrots for dinner,” Lilley said. “It’s one of those things that’s really fun to experiment with and it’s also just kind of rewarding to know we grew we harvested these crops.”