Root cellar: creepy stairs become cold storage

Root cellar: creepy stairs become cold storage
The doors to the root cellar. Thankfully not as dungeon-y as I thought they'd be.

The doors to the root cellar. Thankfully not as dungeon-y as I thought they’d be.

Kevin built a root cellar in the basement last weekend. Which is weird, given that we’re city folk and don’t have acres of land from which to harvest bushels of carrots to see us through the winter or anything else remotely important like that. But we built one anyway.

Disclaimer #1: We are not doomsday preppers.

The cellar is not being nervously stocked with potable water, rations, and guns. Instead, the idea for a root cellar came about after participating in a winter CSA share from a local farm for five years now. Every December or so, following numerous bi-weekly hauls of locally grown storage produce, our fridge accumulates up to six rutabagas the size of a small child’s head, lots of dirty beets, several hairy celeriac, and various other round root veggies that don’t stack well. There’s also the squash, which I usually throw into a crate and park someplace that’s not as cold as I thought (read: they get smushy, and then some get thrown out around February).

So this year, rather than wasting lovely vegetables and arm-wrestling things into the fridge around the bounty, we thought it would behoove us to come up with a better solution.

Kevin's bottled home brew (plus a few other good beers he's saving for god-knows-what; I bought him the one on the far left for Christmas. 11 MONTHS AGO).

Kevin’s bottled home brew (plus a few other good beers he’s saving for god-knows-what; I bought him the one on the far left for Christmas. 11 MONTHS AGO).

Enter into the picture Kevin’s new home brewing habit. He makes giant buckets of beer, which eventually get poured into 30-40 glass bottles and growlers for storage. That’s a lot of crap to find shelf space for. Plus, if they could be stored someplace cold, they’d be easier to share. Also, I’m told, lagers need a cold, consistent place to ferment – and who’s putting a five-gallon bucket in their fridge? Not this girl.

Disclaimer #2: We don’t actually know what we’re doing; we’re just winging it. That’s how we roll, usually.

The basic premise of a root cellar is that it relies on the cold temperature of the ground to cool its contents. It’s what people used to over-winter root vegetables, winter squash, apples, and a lot of other staples before there were refrigerators.

Our root cellar made its home in the abandoned bilco entry into our basement. When our bungalow was built in 1912, there was a set of angled doors at the foundation of the house outside that once pulled open, led to a set of stairs down into the basement (picture the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the rest of Dorothy’s family wrestles open the hatch to the cellar and gets down in there just before the tornado arrives). Around the 1950s, someone covered the bilco doors with a back porch, which rendered the stairs in the basement useless and created a creepy cave of sorts down there.

The wooden wall in back used to be the door to the outside; the insulated doors keep the cold in the root cellar.

The wooden wall in back used to be the door to the outside; the insulated doors keep the cold in the root cellar.

So Kevin framed out a wall to enclose the stairs using some cheap lumber, some drywall scraps, and some old 1980s accordion doors we had ripped off a closet in the guest room. He covered the new wall and doors with leftover insulation board to keep out any heat from the basement, mounted a digital thermometer next to the doors, ran its sensor wire to the interior of the root cellar so we could monitor the temps without opening the doors, hung a camping lantern inside, and viola – a spacious cold storage area that cost waaay less than a second fridge and absolutely nothing to power. The former wooden stairs act as shelves that are easy to access. Since the walls of the root cellar are completely outside of the house foundation, there’s nothing but cold outside air under the porch surrounding the space. It may take some farting around with additional insulation or ventilation, but the goal will be to keep the root cellar at about 40-45 degrees through the winter. Right now it’s 37 degrees outside and 47 in the cellar; this morning it was 28 degrees outside and 45 in the cellar.

So far, we’ve got about 70 bottles of home brew down there, a cardboard box of local apples, and a wooden crate filled with the first winter squash from the Promised Land CSA at the Oles Family Farm. (We get our summer and winter CSA shares there, along with our eggs. And we built their website. And they’re awesome people). There’s also a box of dahlia tubers from my cutting flower garden, and a tub of peat moss that’s ready to store root crops like carrots, rutabaga, celeriac, and parsnips. The peat moss (which could be sawdust or sand, too) helps keep the moisture in the veggies so they don’t shrivel up.

Our first winter share pickup is tomorrow, which means more delicious winter produce – none of which needs to compete for space in my refrigerator anymore! Yeah, we’re probably considered a little strange for employing 1800s technology in 2013. But for a few hours’ work and not a lot of money, we’re pretty psyched to have the means to eat well, reduce the amount of wasted produce, and de-creepify a corner of the basement. Plus, come the revolution‚Ķ just kidding!

Just the beginning of the squash collection for this winter, tucked into a wooden crate so air can circulate and prevent mold.

Just the beginning of the squash collection for this winter, tucked into a wooden crate so air can circulate and prevent mold.

2 Comments

  1. Kimmie
    November 21, 2013

    Wait, is it a bad idea to store my squash behind the love-seat in the corner and my jams and pickles on the floor by my washing machine? seriously though, it looks great, can’t wait to build one myself. I also want a cool-bot. Veggie distribution in my SLC backyard in 104 degree weather was a challenge last summer

    Reply
  2. Devon's mom
    November 21, 2013

    Your great-grandmother, Louise, had a root cellar in the partially sub-terrain coal cellar room. As a first grader I wondered what the squash did to be exiled. Nothing was thrown out, however, and going to the store for fresh food wasn’t an option – the man of the house (Grandpa) took the only car to work & the Broadway Mkt was a tough, long walk in winter. It’s so beautifully right that you’re the one to (sorry, I have to say it) return to your long ago roots!! Nana would be so proud, as am I !

    Reply

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