Your prepper garden is all planned for next year, a full range of storable vegetable seeds ordered a month ago are sitting on a shelf in their individual packets but wait, there’s something missing. Where will you store all those fruits of your labors? The plan is to have plenty of fresh squash, onions, carrots and potatoes ready to use through most of the winter months but there’s no basement to speak of and the garage is already taken up with the family’s water stores and the battery bank for the solar array on the roof. Don’t despair. Give yourself some credit for thinking about this now instead of the middle of harvest time next Fall. Because between now and then, you have time to design and build your own root cellar. Be it a well used insulated cooler stuck into a hole in the ground or a fully developed, dedicated space to store those foods, there’s time to figure out which best fits for your needs.
Whatever type, design or scale your future root cellar will take there are few universal elements any root cellar generally needs.
Size: Base the size of your storage on the garden’s expected yield. You don’t want a huge space if there will only be a couple bags of potatoes with a few butternut squash keeping them company. But incorporate some extra space if the garden expands in the future.
Temperature: Temperature is one of the most important elements of produce storage. Lower temperatures keep the processes that lead to rot at bay and prevent potatoes, garlic and the like from spouting. The main contributor to the temperature of space is the soil around the cellar or storage space.
Effective Drainage: While root cellar occupants need relatively higher humidity, you most certainly do not want standing water or muddy floors. Work into your design drainage piping or select a location that already has good drainage.
Ventilation: Good ventilation will reduce the build up of ethylene, a plant hormone released as a gas which speeds up spoilage, and keeps the flow of cool air circulating through the space.
The design will vary based on your needs, what your prepper garden will produce, your resources and space available to build the root cellar itself. But, as is the case with most disaster prep efforts, cost is the deciding factor. That is why this design section will give a range of root cellar types, one or two of which should provide you with a viable option wherever you reside on the financial spectrum.
A Hole in the Ground
For thousands of years, from the early years of human civilization storing food in a hole in the ground has been a traditional method for preservation. Now this practice took many forms, from cloth wrapped foods stuck directly into a hole and covered up to ceramic jars, capped and covered in a space under the tile floor of a dwelling. While the particulars differed, the method was the same. Storing below ground was a reliable manner to protect food and preserve it for later use in, what amounted to, a temperature controlled space.
Today, we can take a hint from those who came before us… with a few modern adjustments, of course. First, select a location that already drains well. You do not want a spot where drainage from rains or melting snow will accumulate. This is actually a major consideration when choosing your cold storage location, so choose well. Next decided on a sturdy container be it a plastic bin, an insulated cooler or a metal garbage can (preferably new or cleaned very well), there are numerous types of containers that will serve the purpose. Ventilation is a second necessity for most stored produce. This can be achieved by cutting holes on two sides of the container for PVC piping, long enough to protrude above the surface. Cap the tops and drill holes randomly down to a few inches below the top to allow for gasses to escape. This can also be done by topping the pipe with a curved, elbow fitting, anything that will allow for airflow but keep water out.
Now, dig a hole appropriately shaped for your container of choice to fit snugly inside leaving enough of the top above ground to allow you to build up a mound of excess soil around it. This will further assist with drainage directing water away from the storage. Some recommend surrounding the immediate area with straw or a layer of dead leaves for insulation purposes. Your root cellar is now ready to use. Partitions can be put into separate produce varieties or form alternate layers separated by dividing layers of straw or sawdust.
This same general design can be scaled up as well. Using the same principles but instead of utilizing an existing container you can construct a box out of hardwoods that won’t deteriorate in the soil. Remember to build up a mount for a runoff. Fill the box to within a few inches of the lid and top off with an insulating covering such as burlap or other sturdy, yet breathable, textile. This option will allow a customized storage capacity to better match the yields from your prepper garden.
As you determine what your needs are and if those storage capacities are large or you anticipate expanding your garden in the future then your designs need to scale up to a root cellar that can incorporate shelving, one you will actually walk into. Now, before getting too carried away with scaling up, be aware of building codes in your area as the bigger this endeavor gets, the more likely building inspections and permits will be required. But if you keep the structure to the size of the typical tool shed there shouldn’t be a need to go through a permitting process.
There are inventive options for creating larger spaces, a number of which come in the form or repurposed containers. People have used connex shipping containers and even (unused) “scratch and dent” discounted septic tanks. For these, a hole is dug, usually with a backhoe or a section is taken out of an existing mound and the container is set inside. The outside is infilled and a framed doorway is built at one end. Cellars of this size have floor drains and larger ventilation piping, often assisted by fans. Other inventive souls have constructed an igloo or beehive-shaped structure out of bags of soil, larger at the base and narrowing towards the top. It incorporated floor drainage, plastered interior walls and wooden shelving inside that also acted as additional, framed support. A doorway was constructed and the entire construction was covered with grass sod.
There are a full range of methods to build your own root cellar or cold storage for whatever capacity your prepper garden will produce. Options are customizable to fit individual needs that will work within the constraints of resources and cost. But in the end, the choices and designs are only limited the imagination.