For a while now we have dreamed of having a root cellar. Root cellars are kind of a big project- so last fall we decided to start small and built a root pit. It is the kind of thing you see diagrammed in books about easy low-tech solutions for storing roots through the winter. The kind of diagrams that make you say, “that looks easy, but will it really work? What about rodents and water and really cold weather?” So, we just tried it, and it seems to have worked. At last check of the thermometer the temperature had remained between 28F and 40F with no damage to the veggies. During that time the outside temperature had ranged from -20F to 80F. The only problem we have had is the collection of some water in one of the barrels that had a small hole in it, now that the surroundings are no longer frozen.
To make the root pit we dug into a gravelly north facing hillside, excavating just enough soil to fit two 35 gallon metal trashcans. The cans are placed with their bottoms sloping slightly downward. We then back filled the soil above and around the cans. In my classic construction style (Rebecca writing) I fashioned a roof over the can lids made of a scrap of plywood and some pieces of 2×4 that were relatively the right size. We then made a door panel with a plywood front and a piece of foam insulation. It was at that point that I realized spending a little more time shaping the roof would have made creating a tight fitting door easier. Over the winter when there was snow load over the roof it was a little tricky getting the door back in- so next time we’ll have to make that a little sturdier and relatively square. We also placed some hay bales in front of the door for added insulation.
Our plan is to build a full size root cellar soon- maybe we’ll work on it this fall. We plan on hand digging it- so you can expect to see digging party announcements in the future. Our hope is to design the root cellar to double as a cooler in the summer. Similar to the ice house concept- we are researching the possibility of freezing barrels or bottles of salt water in the winter that can be brought into an insulated portion of the root cellar in the spring to maintain cool and moist conditions into the summer. One local example we know of is a passive cooler and freezer designed by UVM engineering students- you can check it out here http://www.uvm.edu/~cems/?Page=News&storyID=17191
As an aside to the topic of storage vegetables I want to sing the praises of the little known sugar loaf chicory. Similar to a radicchio, but with less of a bitter edge, this salad green forms a tight upright head. It stores very well in the refrigerator or root pit. Outer leaves can get slimy, but they can be peeled off to reveal a nice center. We enjoy having this fresh salad green from October into March. The slight bitter flavor tastes like something you should be eating in the wintertime and pairs well with sweet salad additions like apples, beets, oranges, and onion.