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How to Build a Root Cellar Cheap [But Effective]

Here’s how to build a root cellar cheaply! And – here’s why you should have a root cellar. Root cellars are used – and have been used – for centuries worldwide to preserve food – especially root crops.

You can build them above ground. Or below ground. Or in a basement! Root cellars work anywhere you can manage the room’s temperature. The root cellar’s humidity is also crucial. And – the root cellar must be able to banish bugs and rodents!

How to Build a Root Cellar Cheap!

Building a root cellar in your basement can be surprisingly inexpensive. Building a root cellar outside can be even cheaper. Assuming you put no dollar value on the time and sweat that you bond with your spade. You can use old refrigerators and freezers, even garbage cans. There are other options, too. Let’s look at some more popular root cellar ideas in more detail.

potatoes onions and vegetables in cold root cellar
Here’s an excellent root cellar idea. We noticed an overflowing pile of potatoes tucked along the cold cinder block walls. And many onions stuffed inside storage baskets. We also see a bucket of cured horseradish! Horseradish is an underrated garden crop for long-term storage. And root cellars! We also read that horseradish lasts up to ten to twelve months if you maintain climate control of roughly 30 degrees Fahrenheit and high humidity. The long shelf life makes it one of our favorite storable garden snacks.

Can I Use My Basement as a Root Cellar?

Basements – or parts of basements – make great root cellars. They have many advantages.

  • Close and convenient. Once built and filled, you can run downstairs to grab what you need.
  • Usually already rodent-proof. No need for extra work.
  • Already partially constructed. If built in a corner (NE to keep the sun off it), you already have two walls, a floor, and a ceiling.
  • Private and secure. If you don’t tell anyone it is there, it does not exist.

You will need to address a few basic construction needs when building. 

  • Temperature and humidity. You will have to provide a cool air intake. An ideal situation includes a small window in your root cellar. Which you can remove and replace with plywood to hold the vents you need. All walls and ceilings need to be insulated.
  • Size. About 50 square feet seems to be the suggested size for a couple or small family. Add 50% to whatever amount of space you think you need. You will fill it.
  • Power. It is nice to wire the root cellar for light and power, but realistically a tiny battery-powered fan and a flashlight will do the job.

Here is a DIY root cellar layout from Mother Earth News.

Personal Note! The root cellar in the house I grew up in was 200 square feet. Of course, by 1925, my grandparents had 14 kids. And on the farm in winter, they ate what they grew and stored.

Build Your Own underground Root Cellar | Phyllis Hobson
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Want to build a root cellar without second-guessing or worrying? We love this DIY root cellar idea book! The book is by Phyllis Hobson and published by Storey Publishing. It's one of the most highly-regarded sources of root cellars we found. It's perfect if you want an easy-to-grasp guide for building a backyard and underground root cellar.

When searching the internet, we were surprised at the lack of credible information regarding DIY root cellars. The book is easy to read in a sitting (or two) and contains only 32 pages. Bonus points for being pithy. And actionable!

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09/27/2022 06:03 pm GMT

How Cold Does a Root Cellar Need to Be?

Root cellar temperatures and humidity requirements vary by vegetable or fruit store. For instance, here are some popular items and their ideal conditions.

  • Potatoes 38 – 40 degrees F. 90% humidity
  • Onions 32 degrees F. 65 – 70% humidity
  • Cabbage 32 degrees F. 90 – 95% humidity

As you can see, there is enough variation to cause a problem. 

You can build a root cellar with different compartments and temperatures. And the humidity! But this kind of defeats the idea of an inexpensive root cellar. A more realistic goal is to aim for temperature and humidity settings that cover the most product.

Why Should I Build a Root Cellar?

Root cellars are an underrated building project for off-grid homesteaders.

Here’s why!

Root cellars (or a wine cellar) are one of the best ways to achieve food security for you and your family.

And – building an underground cellar for cheap has the same benefits as a fancy wine cellar.

Benefits of Root and Wine Cellars

  • Keeps produce fresh and food cool
  • Perfect for keeping food over the winter months
  • Works excellent in cold climates
  • Keeps garden food fresh
  • Helps fend off excess moisture
  • Great way to maintain a ground freezer
  • Promotes cooler temperatures
  • Increase food security – and storage life of food
  • Great for rural homeowners

We also want to share some of our favorite ways to build a root cellar cheap.

We hope these ideas help!

How Can I Build a Backyard Root Cellar?

Before digging a refrigerator or freezer into your backyard, remove all electrical components along with the compressor and cooling apparatus. None of it will get used again and can only contaminate your soil if it leaks.

Read More – 13 Cheap Housing Options for Off-Grid and Rural Homesteaders!

Refrigerator or Freezer Root Cellar – Underground

A simple and cheap backyard root cellar can get had by burying your old refrigerator (or) freezer in the backyard. There are many advantages to using refrigerators or freezers.

  • Self-contained box with a door
  • Insulated
  • Usually free or very cheap
  • Recycles 

Here is a YouTube video by The Provident Prepper showing just one of the dozens of ways to use a refrigerator or freezer as a backyard root cellar

The Earth’s average temperature (at four feet deep) is about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Once your refrigerator or freezer gets buried, it will achieve the temperature of the surrounding soil – cooling off as the temperature goes down in winter. Use straw, newspapers, or baskets to separate your produce.

Here’s another critical note. If your homestead is in cold weather country, you will need to have a thermometer and at least one incandescent light bulb to keep the temperature around freezing. We homesteaded in northern Alberta, where winter temperatures reach 40 below zero. And the frost line is eight feet deep. (We have ice cold winters!)

old diy root cellar in newfoundland canada
Here’s another excellent (and old-fashioned) root cellar from Labrador, Canada. Root cellars are perfect for rural homesteaders who want to keep their vegetables fresh. But we weren’t born yesterday. We know not everyone can build a massive underground root cellar with ample cold storage. You have other options! We read another helpful guide from the University of Georgia that talks about emergency food supplies and food storage. Our two favorite topics! The guide cites that wheat, powdered milk, corn, and beans are among the best staples for storage. The article also has excellent data on food storage tips, safety, infant food storage, and more. The point is that you don’t need an above-ground root cellar to store these items. It’s a highly recommended read!

Refrigerators Used as a Backyard Root Cellar

If your backyard gets blessed with a hill around six-feet high, you have another option for a refrigerator root cellar. Dig out the north side of your backyard hill to accommodate a worn-out refrigerator.

Please go to offthegridnews.com for more information and a video on this great idea. You probably don’t need much instruction about running a spade, but the cooling and ventilation ideas are great. 

The best advantages of this system include the following.

  • Ease of Access. Much easier to store and retrieve produce standing on your hind legs than crawling on your belly.
  • Elimination of Water Problems. With any luck, your hill will provide the opportunity to slope the walkway away from the entrance.
  • Less Digging. Much easier than preparing a four-feet by seven-feet by four-feet grave for your freezer.

To finish your installation, flex a one-quarter-inch piece of plywood into an elliptical shape over the fridge, and cover it with a roofing membrane. And topsoil. Shore up the sides of the approach to the door or remove them to prevent dirt from falling into the pathway.

Read More – How to Build a Yurt! Easy DIY Instructions!

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Garbage Cans Make a Simple Root Cellar

Backyard root cellaring does not get much cheaper or straightforward than this. Bury as many garbage cans as you think you will need in your backyard. 

(Have a couple more on hand just in case the harvest is more plentiful than expected.)

Leave the can lip a couple of inches above ground level. That way, dirt does not run into it when opened. And water also stays out. 

Arrange dividers and shelving as desired, and backfill your hole. Once the vegetables are inside, place a sheet of six mil poly on top of the can and then ensure that the lid is tight. Cover with straw and another sheet of six mil poly to keep the water out. You can also use a ground sheet if you have one. Weigh it down well to deter varmints. And water!

Please see thefoodguys.com! They share a cross-section diagram depicting viable garbage can root cellars. If you bury more than one can? Then it makes sense to keep a list of what is where.

Simple garbage can root cellars meet most of the criteria for successful preservation of food – temperature, darkness, consistent room humidity, elimination of water, and pests.

To increase the efficiency, add ventilation by drilling half a dozen one-inch holes in the bottom of the can, covering with screen mesh and sawdust or sand before loading with veggies.

empty root cellar waiting for wine and meat
Here you see an excellent backyard wine cellar with ample storage space. It looks like partial underground storage. We bet it maintains cool temperatures! We also noticed it’s a wine cellar from scratch. In other words – the (admittedly epic) wine cellar build is empty! They don’t have potatoes, cabbages, winter squash, Jerusalem artichokes, canned food, or root vegetables! But – the cold storage and foundation walls are excellent. It’s our dream wine cellar. They only need to add cured farm produce!

Can I Build a Root Cellar Above Ground?

The easiest and most efficient way to have an above-ground root cellar is to use a corner of an unheated garage or shed. As with a root cellar in your basement, you start with two walls in a corner, a floor, and at least some ceiling framing. Use the corner that gets the least sunlight.

Ensure the existing walls, new walls, and ceiling are well insulated and sealed (including the door). Install a cool air intake near the floor and a warm air escape vent near the root cellar’s ceiling.

The Mother Earth News layout we used for the basement root cellar works just as well for the garage.

Read More – Is It Legal to Live in a Tent on Your Land? Or Not?! The Answer Will Surprise You!

Build an Above Ground Root Cellar on Your Deck

Depending on your deck’s configuration and which way it faces, a deck-mounted root cellar could be the perfect solution. As long as you have a minimum 18-inch roof overhang, you do not need a roof over the deck. 

Build the equivalent of a closet against a north or east-facing wall. Fill it with shelves. Make sure that it is insulated. The doors should also be insulated or solid core and weather-stripped. 

Drill one or two four-inch holes through the deck to allow cool air to circulate inside. Cover with bug mesh inside and metal mesh outside.

If you have a soffit vent inside the root cellar, the warm moist air should rise and vent out. If not, you will have to install a screened vent near the top. Not through the roof.

root cellar on sloped hill in newfoundland canada
We love this old-school underground root cellar! We think underground storage is the perfect storage for your homestead. But – if you don’t have the resources to build a massive ground root cellar, no worries! You can always store your food inside your home – or in your RV. Also, remember to use shelf-stable foods! Food such as rice, cereals, sugar, flour, coffee, oils, and canned food are our favorites. And – they’re famous for lasting a long-time. Perfect if you don’t have the resources to launch an underground root cellar from scratch.

Apartment Root Cellaring

Before some of you assume that you are getting your information from a guy with the IQ of lettuce, hear me out! 

Root cellars require cool and dark. Apartment dwellers usually are not trying to store 200 pounds of turnips and 40 cabbages. But you can house a few extras for a month or so.

Having a closet on an outside wall is perfect. Pack your produce in large paper bags inside closed cardboard boxes. Stack against the exterior wall and cover tightly with a thick padded moving blanket. Keep the closet doors closed tightly to keep it cool. 

An unused bedroom is even better. Keep the heat in that room to a minimum. Not so cold that pipes freeze. Crack the window a bit. And you have a halfway decent root cellar.

(Of course – this won’t work well if you live in a hot climate. But it’s perfect for those who live in chilly areas.)

One more tip! Spread some poly on the floor and maybe up the wall (held in place with painter’s tape) in case there is any rotting.

epic root cellar for cold storage
Want the best root cellar idea? It all starts with knowing how to store your crops. We found an excellent guide about storage requirements for root cellars. The article lists the most critical essentials for safely keeping cabbages, potatoes, pumpkins, apples, beans, and more. Print the reference sheet and hang it on your fridge. Or in your cellar! The guide also cites that you should separate your fresh produce when resting in your underground storage. Separating your stored produce helps prevent flavors and chemicals (like ethylene gas) from seeping into adjacent storage crops.

Conclusion

I can’t recommend the precise cheap root cellar you should build because only you know your weather patterns, crops, and budget. But one of these suggestions should work for you – even if it requires a tiny bit of modification.

Root cellars were one of the world’s most used food storage options before electricity and urbanization. Root cellars hold a lot of food, can be cheap and easy to build, and operate effectively without electricity.

Build a root cellar if you have the space. Then stock it with your produce or bulk buys. Not only for yourself. We seem to be living in weird and nasty times. The more foodstuff in your root cellar for long-term storage?

The better.

What are your thoughts?

What’s the best way to store vegetables? Do ground cellars work the best? Or – is it better to get an extra freezer or fridge?

We love to hear from you. And your feedback!

We also thank you for reading.

Have a great day!

Author

  • Although I am slightly older than dirt, my wife of 48 years still keeps me around. We have 3 children and 4 granddaughters. We homesteaded one square mile of trees in northern Alberta, Canada in 1982. I have made a living in the home renovation industry for 40 years, and we have built 4 houses. I have been writing for about 20 years-construction articles, magazine columns, soundproofing articles, and politically incorrect social commentary.

Carol L

Wednesday 31st of August 2022

I recently did major upgrading to my home: new foundation, windows, metal roof, hardy plank siding...so now I have 3 foot clearance under my house. I have thought about using this space for a root cellar. My only problem would be summer temps...I have closed off the vents using styrofoam from packaging, leaving only a few tiny spaces for circulation. Guess I need to put a thermometer under in summer and take the temperature. I do have a way to track the humidity. Oh...BTW: the conditions you mention for potatoes, onions and cabbage: the humidity levels stated seem quite high! Potatoes at 90% humidity? Won't they mold with that much water in the air??? I do love the "hobbit"cellar! My property is totally flat, but this would work, I think! Thanks for the great ideas .