This weekend, we built a root cellar! Building a root cellar at the Ecology Action Centre office has been an idea that we’ve been kicking around for years. It went from the idea stage to the reality stage when we received some funding from the Spirit NS Local Food Fund last fall. After the excitement of receiving the funding, the next big question was: So, how do we actually build this?
With the help of Zak Miller of Full Cycle Builders, and a team of amazing volunteers, we turned a dark corner of the basement into a food storage room.
Here’s the before picture:
We picked the northeast corner of the building because it had a small window, it already had three walls, and the north side of a building is generally colder than the south. Some of the best root cellar advice I received was to think like a root vegetable. Root vegetables grow underground where it is cool, dark and damp. You want your root cellar to mimic those conditions.
A couple years ago, we had put down a vapour barrier and clay floor in that area of the basement to reduce the humidity, so the first thing we had to do was to take up the floor in that area. In the picture below you can see the tan clay next to the brick and gravel. This is what had to go.
Next step: Build a wall.
Zak started us off with a demonstration on how to safely use the circular saw. A nice excuse to take a break from the dusty basement!
We framed in the wall and covered it in old acoustical tiles and leftover drywall.
Day Two started with reconstituting our torn up clay floor into new plaster by pounding it down with a sledge hammer. Very satisfying work!
Once a little water is added to the pounded down clay, it becomes plaster again. Covering the newly-built walls with this recycled plaster serves to insulate and regulate the cool temperature and to keep moisture high in the root cellar.
It took a little bit of practice to get the technique of applying this thick muck to a vertical wall – you kind of had to jiggle a chunk of it in your hand to make it pliable and then spread it on thickly with the heel of your hand.
Once most of the plaster was up on the walls, we moved outside for lunch to enjoy the sun and get materials ready for the ventilation system.
Good ventilation is key to a successful root cellar. All that dampness that we’re trying to foster can lead to rotten or moldy veggies if there’s no airflow in the room. The system we’re using is a passive intake/outake of warm and cool air through these PVC pipes.
Here’s a sketch from Mike and Nancy Bubel’s book ‘Root Cellaring: The Simple No-Processing Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables’ that explains how it works:
We started off off by cutting a few holes in the wood covering the old window, then the pipes were positioned in a thick piece of styrofoam insulation, and set into place and connected to the cold air pipe along the floor.
And Voila! A fully functioning ventilation system! The blue caps over the intake and outtake pipes allow us to regulate the amount of warm air leaving and cold air coming in.
2012 Update – These are a few things we learned from using our root cellar:
1) Produce has to be perfect when it goes into storage. We had a few things spoil in the first 2 weeks of root cellaring. Little bruises or cuts lead to mold right away. While we knew this from the books we’d read, it wasn’t until a whole bunch of sweet potatoes went fuzzy that we really learned this lesson. Next year we’d connect with the farmer earlier in the season before they had washed the produce and buy unwashed produce, thus eliminating extra handling. And on the upside, we only lost some sweet potatoes and a couple of cabbages. The rest of the produce was great.
2) We prefer the dirt floor to a cement floor. The EAC root cellar’s humidity doesn’t vary as much as it does in cement-floored root cellars. We regularly water the floor of the EAC root cellar and it rarely drops below 70%. With a cement floor, the humidity fluctuates with the outside humidity.
3) The root cellar is subject to the outside temperature. We know, another obvious one. But it was really warm this December, and when it’s regularly above 10 degrees outside, it’s hard to cool down your root cellar. We don’t think the root cellar temperature dipped below 5 degrees more than once or twice all December.
4) Things sprouted and we’re not sure why. We had some carrots sprout and a few potatoes. This could be due to the ethylene gas given off by the apples or because it was too warm in December. This is something to watch for in the future.
5) You really have to eat with your root cellar in mind. Check out our Root Cellar Meals post for a little inspiration.