Root Cellars: Building materials and using what you have

Our first bucket of kraut in our completed root cellar!

This spring we embarked on transforming part of our office basement into a root cellar, and now that September’s here, it’s time to start thinking about filling it up with produce. It’s nice to see a project through to the very end and be able to start using it for its intended purpose, even though it was a very handy space this summer to store and organize our empty mason jars for our preserving workshops!

We thought it would be a good idea to do a follow-up post on our own root cellar construction project this spring, with a bit of a breakdown of the costs of materials and labour. There’s still some time to build your own cellar, or at least convert a corner of your own unfinished basement into the perfect space for no-energy food storage this winter. We hope this will give you some encouragement to see your own root cellar project through!

Fastening old ceiling tiles to the new wall frame

One of the lessons we took away from the root cellar construction workshop was how to use what you have and adapt plans to the space. We happened to have a north-facing, uninsulated corner with a window in our basement that was relatively easy to close off with one wall.  This allowed us to take advantage of the naturally cool space, and to easily add a simple ventilation system that should help us regulate the temperature in the room once the mercury dips below zero.

Covering the new wall with natural plaster

We were also lucky to have a lot of clay and a builder who had experience in natural building methods, so we chose to make natural clay plaster walls which should also help to insulate the room from the warmer space of the basement. If you’re looking to build a root cellar in your own home or organization, you could also build the walls out of cinder blocks or use drywall (get the kind used for bathrooms).

Here’s a list of materials we bought new for the workshop:

–  Lumber (14 pieces of 8 foot 2×6):  this was used to frame our wall

–  Wood screws

–  PVC 1 ½ inch pipe for our ventilation system

–  3 PVC connector elbows for the pipe

– Digital Thermometer and Hygrometer

– Supplies for a ceiling light and light switch

Here’s a list of things we bought used:

–   Old acoustical tiles & drywall: These formed the base for the natural plaster wall. We picked up the acoustical tiles for $2 each from Maritime Demolition. The drywall came from various people’s basements

–   Door: Reused door purchased from Maritime Demolition for about $80

And here’s what we already had on hand:

–   Old shelving: While I had received advice to build shelves that could easily be removed, we happened to have an old shelf in the space that will stay. We’ll keep it until it’s no longer functional

–    Clay from the floor:  We reconstituted this to make a natural plaster for the walls

–    Rigid styrofoam insulation: Left over from insulating the building

–    Wire mesh (for keeping critters out): A volunteer had some in her basement

Cost of Purchased Materials: about $400

Cost of labour for professional builder for two 8-hour work days, including design advice: $400

Cost of labour from wonderful and dedicated volunteers who helped us build and mud the clay walls: priceless!

To see how our root cellar workshop weekend went, click here for the whole story.

There are many other plans for root cellars out there – this is just our own example that worked in our particular space. Again, we want to emphasize that you should take advantage of what you already have. Cold storage can be as simple as an insulated garbage can buried in the ground or an unheated front porch. It can also be as elaborate as a subterranean room dug out of a north-facing hillside. Start planning for your own cold storage according to your needs!

For more advice on root cellaring and construction, we’d recommend getting a copy of Nancy and Mike Bubel’s book Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruit and Vegetables by Storey Publishing.

Here are two more links with interesting models for root cellaring:

Root Cellars: Safe and Secure from the Corporate Food Train
The Return of the Root Cellars

Hopefully we’ll have a bin of carrots like these in our own root cellar soon!

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