Fall Research Report #1: Root Cellars & A World Without Refrigerators


Root cellar

A root cellar is a structure built underground or partially underground and used to store vegetables, fruits, and nuts or other foods

A pair of potato cellars in southeastern Idaho sit in a wheat field


Root cellar culinary science

When my mother was growing up on a farm in rural Olmsted County, Minnesota, the farmhouse had a large root cellar, where vegetables were stored for the winter. There was a large pile of sand in the corner, in which carrots were buried, and separate piles for potatoes.

In my childhood home in suburban Minneapolis thirty years later in the 1950s, we had good kitchen refrigeration (though no air-conditioning), but in addition to a refrigerator and storage freezer, we still maintained a de facto root cellar. The basement was partitioned into a play area and a utility area which held the furnace and water heater; one corner of that unheated area was used for storage of potatoes, which we bought by the gunny sack.

Today I learned, from an article in the Wisconsin State Journal, that winter storage of vegetables may improve their sweetness -
"This is a phenomenon called cold-sweetening," says UW-Madison horticulture professor Irwin Goldman. As plants produce sugars through photosynthesis, most are combined and stored in the plant as starches and other large polymers. But in response to cold temperatures, some plants break down some of their energy stores into "free" sugars, such as glucose and fructose, and stash them in their cells to guard against frost damage. Sugar dissolved in a cell makes it less susceptible to freezing in the same way that salting roads reduces ice...

Cold-sweetening occurs in many cold-tolerant vegetable plants. Local consumers may have experienced it in Wisconsin-grown winter spinach, but it also happens in beets, broccoli, carrots and even potatoes.

In fact, Goldman says, cooks may find that cold-stored potatoes turn brown when cooked, due to caramelizing of the extra sugar. This can be avoided by moving cold potatoes to warmer storage areas to recondition them and allow the sugars to convert back to starch before cooking them.
The photo, from the Minnesota Historical Society, shows the large root cellar at the Oliver H. Kelley farm, a historical farm preserved for educational purposes.

Photo of small concrete vaulted root cellar


Some thirty years ago, an international student from eastern Europe remarked to me that what she found most intriguing upon her first trip to the supermarket in the United States was the sight of bins upon bins of fresh fruits and vegetables. There are times when I enter our local markets that I feel equally intrigued, at times near paralyzed, by the choices in the fresh food sections today. Grapefruit from Florida, apples from Australia, blueberries, grapes, peaches, and nectarines from Chile, fresh pineapple from Hawaii, bananas from Central America, kiwi fruit, mangoes – and that’s just some of the fruit available.

And vegetables? There are sealed bags of scrubbed baby carrots, lettuces of all types, celery, cilantro, and parsley, cucumbers and jalapeno peppers, hot house tomatoes, kale, and turnip greens, broccoli and cauliflower cut up into crowns, bean sprouts, snow peas, green beans, eggplant.

Do I need potatoes, and what type shall I try this week – Yukon Gold? New red? Idaho Russet? How about cabbage for Saturday night? Should it be winter squash or sweet potatoes or yams on Sunday? They’re all there, I just have to make up my mind. It’s enough to wish myself back into the 1890s

Okay, so let’s consider the cook at the turn of the century. Winter fare in the fresh vegetable line would not pose too much of a problem because she’s restricted to what can be stored underground, and it was mostly potatoes. Well, the potato bin in the house is empty, but no problem! She has a pit at the foot of last year’s garden, full of her own crop. It would be a cone-shaped spot perhaps five to six feet in diameter, covered with straw and soil and with a vent in the top. The vent would have had to be kept free to air circulation to guard against mold. A wary lookout for rodents would also be prudent, since they could decimate the entire pile in short order.

Lloyd R. Jorgensen explains in his memoirs, Growing up in Lewiston, the process our pioneer woman’s husband or sons would go through to get a basket of potatoes from this structure – aside, I would think, from getting out to it through anywhere from a foot to three feet of snow. First they would clear away the snow, then the soil from the pile, then dig through the straw to get at the potatoes, select enough potatoes to last for a good while – because they wouldn’t want to go through this process too often – then carefully replace the straw, cover the straw with the displaced soil, being careful to keep the vent in place, and plow back through the snow to the kitchen.

Long time Lewiston resident, Dave Roberts, who was also a boy in the 1920s, remembers that an ax had to be used occasionally to get through the frozen ground. “But you’d wait until the sun came out, and most of the time you could break out a chunk of frozen dirt with just the shovel. When you got to the straw,” he adds, “you’d be all set.” Dave’s family dispensed with the vent, and he didn’t remember any real problems with mold.

Storage bin
Cross section of a storage pit, shown right. During severely cold weather the dirt covering may be supplemented by manure. This storage pit has a vent full of straw with a board on top held down by a stone to keep out rain and snow



Root Cellar

The plans for an above ground root cellar have been in the works for some time. This August, my dad began the construction process. Hay bales provide the insulation and main framework for the building. The foundation is made of pavers on top of dirt and sand. Plywood supports the bales on top. Metal sheets held down with pavers shed the cellar from rain. There is one shelf on the inside. Eventually, we will cobb the outside.

The hay bales make a wall underneath the porch while the foundation is built. (August 2)
My dad shows off the newly laid foundation. (August 2)
The hay bales are stacked to make the beginnings of the walls. (August 2)The root cellar as it looks presently. (August 12)


Cobbing: A Year Later

On July 19, my dad, Lisa, Rachelle (a friend), and I finished cobbing the other two sides of the root cellar. Last summer we only finished the Left and Back sides. Over the winter, there was a lot of air leakage. The rain washed some of the clay from the coat of cobb and cracking occurred.

The two unfinished sides before cobbing.
We dug up some of our own clay and then sifted the large clumps out with a piece of chicken wire.
We added sand that we bought to the mixture.
The straw helped bind the sand, clay, and water together.
The corner of the cellar was the hardest section to cobb because the hay was looser there.
The bales are visible underneath the cobb.
The right side was especially dangerous for stooped cobbers. Lisa bumped her head twice.
The unfinished inside is visible from the front.
The root cellar after several hours worth of work.


Garbage can root cellar

Consider burying a galvanized garbage can in the ground to create your own "root cellar." The root cellar keeps potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, and apples through the winter. Bury the can upright with 4 in. or so of the top protruding above ground level.

Place the garbage can on a well-drained site, and make a ditch so surface water will be diverted and not run into the container. Make sure the can has a good lid, and cover the lid with straw. Over the straw put a waterproof cover of canvas or plastic.

Put veggies and fruits in perforated polyethylene bags. Root crops like beets, carrots, and turnips should not be put into storage until late fall. Don't store carrots near apples because the apples give off gases that make the carrots bitter. Avoid bruising veggies to prevent rot. Also, I don't recommend sweet potatoes for the "root cellar" because the dampness causes them to decay.


Pot-in-Pot cooler

The Pot-in-Pot system consists of two pots, a smaller earthenware pot nestled within another pot, with the space in between filled with sand and water. When that water evaporates, it pulls heat from the interior of the smaller pot, in which vegetables and fruits can be kept. In rural Nigeria, many farmers lack transportation, water, and electricity, but one of their biggest problems is the inability to preserve their crops. With the Pot-in-Pot, tomatoes last for twenty-one days, rather than two or three days without this technology. Fresher produce can be sold at the market, generating more income for the farmers.

  1. Designer: Mohammed Bah Abba
  2. Manufacturer: local potters
  3. Nigeria, 1995
  4. Earthenware, sand, water
  5. Dimensions: 16” to 22” diameter
  6. In use in: Cameroon, Tchad, Niger, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso



Summer faded fast...

Dear friends of the ArkHaus, our apologies for the long delay in updates. Our laptop has crapped out on us and we've been so slammed with the wedding and building our foundation.

We couldn't wait to share our ideas with everyone. Our foundation was originally planned to be a simple slab to eventually build an addition to connect the two containers, but we instead decided to think more long term and instead built a "mass heat storage radiant sand bed foundation".

You're probably curious as to what that is exactly and to be honest its not very 'google-able'. But we have some resources we found online.

[image used from: http://www.arthaonline.com/Word%20Files/Ramlow_SolarToday_ND07.pdf ]

"These homes use a concrete slab with a compacted sand bed under the slab for the storage of solar heat. The sand bed typically extends under all of the house and is about 2 ft thick. The sand bed and slab provide a large mass for storing heat. The sand bed outer edges and bottom are insulated to prevent heat loss to the outside. Heat is delivered to the house directly from the slab/sand bed into the living area. " sourced from: BuiltItSolar.com

Solar Today published a great article summarizing the concept in a 2007 article: http://www.arthaonline.com/Word%20Files/Ramlow_SolarToday_ND07.pdf

There is also another example of a family using this technique in Granville, Mass. http://www.davecimma.com/Barn/index.html

We are going to be uploading more of our own images of our heat battery foundation and some fantastic images of our off grid wedding! We were working on the foundation up until a day before the wedding! It was a frantic hurry to complete it in time and luckily we did. We
got married on the property Sunday 9.4.11! :) You can also check back on our Facebook Group for additional updates!

Also don't forget we will be speaking at a free event
on Wednesday September 28th 2011 at the Maine Audobon Center. They are starting up a new program called "Living Lightly" and we will be their first guest speaker. We encourage you to come out!

If you or anyone you may know might be interested in ArkHaus building a container living solution or interesting in hiring us to consult on your off grid project, please contact us and we'll be happy to work with you!

FRIDAY 9.3.11 foundation dug out, sand delivered, foam installed, pex tubing laid down, and prepped for cement pouring the following day. It was a community event and dozens of friends, family & neighbors came through to help us meet our deadline! It was a wonderful feeling to be cared for and supported as much as we are. We can't thank everyone enough!


Our ring bearer & best friend, Miles. :)

The best band ever! The BArSTuARDS! rockin' out on our brand new foundation!