Story and Photos by Kay Crane…
There was a time back in the proverbial day when folks didn’t run to the supermarket several times a week. Provisions were often grown and stored in a variety of ways. Fruits and veggies were canned, grains could be kept a year or more, and many root vegetables were put to bed for the winter in — you guessed it — root cellars. The cellar was a necessity, not a convenience. It held the canned goods as well. Many a hardworking woman would retrieve not only a few potatoes and onions but also a beautiful jar of peaches for a winter dessert or a delicious jar of jam to grace the breakfast table.
And now it seems that some people around the Valley are returning to the ways of the past. We’re baking bread and hanging our laundry out on the clothesline. It’s not just to save energy but also to connect with the past, to slow down a little. Add to these reasons the current concerns about food safety, and preparing and storing your own food can provide a feeling of confidence in its purity. It’s also comforting to know that you have a cellar full of food at your fingertips in the event of an emergency.
Deborah Thomas and her husband are setting up a root cellar in their basement that they hope to have ready for the autumn. They’re installing shelves, bins, a ventilation system, and other amenities. She’s excited about the prospect and has collected lots of information online to help with this endeavor. She generously shared much of what she has learned, including the importance of air flow.
Several years ago, Bev O’Neil designed, excavated, and built a root cellar on her property. It hasn’t actually been put to use yet due to time constraints, but it currently serves as a mansion of a home to a huge black toad who has taken up residence. Once the sump pump is installed, he may have to find other quarters, but then the cellar will be ready to accept the bushels of veggies Bev has in mind for the place.
If root cellaring piques your interest, there are some things you should know. Whether dug into the ground or situated in a cool, dark basement, air exchange and ventilation are essential. There must be a cool air intake with a corresponding warm air outlet in the ceiling. High humidity is vital, as dry air will cause the vegetables to shrivel and dry out. Of course, high humidity makes it especially important to have good air circulation. Deborah says that humidity can be increased by a light sprinkle of water on the floor, which ideally would consist of several inches of gravel. Signs of mold? That means that it’s too damp. Open the door for a while to dry it out a bit.
Perhaps you are beginning to suspect that root cellaring takes some attention to detail. True. At least once a week you should check temperatures and humidity. Look for signs of varmints who would view your cellar as a nice place to hunker down. Examine veggies and fruits for signs of rot. If found, throw the bums out. It spreads quickly. Deborah mentions the importance of spreading straw between layers of vegetables so they’re not touching. Shelves should not touch walls — contributing to better air circulation. Place bins on a pallet, rather than directly on the floor. Say it with me, boys and girls: Air flow!
And if you’re not a gardener? We have beautiful produce at our farmers’ markets, so you can still get into the game. Building and maintaining a root cellar is admittedly time-consuming, at least in the beginning. But it could provide many rich rewards. And Grandma would be proud. ***
To see more by Kay, visit www.kaycraneart.com.
This and other select Grand Valley Magazine stories on this site are part of our GV Classics Collection. This story was featured in the August 2010 issue of Grand Valley Magazine (c) 2010.