Root Cellaring

Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables


By Mike Bubel

By Nancy Bubel

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Stretch the resources of your small backyard garden further than ever before, without devoting hundreds of hours to canning! This informative and inspiring guide shows you not only how to construct your own root cellar, but how to best use the earth’s naturally cool, stable temperature as an energy-saving way to store nearly 100 varieties of perishable fruits and vegetables.


Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following publishers for permission to reprint copyrighted material from the following sources:

Countryside Magazine: “Energy-Free Food Storage” by Jerry Minnich. Copyright October 1977. Reprinted by permission.

Bookcraft Inc.: Passport to Survival by Esther Dickey. Copyright 1969 by Esther Dickey. Reprinted by permission.

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.: Food for Thought by Robert Farrar Capon. Copyright 1978. Reprinted by permission.

Houghton Mifflin Co.: Basic Baskets by Mara Cary. Copyright 1975 by Mara Cary. Reprinted by permission.

Funk and Wagnalls: Diary of an Early American Boy by Eric Sloane. Copyright 1962 by Eric Sloane. Reprinted by permission.

Doubleday and Company Inc.: My Friend the Garden by Fernand Lequenne. Copyright 1965 by Fernand Lequenne. Reprinted by permission.

Doubleday and Company Inc.: The Countryman’s Year by David Grayson. Copyright 1932 by David Grayson. Reprinted by permission.

Shambala Publications, Inc., 1123 Spruce Street, Boulder, Colorado 80301: Tassajara Cooking by Edward Espe Brown. Copyright 1973 by Edward Espe Brown. Reprinted by special arrangement.

Crabapple Press, Meadville, Pennsylvania: “The Farm Cellar” by Eupha Shanly, page 86. Poor Joe’s Pennsylvania Almanac 1979. Reprinted by permission.


Grateful acknowledgment is made to William H. Matchett for permission to reprint a portion of his poem “Packing a Photograph from Firenze,” from Water Ouzel and Other Poems, published by Houghton Mifflin. Copyright 1955 by William H. Matchett. Reprinted by permission.

This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Slowly we are carving a new lifestyle. To some it might seem to be one that is looking backward, for it cherishes the homely, the rude, the unpackaged, the unmechanized, the careful. We do not think of it as a blind shutting out of any visions of the future, but rather, for us, the right way to face the future. The carving is not easy. It is often painful. But in it are the seeds of sanity, of joy.

Mara Cary Basic Baskets

Our interest in root cellars goes way back—to the years when our children were young and we were driving the back roads of central Pennsylvania’s lovely Buffalo Valley in search of a farm to buy. On one of our rambles, we discovered a real beauty—a classic stone-faced root cellar dug into a hill. We wished, as only a land-hungry young couple can, that it belonged to us. In a way, that splendid old root cellar does belong to us, because Mike took a picture of it—a picture that we still enjoy looking at now that we’ve found some land of our own and settled in. In another sense, the cellar belongs to us because living with that picture has influenced us. It has said something to us about forethought, preparation, and generous provisioning—and about building a pleasing structure for even the most utilitarian purpose.

We have, in fact, come to see the root cellar as a true expression of folk craft—a thing people make to serve their everyday needs. It is one of the few (mostly) unregulated things you can build in most communities today. The appropriate use of found materials to suit a particular site and family delights us with its varied, sturdy, homey results.

This is the old root cellar in Buffalo Valley, Pennsylvania, that got us started collecting root cellars.

Although we’ve done the usual sightseeing with our family—Williamsburg, the Smithsonian, the Liberty Bell, Yellowstone Park, Broadway, and the beach—we must confess that what really has most often intrigued us in our travels has been the little backyard gardens, homemade birdhouses, and north-slope root cellars we’ve seen along the way. When we finally realized that these are the things that have meaning for us, we started to take short rambling trips to search them out.

Our previous rather casual game of collecting root cellar ideas intensified when we started to plan a brand-new root cellar for the small house we intended to build here on our farm. In our search for the best root cellar plans, we consulted books and fellow gardeners and met many warm and interesting people along the way. We found so much good information that we decided it should be shared.

Thus this book has grown out of our interest in what people are really doing, on their own, to keep vegetables and fruits from the fall harvest for winter eating. We will tell you what a conventional root cellar looks like and show you how to build one, but we will also show you all kinds of improvised and ingenious systems that people have figured out for themselves, and that work.

There is something about a root cellar, for those who have experienced childhood winters of dependence on such stored bounty, that calls up associations of “home” and “security.” More than a few of our older informants grew misty eyed as they told us about root cellars they had hand-dug or once owned (including a built-for-the-ages masterpiece roofed by a century-old brick arch), or to which they had been sent as children to bring up the potatoes for dinner. One young contractor even told us how he left a big boulder exposed in the wall of a basement room of a house he had built because he remembered his grandfather’s stone-walled root cellar and hoped that perhaps someone would appreciate that room.

In our own experiments with storing live winter vegetables we’ve rediscovered another pleasure—akin to the contentment of dressing by the warm fire on a cold morning—and that’s the pleasure of delving into one’s own store for food to put on the winter table. As we shiver our way back to the warm kitchen with parsnips in our pockets, a handful of potatoes, and a bag of carrots, we feel very good about it all because we’ve managed to grow it and keep it. We wish each of you the same kind of satisfaction.

Mike and Nancy Bubel
Wellsville, Pa.


Our children . . . should enter adulthood with a basic knowledge of how to store food over winter without the cooperation of a nuclear power plant a hundred miles away. Every animal in the forest is taught this skill; we owe our children no less.

Jerry Minnich
“Energy-Free Food Storage,” Countryside

Root cellars are as useful today as they ever were. In fact, root cellars in all their forms are as up-to-date as tomorrow, now that costs of food and power used for processing are higher with each passing year.

The term “root cellar,” as we are using it here, includes the whole range of ingenious vegetable-saving techniques from hillside caves to garden trenches. The traditional root cellar is an underground storage space for vegetables and fruits. Where space and lay of the land permit, these cellars are sometimes dug into a hill and then lined with brick, stone, or concrete bock. Dirt-floored or insulated basement rooms, somewhat less picturesque but probably more numerous, are also traditional.

Since our purpose in writing this book is to help you to store as much garden produce as possible without processing, we’ll also include as root cellaring techniques suggestions for decentralized vegetable storage—in garages, porches, buried boxes, and even right in the garden row, as well as a few ways to keep your family in fresh green vegetables during the winter, even if you don’t have a greenhouse.

What would a root cellar do for you? Simply this: Make it possible for you to enjoy fresh endive in December; tender, savory Chinese cabbage in January; juicy apples in February; crisp fresh carrots in March; and sturdy unsprayed potatoes in April—all without boiling a jar, blanching a vegetable, or filling a freezer bag. A root cellar can save you time, money, and supplies. I discovered this the summer we started to build our house. In planning our garden that year, I had to come to terms with the fact that I’d be too busy, as the carpenter’s assistant, to do any freezing or canning of garden produce. So I planted vegetables—like tomatoes and corn—that we could eat fresh throughout the summer, and others—parsnips, carrots, and the cabbage clan—that I could harvest in the fall and keep in our cold basement for winter eating. This plan, born of necessity, worked beautifully. Our gas and electric bills were lower because I was not heating two-gallon kettles of water to can things, I was stuffing less into the freezer, and I didn’t need to buy new canning jar lids or freezer bags.

We found, too, that root cellaring led us to a whole new system of eating, one based on the age-old seasonal swings. In June we really appreciated the peas because we knew we wouldn’t have them in January. In the fall, when frost jewelled the grass and the pig was ready to butcher, we were hungry once again for the hearty, earthy flavor of turnips and rutabagas, beets and carrots, and parsnips. I don’t mean to imply that I’ve quit canning and freezing. I would truly miss my freezer, and our favorite canned goods—tomatoes, pickles, catsup, and peaches—are a must. But I can see now that I was processing more food than necessary, perhaps because of some innate squirreling instinct that whispered in my ear every August: “Provide, provide.” Now I give that impulse a more satisfactory expression by putting by a carefully planned store of winter keepers that make our January meals as special in their own way as those we enjoy in July.

Last evening, for example, I took a basket to our cellar to go “shopping” for the ingredients of the evening meal. Five potatoes, dusty but still firm, filled the bottom of the basket. A fistful of carrots and a single huge beet leaned against the side. Good sturdy root vegetables—just what you’d expect from a root cellar. But there’s more. Salad was on the menu too, so I put a long, solid head of Chinese cabbage and a rosy crisp radish into the basket. While in the cellar, shivering a bit out of range of the wood stove, I checked on the witloof chicory sprouts growing in a box of earth by the all. Looks like they’ll be ready for next week’s salads. On my way up the stairs I grabbed an onion from the net bag hanging above the stairway.

As I scrubbed the potatoes and chopped the leafy cabbage into the salad bowl, I thought about this direct, earthy, and deeply satisfying connection between our summer efforts in the garden and our winter need for fresh wholesome food. The simple life? I suppose you might say so. It is simply a matter of planning, fertilizing, planting, weeding, watering, weeding, weeding, and weeding, then harvesting and storing away. Snow is predicted for tonight, a thick snow that will drift across the lane and make driving tricky. But there’s no frantic dash to the grocery store for stuff to tide us over. We’re free to stay home and crack walnuts by the fireplace.

Then there is that little corner of our minds that sometimes says “What if?” What if the economy sags to the depths some forecasters predict? What if electricity becomes prohibitively expensive? What if we didn’t have our freezer? Could we manage? We feel sure that with some hard work and careful planning and good gardening our root cellar could bring us through.

Storage vegetables needn’t be limited to those old standbys: carrots, potatoes, and turnips. With a really well-planned root cellaring program, you can feast on Belgian endive in the dead of winter, fresh tomatoes for Christmas, tender dandelion shoots when the ground outside is ringing hard, nuts and apples, pears and sweet potatoes, even cantaloupe for your Thanksgiving fruit cup.

Those homely old vegetable carbohydrates are being appreciated in a new light these days. Far from being merely inexpensive menu fillers, complex carbohydrates like those found in vegetables have more value than we’ve given them credit for.

Certain vegetables have, in fact, been found to counter a toxic substance directly. The fiber they contain has been found to help control blood cholesterol, prevent bowel cancer, and regulate blood sugar. The vitamins that vegetables supply, especially vitamins A and C, are newly appreciated as immune-system boosters. Vitamins C and E are known antioxidants, effective in deactivating the free radicals that some scientists believe to be at least partly responsible for aging our bodies. The large and varied group of cabbage-family vegetables contain indoles, compounds that have been shown to inhibit tumor formation in animals. These crucifers, as they are called, include kale, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, Chinese cabbage, turnips, rutabagas, and Brussels sprouts. The antitumor compounds they contain are especially effective when the vegetables are eaten uncooked. If you have a ham in your freezer, then you need some cabbage and turnips in your root cellar! And if you have a well-stocked canning shelf, you need some fresh raw foods to provide the valuable though little-understood enzymes that aren’t found in cooked or processed foods.

Some root cellar staples have solidly recognized health-building qualities. Onions and garlic have been shown to be effective in lowering blood cholesterol. Pectin, found in apples, quinces, oranges, grapes, and tomatoes, also reduces cholesterol. And garlic, sometimes called “Russian penicillin” only half in jest, protects against infection, making it a fine food to have on your side during the cold and flu season.

Within the last 100 years, the use of fiberless fat, meat, and sugar has increased to the point where these foods often contribute most of our calories. This is not only an unnatural diet, when considered in the light of mankind’s long dependence on vegetable foods, but also an unwholesome one. Vegetables are far more than side dishes. They contribute vitamins and fiber and, when eaten raw, they help to stimulate the production of desirable digestive enzymes and provide valuable chewing exercises for the gums.

You can make profitable use of root cellaring techniques even if your garden is small. If you live in town, you can put by a good hoard of winter vegetables by using some of the “here and there” storage plans described in chapter 12.

Even if you must buy some produce, prices of storage vegetables are usually lowest in the fall. If squash is 25 cents a pound at a roadside stand in October, you can be sure that it will cost more than that in the market in January.

Your root cellar storage, then, can:

• Help you eat better.

• Save you money.

• Conserve dwindling supplies of energy.

• Give you that priceless feeling of security that comes with being prepared.

It is good to be able to provide for yourself, to be prepared for the winter by your own skill and forethought with your own wholesome home-grown produce. If you like to take charge of your life, choose your food with care and live in a simple, self-reliant way, perhaps this should be your next step toward independence. By spending a little effort, you stand to gain a lot.


Starting Right With Storage Vegetables


Planting Crops for Fall Storage

The countrey-man hath a provident and gainfull familie, not one whose necessities must be alwaies furnished out of the shop, nor their table out of the market. His provision is alwaies out of his own store, and agreeable with the season of the yeare.

Antonia de Guevera,
The Praise and Happiness
of the Countrie-life


Our first attempts at storing vegetables for the winter were more or less incidental. We’d grown a big long row of carrots and beets and had extras left over in the fall when it was time to clean up the garden for the winter. We brought the surplus root crops into our cool, dirt-floored basement room and kept them there in cartons covered with burlap bags. Gradually we learned how much more our garden could do for us. By spending a little more time planning and planting, we found we could produce as many as 33 different kinds of vegetables for winter storage. With this variety, no one vegetable must carry the burden of being a daily staple, and we don’t tire of our stored bounty. Most vegetables that we plant for fall storage may be sown as succession crops, following early peas, lettuce, or beans. This practice makes efficient use of both garden space and soil nutrients. For example, nitrogen left in the soil by the peas and beans promotes leafy growth of fall cabbages and kale. The whole process of dovetailing spring, summer, and fall crops can be intricate but most satisfying to work out. “Let’s see now, I planted spring peas on the edge of the garden where soil was easy to dig early. Now that they’re finished I can put in kale, which should also be at the edge of the plot so it doesn’t get plowed up at fall clean-up time, and which needs a good supply of nitrogen.”

As we experimented with growing and keeping different vegetables, we discovered what the experts had known all along: that vegetables to be stored keep best if they’re harvested at their peak of maturity—neither underdeveloped nor past their prime. Producing vegetables that are harvest-ready when weather has turned cold enough to provide good storage conditions takes a little planning, but the results are worth every minute spent with pencil, paper, and seed catalogues. Luckily, cool fall weather keeps many vegetables on “hold” so that they don’t grow as fast as they would in summer, thus providing a comfortable margin. Carrots that are ready to harvest in September are just fine for winter storage. Even cabbage that heads in September will usually hold—in a cold climate—for winter eating.

Many storage vegetables, in fact, grow best during the cool days of early fall. Lettuce, escarole, and corn salad, which would have bolted to seed in July and August, grow crisp and leafy in September and October. Cabbage, collards, and kale put on exuberant new green growth. Parsnips, salsify, and Brussels sprouts show their excellent true flavors only after frost has nipped them.

Light affects the development of some vegetables too. Cole crops like broccoli produce best during short days. Soybeans are also short-day plants. Decreasing day length triggers their flower formation. Special winter radish varieties produce good roots when days are short, unlike their quick-growing summer-radish cousins which may develop only a thin scraggly root when the sun sets early.

Enthusiasm for digging, planting, and even weeding seems to come naturally in the spring. The impulse that in March often carries us away with its insistence that we nurture some green thing, must sometimes be summoned with some will power in June, July, and August when weather is hot, weeds are persistent, and the whole burgeoning garden is crowded with productive life. Fall frosts seem far away in July when one must weed early in the day to avoid the baking sun, but that is just the time when many good fall-producing crops should be started. As we gardeners like to remind each other, part of each season is spent preparing for the next. After a few years, the wheel of the year takes us with it. Once you’ve pulled home-grown leeks in November and offered fresh, green, root-cellar salad for Christmas dinner, you find yourself ready to make summer plantings too, even if they must be deliberately scheduled and dutifully carried out, perhaps when you don’t really “feel like it.” Think of it this way: summer plantings carry the garden forward and keep it productive for the second half of the gardening year, the half you miss out on if impulsive spring plantings aren’t succeeded by deliberate summer sowings of durable roots and sturdy leaf crops.

This year, for example, my garden has been an orphan of sorts, for I’ve been too busy helping with house construction to keep it weeded and consistently replanted. I am not proud of the sway it looks this fall. Lamb’s quarters five feet tall tower over the carrot row. A carpet of cheese mallow has invaded the cabbages. The ducks have munched on one patch of escarole and the other patch is not blanched—I haven’t had a chance to tie up the leaves. Nevertheless, the few hours I devoted to renewing the garden in June and July have kept the rows producing. Under all those weeds, I can still find the following vegetables, this second week in November:


• Carrots

• Escarole

• Head lettuce

• Comfrey

• Chinese chives

• Cabbage

• Broccoli

• Brussels sprouts

• Leeks

• Winter radishes

• Beets

• Parsnips

• Kale

• Parsley

• Jerusalem artichokes


In other years, I have also had rutabagas, kohlrabi, salsify, chard, and turnips.

Sometimes it’s hard to find room in the summer garden for your fall crops, and, in my experience, young seedlings sometimes struggle when planted in the row in summer’s heat. For these reasons, I’ve gotten into the habit of starting seedlings of many of my fall crops in flats. I keep the flats on the porch where I can water them and tend them until the seedlings are about two inches high with sturdy stems and several pairs of leaves. Then I transplant them into spaces in the garden—often into a just-cleared row where I’ve pulled onions, and sometimes into spots where an early planting has finished or failed. This gives me an additional two weeks growing time for early crops in the garden and ensures a good start for the seedlings.

The usual transplanting precautions are especially important in summer heat. Whenever possible, I move seedlings into the garden row on a cloudy day. If rain is expected, I find planting just before a shower preferable to planting after rain. One is less likely to compact soft wet soil by walking over it, and the young plant is naturally watered into place. (I always pour a cupful of water into the planting hole too, of course.)

New transplants need some protection from hot sun for their first three to seven days. I often use berry baskets, which cast a light grid of shade but let sun shine through too. A leafy branch also works well, either placed lightly over the seedlings or stuck in the ground to cast a shadow. Summer transplants usually need to be watered several times in addition to the watering you gave them when setting them out. Mulch them as soon as you can, too, to hold moisture in the soil and control weeds. Once I start canning in August, I find that weeds often get ahead of me, so summer mulch is especially good crop insurance.

A fall garden in a small backyard (about September 10). The healthy seedlings illustrate that you don’t need much space, just good planning!

When sowing seeds directly in the row, I usually water the seeds in the open furrow and then draw a ¼- to ½-inch layer of fine soil over them. This helps to prevent crusting of the soil. Plants that have delicate foliage, like carrots, often appreciate the additional protection of a thin layer of dried grass clippings or fine, light hay scattered over the row.

Summer planting for fall harvests takes a bit of gumption and persistence. But once started, it becomes a habit. The sight of a row of ruffly, blue-green kale plants flanked by just-heading cauliflower, tender crisp fall head lettuce, and wrist-thick leeks, all lightly silvered with dew on a snappy September morning, will do much to confirm the habit and your own respect for yourself as a gardener and provider. I am busy, absent-minded, and sometimes get behind in my weeding. If I can raise this kind of fall abundance, you can too.


Good Keepers

… Through the improbable winter to the impossible spring.

William H. Matchett
“Packing a Photograph from Firenze”

Here’s a checklist to consult at the beginning of the gardening season—which is, for most of us, in January and February when we pull a rocker up to the warm woodstove or glowing fireplace with our lap full of catalogues, ready to fill in the rows in our mind’s eye garden—the one that is always perfect. We have a brand-new chance, now, to remedy the mistakes and shortcomings of the last gardening season. A look at the root cellar will tell us whether our order of good keepers should be increased. Old-time gardeners referred to the late winter and early spring weeks as “the hungry gap”—when stored vegetables ran low, fall-butchered meat was used up, the cow was dry, and the hens hadn’t resumed laying. If you’re left with only a handful of root vegetables at midwinter seed-ordering time, now’s your chance to provide for a bigger and longer-lasting winter vegetable harvest next fall. We’ve kept this list of good keepers separate so that you’ll find it easy to refer to when planning your garden. Most of the vegetables discussed in this book will keep well regardless of variety, but for really outstanding storage life, you might want to try some of these especially reliable varieties. Unless specific sources are noted, the variety is widely available.

A fall harvest basket filled with beets, radishes, and celeriac.


Detroit Dark Red

Hybrid Red Cross

Long Season—our favorite keeper beet; huge and rough-looking, but very tender.

Lutz Green Leaf

Perfected Detroit


Green Comet (hybrid)—good for a second planting.

Waltham 29—a good fall broccoli.

Brussels Sprouts

Green Pearl

Jade Cross

Long Island Improved




Takinogawa Long


April Green



  • “…the most complete book on the subject you are likely to find.”

    Backwoods Home Magazine

    “…a book that has become a durable classic – a manual that delivers detailed guidelines for storing fruits and vegetables in the most simple way possible.”

    The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia)

    “The name Bubel is synonymous with practical, hands-on experience…I highly recommend Root Cellaring. It’s the only book you need on the subject.”

    Maine Organic Farmer Gardener

  • "The most complete book on the subject you are likely to find."

On Sale
Jan 9, 1991
Page Count
320 pages

Mike Bubel

About the Author

Mike Bubel co-authored the classic best-selling guide Root Cellaring with his wife, Nancy. They were avid gardeners for many years in Philadelphia and then on their farm in Wellsville, Pennsylvania. 

Nancy Bubel, co-author of the classic best-selling guide, Root Cellaring, was a gardening columnist for Country Journal magazine and wrote for Mother Earth News, Organic Gardening, Horticulture, Family Circle, Womans Day and New Shelter magazines. She was a member of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Society for Economic Botany, and a life member of both the Seed Savers Exchange and the Friends of the Trees Society. 

Learn more about this author

Nancy Bubel

About the Author

Nancy Bubel, co-author of the classic best-selling guide, Root Cellaring, was a gardening columnist for Country Journal magazine and wrote for Mother Earth News, Organic Gardening, Horticulture, Family Circle, Womans Day and New Shelter magazines. She was a member of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Society for Economic Botany, and a life member of both the Seed Savers Exchange and the Friends of the Trees Society. 

Learn more about this author