What’s Behind The Old Root Cellar Door?

Old doors are intriguing. Curiosity pulls you to solve whatever mystery lies behind the old, closed door. Admit it – when you see an old door and aren’t sure what’s on the other side, you need to open it. And this 120-year-old door is like that.

So what mysteries hide behind the old cellar door? First, some history. When we moved the 1895 house to Fargo, the old basement was naturally left behind. In the depths of the basement was a room partitioned off as an unheated root cellar, or vegetable storage room, separated from the rest of the basement by an old door. We saved the door, and brought it to Fargo along with the house. When the house was set on a new basement, we partitioned off a root cellar/vegetable storage room, and installed the old door back in its intended location.

Twenty five years later the house was moved a second time, being in the way of Fargo flood protection efforts. Once again we removed the old wooden cellar door, transported it to the new location, partitioned off a root cellar/vegetable storage room, and installed the old door back in its intended location, one more time.

So the answer to what’s behind the old root cellar door is quite simple – a storeroom filled with garden potatoes, onions, squash, carrots and a crock full of sauerkraut. Not entirely mysterious, but the door is wonderful.

How can a root cellar or vegetable storage room be built in a new basement? An old concept of a root cellar, with its earth floor like a basement pit with a trap door isn’t practical. In fact, the 1895 root cellar in the house’s original basement is much like the way we recently constructed it.

How a root cellar/vegetable storage room can be built in a modern basement:

  • The goal is to build a room that will maintain a temperature around 40 degrees F, which is a good temperature for storing the garden’s fall harvest of potatoes, onions, carrots and beets. Squash prefer a slightly higher temperature, but seem to do ok also at 4o.
  • The preferred location that will best isolate the room from the basement’s warmth is a corner, preferably in an unfinished corner such as a utility room.
  • Build stud walls to enclose the corner, in whatever size you feel is practical for the amount of gardening you do.
  • Insulate the walls well to separate the basement’s warmth from the cool temperature needed inside the room.
  • Getting the room’s temperature to cool down enough in fall can be a challenge. In our recent basement, we installed a very small horizontal window in the concrete foundation where the root cellar would be located. The window can be opened on chilly fall evenings to let cool air into the room. The window can be opened and closed as needed to achieve 40 degrees temperature. A thermometer in the root cellar is helpful.
  • If a window in the root cellar isn’t possible, small closeable vents can be cut into the house’s lower wooden frame to allow cool air to enter the room. That’s what we did in our previous location.
  • Onions should be stored dry in flat, open trays. Carrots store well in sand, or packed in large earthenware crocks, as we do. Potatoes prefer a humid-type spot in a bin or large container.

And of course, don’t forget a door. The older, the better. 



2 Responses

  1. Jody Gerszewski

    Love this. We have a old cistern for holding water in ours, do you think that would be too much humidity when not wooden?

    1. Don Kinzler

      I would think an old cistern would make a good root cellar. Our grandparents farm had a cistern under the kitchen.

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