By Susie Kearley – In Buckinghamshire, England, Ali Freeman and her family, farm an impressive eight acre smallholding with a menagerie of animals and abundant vegetable plots. I went to meet them last August and was very impressed by the root cellar, which they’d built themselves. If you’re looking for a great way for how to store vegetables through the winter, this could be the answer!
It was a year earlier when I first visited the smallholding — their root cellar was just starting to take shape. The foundations were in place and I could see the beginnings of the walls, made from sandbags filled with soil and stones. When I returned the following August, the construction was complete, and inside, the root cellar was cool and ready for preserving food.
The root cellar was constructed four feet deep into the ground. “I’d dig deeper if I did it again, for better temperature control,” says Connor, the green fingered member of the family who grows most of the vegetables. Inside, the family stores their potatoes, swede, turnips, and other root crops after harvesting.
When the root cellar walls were completed, they put soil over the structure, and then planted it with wild flowers, so from the outside, it looks like a natural mound with a door in the side. The wild flowers looked amazing in the spring, but the hot summer in Europe took its toll, so they looked more like dried flowers by August 2018!
Construction of the Root Cellar
“The root cellar was born from Google and You Tube,” explains Ali, Connor’s mom. “Many of our mad ideas come from the internet! The concept of a root cellar is to dig partially into the ground and cover the bit above ground with soil. This keeps the storage area cool all summer and above freezing all winter. It’s worked well, with an average temperature of between 40 and 50 degrees F all year round. Because it’s partly subterranean, it’s quite damp, with relatively high humidity, therefore making poor conditions for chicken feed storage but perfect storage conditions for all root crops. We store our potato harvest in it, along with carrots, swede, parsnips and celeriac. It’s also the perfect environment for buckets of chicory for forcing.”
Ali and the Freeman clan dug a circular hole around 10 feet across and four feet deep. “This was filled with a four inch layer of road stone base, tamped down firm”, Ali explains, “followed by a couple of inches of large gravel. This ensures that any water getting in has somewhere to drain away. We then lined the sides with some really long sheets of silage wrap, which eventually were wrapped up and over the finished structure for waterproofing.”
The doorposts were set in concrete and the door was hung in place. Then construction of the walls began: bags of soil were laid on top of one another, like bricks, to create the walls and roof.
Ali explains: “Each bag was positioned on a fabricated tin sheet slider so they could be adjusted before pulling the tin out. We laid gravel under the bags on the bottom two layers of the wall, to prevent moisture wicking up. We also included a couple of lengths of drain pipe vertically, to provide airflow. The pipes went right up and out the top of the root cellar through the soil covering.
How did they ensure there was no slippage between the bags? They used a ring of barbed wire between each layer. “This helped to prevent the bags slipping once they were put in position,” Ali explains.
The bags were then firmly packed down, so they butted up close. “This makes the whole structure really strong,” says Ali. “This build method is used extensively in Asia to construct typhoon shelters and other emergency accommodation, as they will withstand pretty much anything!”
What were the greatest challenges? “Making the arch over the door was a bit fiddly,” she confesses. “We made a temporary frame above the door to hold the bags while the arch was being built. It incorporated some horizontal posts to make an eventual kind of ‘eyebrow’ to shelter the door area.
You can see from the photos, the day we removed the frame was a significant milestone! It not only held up, but it was strong enough to sit on! The layers of bags over the height of the door are corbelled in two or three inches per layer until you have your dome.”
Another significant moment was when the keystone at the top was laid. It was on the eve of Lammas, an ancient pagan festival which celebrates harvest. “This seemed entirely appropriate,” says Ali.
Once the dome was complete, a silage wrap, which had been put in at the start, was folded over the top, followed by a layer of wire mesh, to stop any animals being able to dig in.
“Then we used a digger to cover the whole thing with earth,” says Ali. “Although we found we had to construct a little wooden front above the door, to hold the earth in place. Then the whole thing was covered with a jute net which held the soil in place whilst the plants grew. It was seeded with wildflowers and phaecelia green manure, which the bees enjoyed all summer. All exposed areas around the door and steps were roughly hand plastered with breathable lime plaster and the interior was shelved out with hand-built storage racks.”
It’s been a huge learning curve for the whole family. “We had an enormous number of bags filled and hefted.” says Ali. “Not a project to undertake unless you have a good number of helping hands … which luckily we have!” Many people came to help, bringing muscle power and skills, as well as enthusiasm and ideas. “We definitely have an original and unique addition to the smallholding which is hugely useful.” she says. “Not sure I’d fancy doing another one, though!”
Have you ever executed a root cellar on your homestead? We’d love to hear your experiences!