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Jam Lady

Tell Me About Root Cellars

Yesterday I visited friends who are estate gardeners, to see the contemporary root cellar. It's lovely. Used for the traditional potaoes, onions (which are sprouting), squashes, dormant flower bulbs.

I'm curious - any Downsizers with actual experience / memories / family stories of root cellars, clamps, or other traditional root vegetable storage techniques they'd like to share? When this was, where it was, what was stored, how successful - anything and everything you might want to relate.

PM fine, although I think other members would enjoy hearing about it.


I can remember the root cellar at my grandparents' home. Grandad built the cottage and they lived there all their married life, in the depths of the Sussex countryside, long enough ago to have evacuees billeted with them during the war! The cellar was to one side and I wasn't allowed down there very often - there were steps going down and it had earth sides and smelled damp and cool and earthy!

They had a big and very productive garden and I think he and grandma stored the homemade wine down there too - made from any and every fruit and veg they grew! They had hens too, naturally, and it was such a treat to go into the hen shed and collect the eggs (tbh it still is, from our own chooks!). There was a line of 'step-over' apple trees trained by grandad himself and espaliered fruit bushes in other parts of the garden - I had no idea at the time, of course, just how talented he was.

Long time ago now...
Jam Lady

Thanks for your reply gythagirl. I'm interested in your mention of earthen walls - most of the old root cellars I've seen had dirt floors but the walls were stone.
Mistress Rose

The old house we used to cultivate the vegetable garden in had a cellar and it was used to store roots, although don't think it was exclusively for that. Think the walls were brick, like the house. A village near us has cellars under the houses. I think they are brick, but they are water permeable because they often flood, so not ideal for storing anything.

The cellar at the farm was earth floor stone walls. Can't really tell you any more than that Sad

not for roots but :

in pennine yorkshire many houses were built with cellars ,the best have various rooms , some were dry and have wood shelves on brackets to keep the wood away from damp walls and some used porous stone /dampness from the earth or sprinkling to cool by evaporation,all have good ventilation.

apples store very well on dry shelves with a newspaper "carpet" in a cool 5c and moderate airflow cellar.

dairy (chese,milk,butter ) have porous stone shelves so as evaporation cools the goods

hams,bacon etc have hooks and good ventilation

veg etc would be in crates on bearers to keep them off the damp flags

the coldest damp stone shelf would often be near an air intake vent and acted as a fridge for fresh meat etc.

dry cellar space was good for some things but a mix of airflow and controlled moisture was best for many things

mice etc had traps and as much physical barriers as poss.

a chum has one that was built as a butchers hanging room about the size of a large shipping container, vaulted ceiling, ,damp flags and walls and now we have opened the ventilation again it has good airflow and a stable 2 to 4 c temp all year round (rather than the nasty warm, damp "weeping walls" and dry rot it had when the vents were blocked)

based on what i know good ventilation is vital and natural lime based whitewash seems to be the surface coating of choice for walls and shelves/woodwork ( which makes sense for several reasons)
iirc elm is a good wood to use in cellars
Jam Lady

very helpful and informative dpack. Thank you.

Would "dairy (chese,milk,butter ) have porous stone shelves so as evaporation cools the goods" be what's called the larder?

Am I correct in thinking apples and potatoes should not be stored together? I think I remember something about apples cause potatoes to sprout.

very helpful and informative dpack. Thank you.

Would "dairy (chese,milk,butter ) have porous stone shelves so as evaporation cools the goods" be what's called the larder?

Am I correct in thinking apples and potatoes should not be stored together? I think I remember something about apples cause potatoes to sprout.

Dairy: I believe the traditional New England approach was to use a spring house for storage when possible, submerged in running water if available

Apples shouldn't be stored with a lot of other things because of all of the ethylene gas they give off, speeding ripening/decay of other foods.

I'm surprised that the folks in your OP are already losing their onions (unless they're not a storage variety at all)
Jam Lady

Slim, I see spring houses here and there aound where I live in New Jersey, and across the river in Pennsylvania. When I Google "were spring houses used in England" I get links to Roman baths or USA spring houses.

Downsizers, anyone have memories of spring houses in use in the UK?

How about ice house - storing ice in deep pits packed in sawdust, small building above the pit.


Great resource from another era:


and another:

And the Veggie farmer's storage bible:
Agriculture Handbook number 66

When I worked in a kid's adventure holiday place near Shrewsbury they had an old ice house, the place was originally a man or house I think then a borstal for boys.
We used it to scare the crap out of the little kids on various 'adventures' by having staff dress up and hide in there then jump out and run.
When in use they would cut blocks of ice from the lakes and sprinkle them with salt and the whole structure, although built above ground was buried if thst makes sense...
Jam Lady

The root cellar "bible" is Mike and Nancy Bubel's Root Cellaring: The Simple No-Processing Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables. Published by Rodale Press in 1979. The inscription in my copy: "Christmas 1979, along with wood stoves and a return to the past"

My aunt's summer cottage had an ice box, with ice delivered 3 times a week if my aging memory recalls correctly. And I also seem to remember that the food kept in better condition than today's over-size, frost-free, French door refrigerators where food becomes lost in the nether recesses and rots.

Nor do I really need a "smart" refrigerator with a hackable app that wants to tell me to buy milk and eggs, or - worse yet - orders them from Amazon all on its own.

The root cellar "bible" is Mike and Nancy Bubel's Root Cellaring: The Simple No-Processing Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables. Published by Rodale Press in 1979.

Ah yes, great book! I've got a copy somewhere (can't seem to find it right now). Definitely the root cellaring bible.

The reason I said that handbook 66 is the veggie farmer's storage bible is that root cellars often present compromise situations, where good conditions for many crops are used instead of ideal or "perfect" conditions for few crops. On a farm scale there is ideally great enough quantities of crops to create a few different "regimes" of storage conditions. In that way, handbook 66 helps you to group crops into compatible categories with similar storage condition requirements. Not as feasible on a home scale.

a few further observations.

if the house is built on a slope the cellar is often cut into the hillside with a wall facing the downhill side. this allows for a door, window and drainage so the part nearest the outside of the space can be dedicated to laundry etc. a copper and chimney is often a feature of these.
the parts further back form dark storage spaces.

shutes are useful for coal/logs/large dead critters ( and i suppose bulk veg etc ) as supplies drop in easily from the outside ( many central london cellars have these in the road or pavement for coal, yorkshire ones are usually either in the pavement or through the wall at an angle.

even with cellars that have no outside wall (ie a hole under the house ) light/access can be provided via a window/shutters forming one side of a "pit" that is open or barred at street level. these need to be dry so often have a drain to avoid rain problems.

sandstone is the ideal material for flags and damp shelves ,in west yorkshire the natural bedrock is often incorporated into the features of the cellar.

a few yorkshire cellars have a well but that depends on geology and need. Pre the end of the 18th c it was more common as hand pumps/gravity fed taps in the yard became more common in the 19th c.

from the late 18th c posh town houses had a basement level that was often part storage cellar for coal/foodstuffs and part kitchen/scullery for the servants to cook and wash in. the storage parts used many of the features i have mentioned but the damp shelves were often rather fine stonework.i lived in a rather nice listed building and the "cold shelf" was a 10 by10 sandstone slab in the centre of a well ventilated damp cellar room, it was separated from other areas by brick walls but had no door and good ventilation at and below ground level.

thinking of ventilation at least two vents are needed , more is good, and the best have vents at different levels as well as different aspects.

even quite modest houses (skilled workman) were built with storage cellars up to about ww1 these were often half coal, half walk in fridge and would have a footprint of about half the ground floor.they were often of poor design and not very good for more than keeping a jug of milk or a weeks meat fresh.

purpose built low pay industrial workers houses rarely had a cellar level as they could only afford hand to mouth shopping so a small cool larder and coal bucket was enough storage.

the oldest cellar i am familiar with was under a pub restaurant i worked in . 13th c built for the abbey alehouse that predated the pub by several rebuilds.
floor level was about 20 ft underground to outside level,high vaulted ceiling ,natural rock walls, natural stone benches for beer both sides. i assume they quarried a big hole and used the stone for the cellar roof and original walls
it was a bit "haunted" in places , i was ok with all but one end (which we never used ) but many ran screaming never to return Laughing the most recent refit of the pub lost a few contractors due to then running off site never to return.
we had a sump pump for drainage as it was rather wet ,i have no idea how it was kept from flooding when it was built, perhaps by a drain that got covered over or walled in ?

hope that adds to yorkshire and london cellar info.

The only thing I know about cellars is that you must never go down into them on your own...we've all seen those scary movies Twisted Evil wellington womble

I have a cellar, but it gives me the creeps. It's not that it's haunted or anything (possibly by a lot of farm animals, as I live in an old butchers shop!) it's just a deeply unpleasant place to be. It's very, very wet. It does have a pump to stop it flooding, but has be heated to prevent timbers rotting, so is fairly useless. I've wondered about mushrooms...

We went to Calke Abbey recently, and poked about in the old ice house. Supposedly, they kept lake ice in it all year. I've bought myself some gardening history books for Christmas, so if there's any useful root cellar information in it, I'll let you know.

more ventilation might make it a very useful space dpack

thinking about "ice houses i have known" there are a couple i have had a proper look at .

quite big ,at least shipping container size (on end ie a deep hole), one was bigger.

sited on a north facing slope for natural cool and giving drainage from the bottom.

brick lined ,18th c and loads a money i spose

iirc when in use straw was packed in the spaces around the ice to reduce air flow and add could be mined from the top layer down.

probably not much use unless you have a fair bit of frozen water available in the winter. even then they are something of a luxury rather than a necessity.
Jam Lady

Enjoy. Ice Slim

There's a summer camp in Vermont that still uses ice all summer that they cut from their pond. They make a winter party out of it.


(second half of the video is more about the camp)


This was on the sidebar as a recommended video. Very cool! Bit better view of the process, and fancier kit. From New Hampshire
Mistress Rose

In the UK big houses had ice houses, usually below ground and apple stores separately. The ice house was usually egg shaped and built into the side of a hill if possible for easy access and drainage. There was a drain at the bottom and the ice was piled up inside, either pond ice if available, of compacted snow. Access for getting the ice was via a passage about half way up the dome, but not sure how they got out the bottom bit, perhaps ladders?

One of the big houses near us has a number of larders and storage rooms. Apple houses tended to be well insulated and were kept closed up as much as possible after the crop was harvested and had given off a certain amount of initial moisture. The game larder has unglazed windows which used to be fitted with mesh screens to keep the flies out. The dairy is built on the north side of the house and screened by trees to keep out the sun. It is well insulated with lots of ventilation. All the shelves have a gap behind them and as far as I recall, some are stone or marble for coolness and some are scrubbed sycamore for storing cheese. Stone floor of course and I think the stove for some things like scalding milk is in a separate room.

Do you know why Sycamore was chosen? I've never heard of specific uses for the wood. dpack

it can be used for kitchen ware spoons and such. non toxic and does not impart much flavour .

possibly a reason for using it as cheese shelves

it also makes good rollers for textile machines such as cards
Jam Lady

Slim, keep in mind that "Sycamore" in Europe is a different tree than "Sycamore" in USA

In Europe the tree is Sycamore Maple, aka European Sycamore, and has the Latin name of Acer pseudoplatanus

In USA - Sycamore (called American Plane in Europe) has the Latin name of Platanus occidentalis

And just to add to the confusion there is also London Plane, aka European Plane, Platanus x acerifolia, a hybrid of American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and Oriental Plane (P. orientalis).

Oh I probably knew that once... Embarassed Laughing
thanks for the reminder.

Another one that gets thrown in to the mix is Norway maple (Acer platanoides) as you can see by the species
Mistress Rose

European Sycamore, A. pseudoplatanus is not tainting, non staining and has antiseptic/disinfectant properties. It was traditionally used in the dairy, kitchen and laundry for those reasons. I make spatulas out of it because it will make a flat blade without splitting, as my attempts with beech have done. It also, if you quarter saw or cleave it (cut from the edge of the log to the centre each time), shows rather lovely medullary rays which make the wood almost glitter.

I regret to say I know nothing about American sycamore, but my weaving loom, which is Canadian, is made of some kind of maple.

i knew the leaves have antiseptic properties thanks for mentioning the timber does as well, that would be ideal for dairy use as any spills would be less likely to form colonies to contaminate the cheeses etc. Slim

I believe the above reasons are also why sugar maple (A. saccharum) is used for a lot of kitchen purposes here. (rolling pin, butcher block, etc) Mistress Rose

Could well be Slim. Most hardwoods and some softwoods are suitable I think, but sycamore, and by the sounds of it, sugar maple are particularly good. There still seem to be some people that prefer plastic, but it has been shown that even if the surface is cut, as long as wood is washed and allowed to dry out, it develops fewer bacteria than plastic and without needing to use chemicals. There was a fashion for glass cutting boards, but of course knives slip on glass, so fewer bacteria, more cuts. wellington womble

I had a glass cutting board. It didn't slip, but it was clattery and noisy. Put me right off the idea of fancy marble or quartz worktops. I use plastic that goes in the dishwasher now, but I expect when the Wombling is a bit older and I don't have to make snacks every five minutes I'll go back to wood. frewen

Oh I just remembered - the cellar (being ventilated) was connected to small roundels in front of the hearths on the ground floor. You could open these roundel vents up to get a good strong draw on a freshly lit fire. Mistress Rose

That was a good idea Frewen. I remember not only a gas poker (gas point near the fire on purpose), but drawing up the fire with a newspaper held across the front to draw air through the bottom of the gap. That was a 1950s built house, and a coal fire was still expected. wellington womble

I remember my dad doing that. In fact, I've done it myself. dpack

Oh I just remembered - the cellar (being ventilated) was connected to small roundels in front of the hearths on the ground floor. You could open these roundel vents up to get a good strong draw on a freshly lit fire.

that is new to me but what a smart idea Cool
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