• Root Cellars

    Energy Alternatives for Newfoundland

    The root cellar is a storage building, usually underground, designed to keep vegetables such as potatoes, turnips, carrots, onions, beets and cabbage from rotting or sprouting during the winter. The ground temperature in the winter below 8 feet is constant and approximately 10°C or 50°F.

    A family estate where food can be grown and stored in the root cellar until needed for the kitchen is fantastically more energy efficient than growing potatoes in Idaho, trucking them 4000 miles to a marine car ferry before storing them in temperature controlled commercial warehouses until ready to be moved to the produce aisle and then brought home in the back of a minivan and stored in an electric refrigerator. All homesteads should have cool storage for food, beer, wine, flower bulbs or and anything else that needs it.

    In most small Newfoundland communities, families would purchase fabric (brin) bags of vegetables at harvest time from local farmers and store the food in their root cellar or a neighbor's cellar if they didn't have their own root cellar. An unheated porch was another option for short term storage.

    Memorial University has an archive of about 500 root cellar photos from rural Newfoundland, some of which are shown below. Those that are still standing were made of cement, stone or continuously maintained wooden structures. Modern homes with basements could easily have a root cellar built in, and unheated garages could have a pit underneath perhaps doing double duty as a automotive service pit.

    Root Cellar in Twillingate Newfoundland

    Hobbits used to live here but moved back to New Zealand few years ago.

    Root Cellar Logy Bay

    Root Cellar St. John's Botanical Garden

    The photo above is a root cellar at the St. John's botanical garden. Access is from the top.

    Root Cellar Porugal Cove

    This root cellar in Portugal Cove has useful bins to store vegetables.

    The university site does a good job of recording the heritage but didn't approach it from a practical view, such as construction techniques that withstood local conditions, nor their performance at food storage. The article PROPER ENVIRONMENT FOR POTATO STORAGE from the University of California describes the ideal storage conditions, and the important point is that potatoes are alive and breath. Despite having been dug up and injured with pitch forks, they regrow skin and continue to fight off bacteria and fungus. If they get too cold, they will die and begin to rot. The ideal conditions are as follows:

    The high humidity levels guarantee that wood will rot from fungus and decay rapidly which makes stone work ideal.

    A inexpensive student research project would be to place temperature/humidity monitors in several root cellars and monitoring them for a year. These data loggers cost about $60 and look like a fat USB memory stick for your computer. To retrieve the data, you simply plug them into a computer and retrieve the readings with a utility program that comes with the data logger.

    Using the temperature and humidity data recorded and a knowledge of the soil conditions, you could determine the ideal depth and ventilation requirements (e.g. is a 3" sewer pipe to the surface adequate?) and how construction techniques affect humidity levels.

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