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The Starving Time

It’s not even February. The woodpile is almost gone, but about 40% of the heating season still remains. Out in the barn, the hay supply is low. I did a bale count. It’s going to be close. Hopefully, spring will come early. In the root cellar, my cornucopia of potatoes, onions and winter squash have dwindled. There’s been spoilage too, especially in the winter squash. All in all, I’d say things were a little bleak. Under different circumstances, the starving time would be at hand.

Burial of the Dead 1609–1610 by Sidney King

Limited food stores and forced isolation by the Powhatan Confederacy took a terrible toll

The “starving time” is a serious reference to Jamestown, and the terrible winter of 1609-1610 when close to 80% of the colonists died. In the old days, running out of fuel, fodder, or stores meant the difference between life and death. I count my blessings. My woodpile might be low, but I have an oil furnace. I can always buy more hay, potatoes, and squash. Subsistence living is just a hobby for me. I should improve my root cellar though.

Not many Potatoes Left

Not many potatoes left. I keep them on a screen for better air circulation.

You’d think the cellar of a 150 year old Vermont farmhouse would be perfect, but that’s not necessarily so. Root cellars are generally small. It’s easier to manage and tune the environmental conditions. A modest 8×8 room could service a family. The problems in my large single room cellar are uneven temperatures and low humidity levels.

Winter Squash on Wall Shelving

These squash are in the wrong place. Squash store best at slightly warmer temps. It is too cold and drafty by the stone walls.

Temperature
The ideal temperature for a root cellar is 40F-45F. At 5 feet below ground level, the soil is about that cold. It’s remarkably stable too. However, I have thick field stone foundation walls that extend above grade. Cold from the outside works its way into the stone, and consequently the space along walls is 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the cellar. Unfortunately, that’s where I have most of my shelving. Some crops like tomatoes, soft vegetables, and even apples and pears store well in cooler 35F-40F temperatures. Not winter squash. They do best at 50F or greater.

Humidity
We poured a concrete slab over the dirt cellar floor many years ago. It reduces the humidity dramatically. That’s good for the house, but not so good for a root cellar. Depending on the crop, a humidity level of 60% to 90% is ideal. Potatoes, apples, and other fruit do well in 80% to 90% humidity. Onions and winter squash do better at 60% to 70% levels. My gauge is reading 50%. That’s really dry. I need to increase the humidity.

An Old Root Cellar

Building a Modern Root Cellar

I love those classic root cellars built into the side of a hill. If you don’t happen to have one, you can spend lots of time and money building a modern equivalent, with insulation, vapor barrier, and sophisticated ventilation.

An Insulated Basement Root Cellar

Rigid foam insulates and acts as a vapor barrier for this basement root cellar.

I think the most practical solution is to frame out a smaller space in my existing cellar, away from those super cold stone walls. I’ll build top-to-bottom shelves. The apples will go down near the floor, and the squash and onions will go up top where it should be a little warmer. I’ll use a vapor barrier of some kind. Raising the humidity in a small sealed space should be easy to accomplish with just a couple flat pans of water. A set of high/low vents will provide passive ventilation.

This will be a good winter project. Hearing my oil furnace clicking on, and seeing the frost-nipped spots on what’s left of my squash will be suitable penance for me while I work down there. Next year, I vow to have both firewood and homegrown vegetables in March. I’ll let you know.

2 Responses to “The Starving Time”

  • Rita Warfel says:

    Enjoyed your blog about humidty in the root cellar.My husband and I built one years ago and its time to redo some of the components. Humidity is tricky our experience would agree with your assessment. We do have a sand floor.

  • I built a new house and put root cellar on back side of house down 8 foot 12 foot long concreter blocks never worked to cold in winter to hot in summer any suggesions would be appreciated thanks tim timseeley58@yahoo.com

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