Homesteading: How to Find the Perfect Place for Cold Storage - dummies

Homesteading: How to Find the Perfect Place for Cold Storage

By Todd Brock

When your ancestors were homesteading in the days before refrigeration and artificial preservatives, cold storage was the way to go if they needed to store produce over the winter. The basic idea behind cold storage is that you can prolong the shelf life of both fresh and canned produce by keeping them in a cool, dark place under just the right conditions.

As a modern-day backyard homesteader, you can combine the perfect mix of temperature and humidity to expand your storage to encompass a large variety of foods. Temperature and humidity aren’t the only considerations, however. An area used for cold storage also needs to have proper ventilation to keep the food as fresh as possible. And ease of access is vital, too.

  • Temperature: Cold storage temperatures range from 32 to 60 degrees. The right temperature for any given food is one that slows the enzymes responsible for decay. Different foods require different storage temperatures. Beets, for example, need temps just above freezing; pumpkins and squashes, on the other hand, need temps in the 50- to 60- degree range.
  • Humidity: Depending on the foods you want to store, your root cellar or alternative cold storage area needs a humidity range from 60 to 95 percent. Foods such as carrots, parsnips, and turnips store best at 90 to 95 percent humidity. Sweet potatoes and onions, on the other hand, do much better at a humidity of no more than 70 percent.

If you plan to store foods that require very different humidity and temperature levels, you need to use more than one storage area. It’s not uncommon to have a dry cold storage area with lower humidity (like you’d get in an area that has a cement floor) and a higher humidity area (which you get in an area with a dirt or gravel floor).

To keep track of temperature and humidity level in the air, buy a simple thermometer unit, called a hydrometer.

  • Ventilation: No matter what type of storage area you choose, it must be able to let warm air out and cool air in.
  • Ease of access: Because you have to regularly check your stored food, you need a place that is easy to get into and that allows you to easily move things around.
hydrometer sketch
A hydrometer for checking temperature and humidity.

Tried and true: The traditional root cellar

Root cellars have had a long and important place in the history of food storage. Root cellars were most often the actual cellar of old homes and farmhouses. These older houses had cellars with dirt floors, perfect for keeping foods cool and the humidity higher than average.

If you’re lucky enough to have a dirt-floor root cellar, you just need to provide sturdy shelving and rodent-proof the area by covering any holes or potential rodent-friendly entryways with wire mesh. You can also place rodent bait in out-of-the-way areas and check often for rodent activity.

A preexisting root cellar usually contains some sort of air vent or pipe located at the top of the area to allow warm air to rise and escape. If you don’t have a preexisting air vent, periodically open a window or door to the outside to allow warm air out and fresh air in.

In modern homes, cellars (or basements) often have concrete floors and are generally too warm and dry for food storage. Carefully measure your temperature and moisture content before placing your produce in a cellar that may not have optimum conditions.

DIY food storage spaces

If you don’t have a cellar with a dirt floor, there are alternatives. Take a look at your cellar layout and consider the areas suggested in the following sections.


Does a stairwell lead from your basement to the outside? If so, add an insulated door to separate the stairwell from the main room, and voilá, you have a cold storage space that has built-in shelves: the stairs! Just place bins of produce on each step and pans of water under the stairs for moisture, and you have an efficient storage area, as shown in the following figure.

stairwell storage
A stairwell converted into a cold storage area.

A stairwell is particularly good because the stairs create areas with varying temperatures, allowing for a wide array of conditions that can benefit many different kinds of foods.

Be sure to place a hydrometer in this area, as well as a few, inexpensive thermometers on different steps, to gauge the best conditions for your stored foods. There will be quite a variation in temperature as you go up the stairs.

Storm shelters

Do you have a storm shelter (also called a storm cellar)? In the Midwest, storm shelters are often underground cellars separate from the house or basement. (Think of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when she runs through the yard to get to the storm cellar during the tornado.) These shelters are perfect for adding some shelves and neat bins of produce. They’re below the frost line, have adequate ventilation, and are weatherproof. Whether your home had a storm shelter when you moved in or you decided to build one yourself, be certain to block any ventilation pipes with fine screen to keep out rodent activity.

Your stored foods will be used up long before the storm season approaches. Even so, keep your cold storage organized and neat.

Straw-bale storage

If you have a small area in your yard, you can construct a simple straw-bale storage area to hold your root crops, such as potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, and parsnips.

straw-bale storage
Straw-bale storage.

The best location for straw-bale storage is one that tends to stay dry. Don’t place these storage areas in high moisture areas (where you generally have a buildup of snowdrift, for example, or where water tends to puddle after storms). Also, don’t build one close to buildings that protect the area from winter temperatures. You want the straw bales to be able to stay freezing cold on the outside and yet insulate the produce inside.

After you’ve found a suitable location, follow these steps to build your storage area:

  1. Place two bales of straw in a line, with the ends touching. About 16 inches away, place two more bales parallel to the first two.
    The spacing is adequate for the bales that are laid on top to cover the open space completely.
  2. Place one straw bale on each of the remaining ends to enclose a box shape in the center.
    You’ve just made a large square in the center.
  3. Cover the ground in the center of the square with a screen.
    You don’t have use the screen, but doing so helps keep your produce protected from critters that may be inclined to dig under the whole thing.
  4. Layer some soft straw on the bottom of the square to cushion the produce.
    If you put a screen in the center, place the straw over the screen.
  5. Layer your root crops, very gently, into the bin.

    Take care to not dump or toss your vegetables. Bruised food quickly turns to spoiled food.

  6. When the bin is full, layer another couple of inches of straw onto the food.
  7. Place bales of straw across the top of the now-filled bin.
    Your food is now protected from winter in a breathable storage bin.

To check on or access the food inside, simply remove the top two bales. Replace the bales carefully and evenly to cover the hole each time. In the late spring, or when the straw-bale storage area is empty, simply take the bin apart, and use the straw as mulch for your garden.

Some people use hay bales for these storage bins, but we don’t recommend it. Hay molds rather quickly, sometimes spoiling the produce inside. Hay bales also seem to absorb more moisture than straw bales. If you use hay, check periodically for moisture damage, and remove the offending produce immediately.

Rubber trash cans

You can bury these up to their rims in the ground, place your produce inside, put on the lid, and then cover the whole thing with a thick layer of straw for a simple cold storage arrangement. These bins are easy to wash and the tight lids keep the foods fresh and sanitary and keep rodents out.

Your cold storage needs probably will be dictated by the type of vegetables you can grow in and the size of your homestead garden. See “How to Determine the Location and Size of Your Backyard Homestead Garden.”