Evolution…of a Root Cellar

root cellar

root cellar

Thanksgiving eve was a wish come true for me this year. With hubby leading the charge, we again renovated our cluttered and inefficient root cellar to better suit our needs. Ranger Tim does not enjoy handyman work, but he spent three hours with me emptying, cleaning, adding shelves, and arranging jars of canned goods. As you can see at right and below…I like an organized cellar! Click any picture to enlarge.

Our root cellar had a very different purpose when Tim and I first toured the former “Flower Power” farm in September of 2009. Described as “very Gone With the Wind,” we found a hidden gem in the Shenandoah Valley. The farmette had everything we wanted — a view of the mountains, nice level land for gardening, and a farmhouse feel.

We walked through the house twice, and we knew it was the one for us. A small room locked in the basement didn’t concern us, and we figured we’d view it on our next visit for inspections.


root cellar before

root cellar before

Wine Cellar

Behind that locked door was a surprise — an unfinished 8′ x 5′ room with exposed beams. The left side of the room, the north/west facing wall, held three shelves loaded with boxes and racks of wine, as well as a few jars of old canned pickles.

The rear wall had a large potato bin at its base. We later found the bin held not potatoes but was loaded with gathering baskets. An old Smithfield country ham encased with mold hung from a hook over the bin. (Now, I know any good Virginia girl worth her salt would have cut off that mold and put that ham to good use. Unfortunately, this good Virginia girl is a bit of a germaphobe, so I’m sorry to say that ham took a short trip to the trash.)

The right wall held a metal shelving unit also loaded with wine and mixers. It was insulated from the rest of the unfinished side of the basement. We have discovered this wall is not framed out with standard stud, but it apparently serves only to hold up the thin insulated wall and is studded with a 1″ x 2″ boards.

root cellar renovation one

root cellar renovation one

The owner of the place told us to make him an offer on the wine and it was ours. Unfortunately, neither of us know enough about good wine to make an educated offer, so we willingly (and happily) walked away from the loaded wine cellar. The real estate agent removed most of the wine, leaving behind a few boxes of opened bottles, some gourd seeds, and boxes of random papers.

Renovation One

After a thorough cleaning, we decided to build our own wine cellar, and I set about procurring cheap wine racks from thrift stores. We also moved wire shelving into the back of the cellar to hold my canned goods. I’ve “put up” most of my life, and I figured a few shelves would be enough to hold the little bit of canning I do each year.

Well, if you are a canner (or know one), you most likely know how easy it is to go from “just a few jams, jellies, and tomato sauce” to jars of peaches, pickles, soups, and stews. I had a few dozen quarts, pints, half pints, wide-mouth (or squatty) half pints, and 4-oz jelly jars that had moved with me from home to home, and those were enough to get me started.

My big break came when I saw an ad on Craig’s List from a woman about 20 minutes away who had stopped canning. I picked up 12 dozen plus nice canning jars for only $50! A few brands I had never seen — Atlas, Magic, Kerr — and most had some well-water staining, but none were chipped, cracked, or broken. And the fun began!

This year I kicked up the canning. I ordered a weighted gauge and finally used my 7-year-old Presto pressure canner as more than a water-bath canner. I put up something just about every week, and I quickly learned that my four wire shelves would not be big enough or sturdy enough to hold my canning. It was time to rethink our plan.

renovated root cellar

renovated root cellar

Renovation Two

So we started again — we removed everything from the room, including the wire shelves. The 8-foot-long 8″ double-board wood shelves (16″ deep) were nailed in, but we removed the front board from the two bottom shelves. These would be the back boards of two new shelves. Using the old boards in back allowed us to use new, clean 6″ boards in front, which was more for aesthetics than anything else. The 14″ depth will hold about 4 pints or 3 quarts deep on each shelf.

On a trip to town we found a small store going out of business, and we picked up a great wine rack for $70. It retails for around $300 and holds more than enough wine for us.

I still plan to put up 1″x2″s on each shelf as a bit of earthquake protection. Virginia has had a few tremors this year that served as a reminder of how important that strip of wood can be. I think I’ll paint the strip with chalkboard paint so I can tell blueberry jam from black raspberry jam at a glance. I also want to put in a few more half shelves to create more space, like I did near the top to hold the 4 oz and squatty half pints.

top shelves

top shelves

Renovation Three?

I’m already thinking of what I want to add next year. Cleaning out the cellar for me is an annual part of appeasing my germaphobic OCD self. I inventory, plan, and assess — do I really need 20 pints of peaches in 2012 if I’m still eating peaches from 2010? Planning will help me decide what to plant each year so I’ll always have enough pickles for hubby and enough stew and soup for cold winter evenings.

We didn’t make any changes to the top shelf. I think I’d like to take that back to just one 8″ board and perhaps add another 8″ board above it. That’s shallow shelving, but at that height, it’s hard to reach to the back of a 16″ shelf. I also have a lot of empty space at the bottom — maybe we’ll add another shelf or two…or perhaps bins for winter storage of carrots and potatoes.

bottom shelves

bottom shelves

Finally, I want to put in a natural air-circulation system. PVC pipe will allow cold outside air to funnel in at the bottom and warmer air will funnel out at the top through another pipe. This air movement will help keep the room cooler and the air cleaner.

Those improvements will have to wait till next year. Right now I have turkey stock simmering from our Thanksgiving meal. Tomorrow I’m pressure canning stock and soup for those cold, snowy evenings!

Happy Thanksgiving!

*** This site is comprised solely of the opinions of its author, Stacey Morgan Smith. She works to promote gardening and tourism in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, from Roanoke to the Potomac River.***

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