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Root Cellar Part One: Excavation

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

For years we have kicked around the idea of digging a root cellar. Root Cellars maintain a cool, moist environment that keeps fruits and vegetables good for 3-6 months. Root cellars maintain the cool temperatures that canned goods need to ensure their quality without allowing them to freeze. Due to the insulation of the dirt surrounding the structure, it maintains a steady temperature year-round. Even though we knew the cellar would provide much-needed storage space for our produce and canning supplies we were a little intimidated to begin the project. Finally, it is time to get it done. The first step for my root cellar was the excavation.

We decided to make our root cellar 10ft x 16ft. The size is based on the size of the shelves we want to use. We also allowed space for an aisle down the center. We chose a location that would allow the door to be north facing. Since we live in the northern hemisphere this provides the most shade for that area. Since the door has no insulating dirt in front, it is a weak point for maintaining the cool temperature inside. We have hot summers so this becomes particularly important for us. We also have a large walnut tree to the south that will provide additional shade.

The location of the future Hobbit Hole Root Cellar on Marie's homestead.

After choosing our location we marked where our building would be as a guide for digging. We first marked the 10ft x 16ft rectangle. We then added another 8 inches to each side to allow room for backfill with gravel and a 2-inch buffer between our cut edge and our markers.

Setting the garden string to properly level the floor.

Next, we placed a rigid garden twine 6 inches above our highest point and leveled it to all the other markers. Because we were on a slight hill, the back had the string about 18 inches from the ground. This served as our marker to measure the distance to the ground.

A root that was uncovered while digging the cellar.

Roots: A true root cellar.

You might run into a few roots as you dig. Digging by hand may seem like a daunting task, but one shovel-full at a time will eventually get your hole dug the width and depth you desire.

Marie ensuring the floor of the root cellar is level.

Originally, we wanted 3 feet underground with 6 inches for backfill and the slab, but we ended up going down another 6 inches. Since we needed our hole to be 4 feet below the surface we would measure up to the string aiming for 4 feet 6 inches to allow for the distance up to the string.

Preparing the footings for the root dellar.

We actually ended up digging down deeper on the perimeter to make a strong footer for the walls. We made this ditch an additional 6 inches deep and 12 inches wide. (You can see this in our part 2 video.)

Beginning to excavate the root cellar stairs.

You also needed to cut out dirt at the entrance. We cut away the dirt to look like rudimentary stairs for current use until we pour the concrete steps. We used shovels for our dig but you could use heavy equipment if you desired. Remember to keep your dirt close by (but out of the way) as you will be mounding it over the structure at the end of building to finish your true Hobbit Hole Root Cellar.

This completes our first step.

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