Trash Can Root Cellar

posted by Jan Erkenbrack on Sep 25th, 2011 at 8:04am

I first heard of this method in Mother Earth News, and then found several examples online. It is an inexpensive and quick way to set up some winter storage for root crops.

When I first bought my property, even before the house was livable, I knew I wanted a root cellar. The idea of using energy to cool food during the winter seemed crazy. But, with a small budget and not much time, I needed to focus my labor and resources on making my house livable for the winter. Yet I still wanted to put up something, at least some potatoes over the winter. So, instead of building a proper root cellar, I decided to do a miniature one. The trash can root cellar. Here is how it is done.

Start with a metal trash can with a tight-fitting lid. Dig a hole the diameter of the can and about as deep as the can is tall. Place some loose stones at the bottom of the hole (large enough to allow for drainage.) The can should sit with the top inch or so above the ground.

You will want to punch some holes in the bottom of the can to allow moisture to drain. You can use a drill, but I just drove a sixteen penny nail in with a hammer.

Put some straw in the bottom of the can and then layer in potatoes. Straw - potatoes - straw - potatoes. (Or other roots, but investigate crop compatability. Some foods store well but not with each other. For example, potatoes need cool, moist storage, whereas onions need cool, dry storage. Store apples with potatoes and ruin them both.)

Then place the lid on the can snugly. Cover the can with straw. (I fill a couple of potato or onion sacks with straw for ease of removal and replacement.)

Then lay a sheet of plywood over the whole thing and weight with a large rock or brick. This will keep the raccoons from opening it up. And the steel can will keep burrowing critters from raiding your larder.

It is a simple matter to go out in the winter and brush off the snow, open the can and remove a week or so worth of spuds. In this manner I stored potatoes last October and ate the last ones in April.

I am still remodeling the inside of my house, so I haven't built a proper root cellar yet. Before winter gets here, I may dig another hole and put in a can for carrots and beets.

I know many of you already have root cellars, but for those with limited resources, or those who are trying to homestead in suburbia, this is a workable solution.

Thanks for reading and keep it simple.

About the Author

Jan Erkenbrack  

Sailor, Seller, Storyteller.

Comment by Spun Gold Farm on Sep 25th, 2011 at 9:48am 0 Likes

I remember my dad had a metal can cache in the ground at his little cabin in the woods. It was a week-ender, so he used a smaller can, but same principle.

Comment by Chamomile Fields on Sep 25th, 2011 at 10:22am 0 Likes

I think I love you. THANK YOU for this great post. We will get rolling on our own root cellar now!

Comment by spinsalot on Sep 25th, 2011 at 10:25am 0 Likes

I can't wait for my husband to see this. what a super help this will be for us.

Comment by Stan O on Sep 25th, 2011 at 11:50am 0 Likes

I would like to see, when someone posts, see where they are from ,, I tried that trash can method one year,, everything froze solid by Mid Jan,, and who has coons in winter?

Comment by Jan Erkenbrack on Sep 25th, 2011 at 1:20pm 0 Likes

I am in West Michigan, just north of Muskegon. So, I believe I am near you, Stan. I don't know why your's froze. Perhaps the can wasn't deep enough, or not covered with straw. And I guess I'm not worried about raccoons in mid-winter, but they are sure exploring in fall after I store the potatoes.

Comment by Coldspring Corner on Sep 25th, 2011 at 1:29pm 0 Likes

I like the simplicity of this setup.

Looks like you are in the Western part of Michigan? I have a question similar to Stan O about areas where this might work or what I would have to do to make something similar work for me. I'm in the deep South so freezing will never be a problem.

Comment by Jan Erkenbrack on Sep 25th, 2011 at 1:42pm 0 Likes

Once you get below the frost line the earth temperature is fairly constant. I don't know how much it changes according to latitude, but I would suspect that such information is available online. I have never lived in the south, but perhaps someone who does has a root cellar. I would think that if you can have a root cellar, a trash can should work.

A few points: Drainage room under the can; straw in the bottom, straw at the top and covering the can.

Comment by Lambykins on Sep 25th, 2011 at 2:06pm 0 Likes

Simplicity! I love it!

Comment by SherryBinTally on Sep 25th, 2011 at 3:48pm 0 Likes

Anybody know if this goes far enough down in the dirt to be cool enough for storage if it was done in FL? We don't have basements (so also no cellars. I'm interested in finding some alternatives for this area. (Yes, it's another zone 8b question!).

Comment by Skinny on Sep 27th, 2011 at 7:17am 0 Likes

I have read that subterranean temperatures are roughly the same as the average temperature of any given area. The area of Kentucky I live in has an annual average temperature of 56.1*, so I could expect a root cellar to hold roughly that temperature year round. This assumes you get far enough down to avoid the daily heating and cooling cycle.

I like this idea but think you would be better off using a food grade plastic barrel with removable top. This would eliminate any problems with rust due to ground moisture.

Comment by SherryBinTally on Sep 27th, 2011 at 9:42am 0 Likes

Found this as a starting point about the question about soil temperature at certain depths down..."at 8 feet below the surface, pretty much anywhere in the continental US, the ground temperature is between 58 and 60 degrees."

Mother Earth News has an article this month about the trash can root cellar. Their story says mention putting the holes in the bottom. I'm wondering why.

Comment by Kenneth Shrum on Sep 27th, 2011 at 9:54am 0 Likes

I live in south central Arkansas where the water table is at or near the surface in the spring rainy season so a below grade cellar will not work here. My grandparents had an above ground root cellar with double walls and ceiling with sawdust insulation between the walls and in the ceiling. We rarely have temps below 20 degrees here at night with daytime temps as high as 60 degrees so the main concern wes to keep the produce cool enough.


Comment by Jan Erkenbrack on Sep 27th, 2011 at 3:51pm 0 Likes


The wholes in the bottom are for drainage. Your potatoes will generate moisture that will condensate into water droplets. If they are sitting in the bottom of the can, they will get the food wet and it will go bad.


While some use food-grade plastic, I chose galvanized metal. It won't rust, and I am a little paranoid about critters chewing through plastic. It may be overkill, but chipmunks nest in the straw around the top of the can.

Comment by Jen Kennedy on Oct 10th, 2011 at 12:58pm 0 Likes

This is awesome! When I was a kid -- and I'm not that old; only 31 -- my dad dug a hole into the side of the hill behind our house, shored it up with old wooden railroad ties and tires, and stored some food in it. (In the summer it became his "man cave." haha) It was mostly for root vegetables and grains, but the walls were lined with makeshift shelves where he kept canned beans, peaches, tomatoes and tomato sauces, and his famous pickled beets. We didn't NEED to do this. I mean, we had a chest freezer and could go to the grocery store as needed, but he LIKED doing things that way, and I'm extremely grateful for that now! He also kept our milk cold by putting it in the nearby stream. He had an old plastic milk crate tied to a tree with a piece of nylon string, and the milk went into the crate. He also put bottles of pop and beer in there on special occasions, like the 4th of July. Worked like charm.

Anyway, I've been looking for ways to conveniently store food, as I don't have a basement or cellar where I live now. I've heard good things about this method of caching things underground. Another tool I've heard good things about is an old freezer or refrigerator in place of a trash can. They're already insulated, and some of them can be locked.

Thanks for this, Jan!

Comment by Jan Erkenbrack on Oct 11th, 2011 at 8:21am 0 Likes

Thanks, Jennifer. I'm glad you liked it. I suppose an old fridge would work, but the Earth itself is the refrigerator, and as long as the container conducts that temperature through it will be fine.

Comment by Trisha Tipton on Oct 11th, 2011 at 11:30am 0 Likes

Awesome post! Thanks so much. I'm in the same situation. I really want a root cellar but don't have the resources to do that yet. I just dug several bushels of sweet potatoes from the garden and I think I'm gonna try your idea. Thanks again :)

Comment by FLnative on Oct 11th, 2011 at 4:36pm 0 Likes

Okay I just got here. I am in FL. If I dig deep enough for the can water would push it out of the ground. Working now on getting rid of the no-see-ums. The last few years have been like nothing I have seen in 50 years!!

Comment by Clear Creek Seeds on Oct 13th, 2011 at 1:51pm 0 Likes

I actually did bury a small chest freezer this year to try. Didn't think about the drainage issue, though. Thanks for the useful information.

Comment by Cate Selby on Oct 14th, 2011 at 11:10am 0 Likes

This is something I'd like to try. But first we'd have to change to a bear-proof locking lid and more sturdy can. In the winter the bears won't be a problem, but we have had grizzlies and black bears on the property fall and spring. Also, the wind gets fierce enough to blow off a ply wood lid unless it had a lot of VERY heavy rocks. Also, that isn't bear proof. I'll work on the idea and let anyone know if I come up with a bear-proof solution. And I'd appreciate input from anyone else that may have exprience with these two problems.

Comment by vance cross on Oct 14th, 2011 at 11:35am 0 Likes

How about a 55 gal. drum with a locking ring?

Comment by Spun Gold Farm on Oct 14th, 2011 at 11:43am 0 Likes

I have been wondering if the high water table folks could do an above ground level earthberm. You could stack straw bales around it and fill in up close with dirt or gravel. Maybe put some gravel under it with a perforated pipe thru it also to drain away, a french drain. You might have to pile on more soil after the straw broke down but then you had a berm permanent.
I had some panels for a walk-in refrigerator given to me. I am planning to put those together somehow in the corner of the new barn when it is up in the spring. I just have to figure out a way to secure them and make them tight. Don't plan to refrigerate, just insulate. I'll add more insulation on the outside if I have to to keep it cool yearround.

Comment by Jim Staton on Oct 15th, 2011 at 1:33am 0 Likes

What about worms coming in through the holes in the bottom?

Comment by Jan Erkenbrack on Oct 15th, 2011 at 8:43am 0 Likes

Hey Jim,

worms live much closer to the surface than the bottom of the can.

I used this last year and had zero problems with critters of any kind getting into the can.

Comment by Purpleldy1 on Oct 18th, 2011 at 12:09am 0 Likes

This is a great idea. I live in Idaho where even if you aren't a farmer you can find a farmer to let you glean(go in the field and pick the potatoes that do not meet the market requirements) or buy potatoes directly from the farmer for less than half the price of the grocery store. Last year I bought 2- 50lb sacks 1-red 1-russet from a farmer for $11 each. Last year I ended up baking and boiling all of them and putting them in my freezer before they went bad. This year I can get the same bags for $10. I may have the hubby pick up some straw and trash cans and dig some holes in the back yard. Thanks for the idea.

Comment by Tina Allred on Nov 29th, 2011 at 3:36am 0 Likes

I agree that critters will chew through a plastic barrel or trash can. Been there, done that. Switched to galvanized trash can, doesn't rust easily due to the galvanization. Store all my chicken feed this way. Love this idea and can't wait til my ground thaws out to give it a try! Thanks!

Comment by Killalunie on Nov 29th, 2011 at 7:10am 0 Likes

There is an article somewhere about using peat moss to store and preserve food in. Apparently it keeps fish from going bad. Will see if I can find it ad post a link.

Comment by Catherine Lyon on Dec 19th, 2011 at 2:19pm 0 Likes

When the spring time comes I plan on building a recycled window glass house for my garden. I love the idea of recycling old windows and making a greenhouse to start plants in.

To add to that, I have the bright idea to sink the cans in the ground before I build and have the floor boards of the glass house lift up to get to the cans. That way I can keep the critters out of the cans and then I can also keep the ice and snow off the boards for easier access during the winter.

If TSHTF happens or simple robbery or even zombies happen, then I still have food cached and can be hidden if necessary.

Just thinking out loud!

Comment by Carolyn Hagan on Feb 6th, 2012 at 11:06pm 0 Likes

I love this info, thank you! My mom was born in 1907 in Missouri and told me long ago that her folks used to store whole tomato plants in a trench dug in the ground lined with straw, and they continued to ripen from the warmth of the straw but a lot slower so it lasted into the winter. If you can have fresh-picked tomatoes in the winter, then I want to know how to do it. Anyone try this with tomato plants? (As she remembered it, the whole plant went into the trench, not just picked tomatoes). Also, is there a resource that lists which foods not to store with others, etc? Good stuff!!

Comment by Jen Kennedy on Feb 7th, 2012 at 12:36am 0 Likes

Was the whole tomato plant covered with straw, or were some of the leaves/blossoms/fruits left sticking out? I'm intrigued! :)

Comment by Joan Blurton on Mar 1st, 2012 at 9:39pm 0 Likes

I believe this method of food storage is called trenching. I think I've read about it being used for potatoes and cabbage. Interesting that maybe it'll work for tomatoes as well. I would imagine the whole plant is under the straw to keep feeding the tomatoes, but I've never tried it.
My mother told me that in her youth in Wyoming, people would bury the old cast iron tubs and use those for a 'root cellar' and then place a large piece of wood on top for a lid.

Comment by DripSmart on Mar 7th, 2012 at 6:57pm 0 Likes

I can't wait to try this. I've been able to keep tomatoes into January. Such a wonderful winter treat.
I would love to know more about the trenching of whole tomato plants.

Comment by leila ooooooo on Mar 26th, 2012 at 9:32pm 0 Likes

I built a 6X6 rock/glass greenhouse between the pillons that hold up my water tank. I had two tomato plants make it all the way thru winter. Look awful, but have tomatos on them. We went down to 3 below this winter. I live in Arizona, I assume the can cache wouldn't work here, its too hot? We get to 105 in the summer.

Comment by Ciarraibleu on May 26th, 2012 at 1:31am 0 Likes

We have taters coming out of our ears each year and I wondered about burying a garbage can! Glad you posted this, I didn't think about holes in the bottom or about using metal cans - Thanks!

Comment by Gardenguy on Jun 2nd, 2012 at 11:27am 0 Likes

Great idea, However for those of you that are looking at using something deeper then what Jan has used like a 55 gallon drum you might want to consider burying at a 45 degree angle. Last year in western WA a lady went out to her cold storage tank and fell in head first and could not get out. By burying at a 45 degree angle you will still be able to back out if you fall in. Not trying to freak anybody out about using the bigger drums but it was a sober reminder. I like your Idea of using the sacks also to make it easier to get items out of the can-Thanks

Comment by Robert Erickson on Jan 10th, 2013 at 7:44am 0 Likes

This is a very interesting discussion and I would like to ask for more comments from folks in warmer climates. I'm in North Central and we can get down to 20 degrees in winter although not for extended periods. Tomorrow (Friday) is supposed to be 70 and Monday is supposed to be back below freezing. Has anyone buried the trash can underneath a pier and beam house to get the benefit of the heating/cooling of the house?

Comment by Anita Crihfield on Mar 22nd, 2013 at 9:15pm 0 Likes

I wonder how this would work in central Virginia? we have red clay under about 2ft. of soil?

Comment by Fiona on Jun 30th, 2013 at 12:26pm 0 Likes

I too have read about the use of plastic barrels... buried along the side of the house for easy access. The can... possibly... smaller version, would be doable for me personally because of bad back issues... hubby seems to have too much on his plate as it is to find time to put a real root cellar in. We have clay and rocks here... after 13 yrs here (eastern panhandle WV) we are still digging out large rocks from the garden areas. My other issue would be run off from the mountain behind us... the water would fill the hole lickitty split! Hmmm... the tractor and I... well... what a sight that would be. Yuppers that one the hubby would need to do, but building a small Burm / hill to bury cans in, above the run off areas, might work.

Thanks so much for the post!

Comment by Dina Shriver on Aug 21st, 2013 at 12:25am 0 Likes

For those concerned about deep cold areas, just cut some R-9 insulation panels into disks to fit your can, stack as many as you need to keep the freeze out.

Comment by Dina Shriver on Aug 21st, 2013 at 12:27am 0 Likes

You could fold some fluffy R-11 in half lengthwise and wrap can with rolled edge at the top to further insulate from subzero problems.

Comment by Capt. Caveman on Aug 30th, 2013 at 12:35pm 0 Likes

Just a little advise...go to the auto parts store and spray the outside of the can with rubberized undercoat. You can get it in cans. This will keep the can from rusting due to contact with the ground. These galvanized cans will rust pretty quickly when touching wet soil.

Comment by Jodi Keeler on Jan 17th, 2014 at 11:11pm 0 Likes

I'd need dynamite to go any deeper than about 12 inches. But I have plenty of rocks :+)

Comment by Ida Fay Jackson on Feb 24th, 2014 at 5:21am 0 Likes

do not forget to put the dirt you dig out around the top of the can and rise the top 2-3" above ground lever to stop the rain water from getting in.

Comment by Spun Gold Farm on Feb 24th, 2014 at 11:35am 0 Likes

I remember one year, my dad dg a big hole, filled it with straw layers, then carrots, then more straw and covered iit with a piece of metal, and we had fresh carrots all winter. It WAS well drained soil and several feet above the water table....

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