The Root of All Goodness

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We welcome first time Guest Ranter Bob Hill as he digs deep into the past and tucks away stories for the future.

When we first moved into our 1860’s farm house in Southern Indiana about 40 years ago, it came with a leaky tin roof, a wiring system apparently installed by a young Tom Edison, and a root cellar. I still tell friends we are in the 40th year of a five-year remodeling project.

Waterproofing the tin roof with thick aluminum paint and a roller became an exercise in scary gymnastics. The wiring was redone by a skinny electrician born to tight, dirty crawl spaces. The root cellar—and the whole concept of preserving thin-skinned corms, bulbs, potatoes and seeds through the winter—remains a work in progress, a skill I have yet to master.

We weren’t agriculture rookies when we moved to Indiana. My wife and I had grown up in Northern Illinois farm country. I’ve put up enough hay in other people’s barns to fill the Pentagon. We had flower gardens, a grape arbor, a small orchard, needy beef and, of course, chickens.

We also had the obligatory half-acre vegetable garden in which we raised three times more food than could be consumed in twelve years. The relatives hid behind trees when we approached with our bushel baskets of excess tomatoes. But ownership of a root cellar was a whole new experience.

Its existence came as a surprise. Our realtor hadn’t mentioned it, but she hadn’t said much about the wiring, either. Best we could tell it was at least 50 years old, and may have dated back to the near the Civil War, as did the house.

The one certainty was it hadn’t been opened in many years. The entry-door-frame was rotted, vines had crawled in through its cracks, and various, subterranean crawly-creatures had taken up residence inside. Have I mentioned its ventilation system—a broken clay pipe—was stuffed with dirt?

It took about 30 minutes of work to get that door open. Sunlight pushed into its darkness for the first time in decades. I followed it down narrow, slippery, steps into a tomb-like room maybe six feet square and seven feet tall—the makings of a horror movie.

But the root cellar came with romance, some practicality and, in one case, survival skills; we quickly popped down inside one evening as a tornado was spotted in the neighborhood.

But hey, this was our root cellar, our hunk of Americana. We chased out the bugs, redid its rotted shelves, somewhat improved the ventilation and it became the storehouse for our first outsized crop of Kennebec potatoes. Move over Little House on the Prairie.

Root cellars had history. They were cool. In Europe, they dated back to the time when Macbeth was a foot soldier. In pioneer America, they preserved family food long before refrigerators served up ice either crushed or in cubes.

Then we stopped using our root cellar. It had worked very well preserving our Kennebecs. We ate them all winter, and, as they sent up new, inquisitive sprouts in spring, they became sliced-up fodder for the current year’s potato crop. An eye for an eye.

But then it occurred to us the basement of our 1860s house was almost as cool and dry. Its use did not require going outside, lifting a heavy door and walking down perilous steps into an ancient, spidery tomb just to get some potatoes.

Succulents overwintering in the sunken Hidden Hill Nursery greenhouse.

We still had great need to over-winter things. The list would grow to include dahlias, caladiums, canna bulbs and colocasia corms. We could always store tender plants such as geraniums, brugmansia and gardenia in our heated Hidden Hill Nursery greenhouse—which we had dug five feet into the ground to preserve heat. The small greenhouse also served as Propagation Central for the like of sedum and rosemary.

So we used the basement for storage for years. But it didn’t work. We followed all rules pertaining to digging corms and bulbs, dried them properly, hide them away in that mostly dark space below the dining room.

But it was either too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry down there. The nearby furnace was probably no help. Those longed-for shiny-black colocasia, orange cannas and pink frothy dahlias emerged from basement storage in spring looking like stringy road kill.

So we’re going to re-open the root cellar. Clean it out and prepare a new winter home. Work a little bit on its air circulation. Haul all those bulbs, corms and cannas down there this year and see what happens. We’re wanting to get back in touch with our roots, too. 

Retired Louisville Courier-Journal columnist and author Bob Hill is owner of the eight-acre Hidden Hill Nursery & Sculpture Garden near Utica, Indiana. Hidden Hill specializes in rare and unusual plants, whimsy and unfettered moonlight. For more information see

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Bob Hill

on December 7, 2016 at 7:09 am, in the category Guest Rants.

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