How To Preserve Food In The Ground Like The Pioneers

How To Preserve Food In The Ground Like The PioneersThe pioneers had to endure harsh winters and food wasn’t as abundant back then as it is today. They had to come up with all sorts of ingenious ways to preserve food and make it last longer. Natural storage was one of the first choices for them and they learned how to preserve food in the ground to enjoy it during winter times.

Electricity wasn’t available and canning was an unknown food preservation method for many of the pioneers. Since they needed to have access all winter to fresh vegetables, they had to figure out ways to preserve their food. Most of them were able to procure their own food through gardening and they couldn’t afford to let anything go to waste. Since it was more practical to stock up at harvest time, they learned how to preserve food in the ground using a few ingenious methods.

The pioneers figured out that some vegetables may remain in the ground all winter. However, specific measures must be taken to protect those vegetables from frost and excess moisture, as well as from rodents.

Methods to preserve food in the ground

Natural preservation

This process involves leaving the vegetables in the ground and it’s also known as late harvest. It’s quite simple and you don’t have to pick the vegetables and move them to another location. Everything is done on the spot, in the garden.

Chicory and Escarole

What you need for this method to work:

  • planted chicory and escarole,
  • dried ferns or straw
  • two boards of the same length as the planted rows
  • a few thin wooden strips or branches
  • plastic sheeting


Before the severe cold, around November, sink the edges of the boards along the outer length of the planted rows to enclose them. Top the boards with branches or wooden strips and then with a bed of dried ferns or straw. Cover the entire structure with a sheet of plastic and make sure gutters don’t form on the fern layer.


What you need for this method to work:

  • Planted endives
  • Soil


Before the first hard freeze, cut the leaves from the endive, leaving only the crown sticking out of the ground. Cover them with at least eight inches of soil. Keep an eye on the endives during the winter and if you notice any shoots, cover them with soil. They can be preserved like this until late April.

Other vegetables that can be kept in the ground:

Brussels Sprouts

Good resistance to frost, but need to be protected with straw during severe frost.

Cabbage and white cauliflower

Medium resistance to frost, but can be left in the garden until severe cold.


Good resistance to cold, but you need to protect them with straw in severe cold.


Good resistance to frost, but need to be protected with straw during severe frost.


Excellent resistance to frost, just leave it in the ground and cover it with a few inches of soil.

Black radish

Medium resistance to cold and also needs to be protected with straw in severe cold.

Heeling in or the Trenching method

If you want to preserve food in the ground, you can also use the trenching process. This works quite well since it allows the vegetables to remain planted while protecting them from frost. This method is often used for cabbage and lettuce. It requires well-drained soil, but in severe climates, gardeners may need a good cellar for optimum results.

Related reading: Growing Potatoes in Straw for Easy Gardening

Preserving Cabbage using the Trenching Method

What you need for this method to work:

  • Cabbage
  • Soil
  • Straw or ferns


Dig trenches 8 inches deep by 8 inches wide, running in an east-west direction. Place the cabbages side by side, stems resting on the edge of the trench, on the south side. The heads should be resting in the trench. Cover the stems with the soil you dug out and cover the heads completely with straw or ferns.

Preserving Lettuce using the Trenching Method

What you need for this method to work:

  • Lettuce
  • Branches and straw


Dig a trench sixteen inches deep and place the lettuce plants in it. The roots should be side by side, but not too close to one another. Cover the trench with branches and top it with straw.

Preserve food in the ground using a silo

Since not every pioneer had access to a root cellar, they learned how to improvise various silos. A silo is basically an underground excavation used to preserve food, and its origins are believed to be French. There are multiple ways you can preserve food in the ground using a silo. You can build a silo above the ground or you can make one by just digging a hole in the ground. The following examples will show you how you can preserve food in the ground using various silo designs.

Preserving food in the ground using a brick silo

What you need for this method to work:

  • Vegetables (celery, cabbage, carrots, turnips, etc.)
  • Cement blocks or 2” thick hollow bricks
  • Wood planks for the frame and cover
  • Dried autumn leaves


Start by digging a rectangular hole 16 to 32 by 20 inches deep. Cover the bottom and walls with bricks or cement blocks. Set the wall bricks on the edge and they will be secured below by the bottom bricks and above by the wooden frame. Alternate layers of vegetables with layers of leaves. The top row should be covered with a layer of leaves and no vegetable should be exposed. Close the silo with heavy planks and secure them in place using big rocks.

Suggested article: Eggs and Dairy Preservation Techniques

Preserving food in the ground using a pit silo

What you need for this method to work:

  • Vegetables (cabbage, carrots, etc.)
  • Dried leaves
  • Wood planks
  • Plastic sheeting


Chose a dry, well-drained spot that is protected by a hedge or wall. Dig a 16-inch deep pit, proportional to the quantity of vegetables you wish to preserve. Spread the soil and pack it all around the hole, to raise its sides. Clean the cabbage by removing all the leaves that are too green, bruised or rotten.

Place one layer of cabbage at the bottom of the pit with the roots facing up. Cover the cabbage row with dried leaves. Now place a layer of beets or roots and cover again with a layer of dried leaves. Repeat the process till you reach the top and close cover everything with a final layer of leaves.  Top the silo with wood planks and cover with a sheet of plastic or other water-resistant material.

Preserving food in the ground using a semi-buried silo

What you need for this method to work:

  • Root vegetables
  • Sand
  • Netting
  • Wood ashes
  • Twigs or tree prunings
  • Plastic sheeting


Start by digging a hole 8 inches deep and wide enough to house the number of vegetables you wish to preserve. Spread sand and wood ashes to keep out slugs. Place wire mesh hardware cloth at the bottom and around the edges of the hole to stop rodents. You can even extend the wire mesh a few inches above the hole.

When filling the hole with vegetables, make sure to place a small bundle of ½ inch diameter twigs or tree prunings standing upright in the center. This will provide the silo with good ventilation.  Spread straw on the silo to protect it from the cold and cover it with the soil you dug out. To finish the silo, cover the top of the air shaft with a sheet of plastic.

Preserving food in the ground using a streamer silo

What you need for this method to work:

  • Root vegetables
  • A large steamer
  • Dried autumn leaves
  • Straw
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Heavy stones


This is another French method to preserve food in the ground and they used old steam-washers for it to work. These were basically perforated containers for washing laundry that was buried and surrounded on all sides by straw. You could use any perforated container that is rust resistant for this method.

Make sure to put well-dried leaves at the bottom and place vegetables with their crowns and root tips removed on top. Cover with a lid, heavy stones, a layer of straw and a sheet of plastic. This is probably the simple silo you could improvise and it doesn’t require too much work.

A last word about preserving food in the ground

Although the above methods are used to preserve vegetables, some also used them to preserve meat such as jerky. The main thing to keep in mind when using these methods to preserve food in the ground is to keep favorable environmental conditions to prevent food spoilage. The concept of preserving food in the ground is similar to having an improvised root cellar. You need to have a favorable humidity and temperature and keep the storage space cool and dry.

Also, you should make sure that rodents and other pests are kept away. By using the information provided here, you will be able to enjoy your preserved foods at their peak of flavor, without using modern methods of preservation. You don’t need electricity or a state of the art root cellar to preserve your food if you chose the natural storage method.

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3 thoughts on “How To Preserve Food In The Ground Like The Pioneers”

  1. for meat when you kill a deer ect cut out and wash out intestines tie knot in one end fill with raw meat ,make a ball tie another knot in end .scrape fat from hide as well a from butcherd meat and render.pour renderd fat over intestine balls and cool.bury 3 feet in ground.meat will last 100 years.i learned this hunting with an Iraquoy when ii was in the army i did this and the meat was good 3 years later when i returned

  2. Good article except for 2 things:
    In the first row of instructions, rows is spelled rose.

    No one ever talks about how deep you would need to make your hole if you live in the deep South. We just pressure can everything because root cellaring, as described, doesn’t work. But canning is hard work, uses a lot of jars and lids, and sometimes the product is mushy. And we like our sweet potatoes baked whole, not canned in a jar.
    Maybe root cellaring would work would if the hole were deep enough, or in the shade of a tree, or something. I don’t want to waste my vegetables trying it out, so I would appreciate someone with more knowledge about the South answering this question of how deep or if it would work at all. In December last year, in Tallahassee, Florida, the temp was higher than 70 degrees many days.

    • As a HVAC tech in Jacksonville, FL with some experience with geothermal systems, I can tell you that here the temperature remains a steady 55 degrees farenheight…12 feet down. It’ll stay around 65 at 6ft down. That’s with direct sunlight on a lawn, so if you dig a hole in the shade, 6ft might work. Maybe.


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