Cold Frames: The Easiest Way To Get A Jump On The Growing Season

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Cold Frames: The Easiest Way To Get A Jump On The Growing Season

Are you as impatient as I am, waiting for the frost-free planting dates to arrive? As the days get longer and spring inches closer, it’s hard not to get itchy fingers for gardening. Still, at this time of year, many of us need to wait for several more weeks, or even months, before we can start planting outdoors. But what if you didn’t have to wait that long? What if you could start gardening about five weeks prior to your traditional frost-free date? You can do it with a cold frame.

A cold frame is basically just a low bottomless box with a translucent top. It protects plants from the elements and provides solar heat to keep them warm.

Creating a Cold Frame

Cold frames are easy to build with found or repurposed items, and unless you want to, there is no need to use tools. It’s true that they’re often built from lumber, with distinctive sloping tops that are covered with clear poly sheeting, polycarbonate sheets or glass. It’s easy to find plans for these kinds of cold frames, like   or  . If you are recycling windows or other material to use as the lid, you can certainly modify the plans to fit the dimensions of the cover.

If you’re not handy with tools, don’t despair. Start by finding something that will work as the translucent cover, so that you know how large the frame should be. To create the frame itself, you can use things like straw or hay bales, cinder blocks, or bricks.

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Although having a sloping lid is ideal, as it captures more sunlight and facilitates rain runoff, it’s not necessary. The cover can just rest flat on top of the frame. Make sure the lid fits well, though. To best protect the plants, there shouldn’t be any gaps between the cover and the frame. A well-fitted lid will also increase the humidity levels, which will keep your plants happy.

Choosing a Location

The weeks prior to your last frost date can be nippy. To keep your plants toasty and flourishing, position the frame so that it faces due south and gets full sun.

Traditionally, seeds are planted right in the ground inside the frame. However, the frame can also be used as a mini-greenhouse, if you prefer, where you can start seeds in trays or pots for later transplanting. In this case, the frame even could be placed on a deck or patio if necessary, but take care to protect the area underneath.

Best Plants for Cold Frames

Cold Frames: The Easiest Way To Get A Jump On The Growing Season

Image source: Green City Growers

Cold frames are widely used to grow lettuce, which are cool-weather crops that flourish in temperatures of 45 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Other greens work well, too, such as beet greens, chard, kale and spinach. If you want to branch out from leafy greens, give carrots, leeks, radishes, kohlrabi or turnips a try.

Managing the Temperature

Cold frames are easy to build with found or repurposed items, and unless you want to, there is no need to use tools. It’s true that they’re often built from lumber, with distinctive sloping tops that are covered with clear poly sheeting, polycarbonate sheets or glass. It’s easy to find plans for these kinds of cold frames, like this one at Better Homes and Gardens or this one at Popular Mechanics. If you are recycling windows or other material to use as the lid, you can certainly modify the plans to fit the dimensions of the cover.

If the outdoor temperature is consistently lower than 40 degrees, insulate your frame by heaping soil or mulching materials like leaves or wood chips around its perimeter.

Using Your Cold Frame Beyond Spring

Although most commonly used to start vegetables early in the spring, a cold frame can be used year-round. It provides a good home to heat-loving vegetables like peppers and eggplants until the extreme heat of summer hits. During the hottest days of summer, simply remove the lid to keep using the space. The fall growing season can be extended by replacing the cover at that time. Frames also can be used to overwinter plants.

For the minimal cost and effort needed to build them, cold frames provide a big payoff.

Do you use a cold frame in your garden? Let us know your tips in the comment section below.

Are You Making These Common, Avoidable Gardening Mistakes? Read More Here.

How to Build a Cold Frame in Under 30 Minutes With No Tools

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How to Build a Cold Frame in Under 30 Minutes With No Tools Winter is approaching FAST! If you want to save money by growing food over the long winter months this is a really easy way to build cold frames with no tools… Straw bales + old windows = instant cold frame. Essentially, a …

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Everything You Wanted To Know About Cold Frames (But Were Embarrassed To Ask)

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Everything You Wanted To Know About Cold Frames (But Were Embarrassed To Ask)

Image source: urbanfarmonline.com

There is a rhythm to the year-round garden. At no point are we without fresh food from the garden, though it changes quite a bit through the seasons. Here in Zone 5 and where potential frost days are six months out of the year, cold frames are more than a novel method; they are an absolute necessity. Consequently, managing your cold frames is as important as planning for the garden as a whole.

Most people who live where it snows for four or more months of the year believe they must give up gardening once the hard frosts set in, because it is too cold for plants to survive. While it is true that frosts will kill tender plants left exposed, and only cold-hardy crops can be maintained through extreme conditions, in reality it isn’t the cold that makes growing so difficult; it is the lack of sunlight. There are multiple plants that can overwinter in the frozen soil and grow in the spring, and a few that can be harvested frozen, and then thawed and eaten fresh.

However, in mid-winter plant growth will slow to a near standstill as photosynthesis slows. Your cold frames will protect your garden from the most severe conditions, and can maintain temperatures warmer than the surrounding area, but there is little that can be done about the sunlight. Therefore, don’t expect miracles.

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Most especially, don’t expect that your cold frame is equivalent to a greenhouse. Because you will likely not be installing heaters, irrigators and artificial lighting in your cold frames, you cannot expect to be growing plants that are not winter crops. You will not get peppers or tomatoes harvested in winter from a cold frame unless you are in a more tropical growing zone (in which case you probably wouldn’t need a cold frame.) Rest assured, however, that forcing crops out of season rarely yields satisfying results; the more flavorful and nutritious choice is always to grow what would more naturally grow in your climate at the particular time of year you are growing.

In the northern part of the country, the best crops for cold frames will be greens such as lettuce, spinach, kale, and cress. Chard, bok choy, carrots, beets, and cabbage can also be harvested late into fall and through winter in some areas. As you harvest through the season, space will open up in the cold frame. Consider continuous sowing of sprouts and herbs if the soil remains soft.  Mache and scallions can both be harvested frozen.

Manage Daily Conditions

Everything You Wanted To Know About Cold Frames (But Were Embarrassed To Ask)

Image source: Pixabay.com

Even in the north, there are warmer days and colder days in the winter. An essential part of successful winter gardening is attention to daily conditions – no different than in summer. On mild, sunny winter days early and later in the season, it will be necessary to vent your cold frames in order to avoid burning the delicate greens within. Install a thermometer on the outside of your cold frames and vent when it shows an outdoor temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), especially if it is sunny.

Additionally, be prepared for winter storms, and cover your cold frames with insulation or a snow shield in preparation for harsh or icy conditions. After the storm has ended, clear snow and ice from the tops of the frames and the surrounding space. Even better, construct a snow fence on the least-sheltered side of your frames to protect them all winter long.

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Lastly, monitor soil conditions within the frames for moisture content. Too much moisture within cold frames can promote fungal growth, killing off your plants.

Other Uses for the Cold Frame

Once spring is approaching and the cold frame crops are nearing the end of their season, it will be time to repurpose your cold frames. Consider dedicating space to promote successful spring growth through the following:

  • starting seeds outdoors, earlier than you would be able to in the garden proper, but more hardy than those started indoors.
  • protect and harden seedlings started indoors.
  • starting bulbs such as garlic and onions, left to overwinter in the cold frames.

Whatever you choose to eat from your winter garden, there is little to match the joy of a fresh harvest on a cold day, and there is little doubt that planning a year-long garden will enhance your family’s well-being and improve your harvests.

What advice about cold frames would you add? Share it in the section below:

Every Year Gardeners Make This Avoidable Mistake — But You Don’t Have To. Read More Here.

DIY Milk Jug Seed Starters

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This is a great way to make a low cost, actually free,  cold frame for your  outdoor seeds that winter outside or to do seed starting inside for starting seeds indoors for the spring. We are doing this one. Getting our seeds started very soon indoors so they will be ready for planting outdoors. Or planting indoors in 5 gallon buckets. I have a few items that I want to do indoors. Will be easier for when we get our land to be able to take the plants with us.

But this simple and free milk jug seed starter is a great way to start…

Survival Seeds
  • Cut a gallon milk jug in half horizontally. Leave one edge intact so that it will act like a hinge. 
  • You can throw away the cap. But, my creative son is wanting to save them to somehow make an outdoor “rug” with. Have them bottom up so that you can use it to scrape mud off shoes.
  • Punch several drainage holes into the bottom of the jug.
  • Fill the bottom with a few inches of potting soil.
  • Moisten it well and plant the seeds.
  • Close the top cover and secure with some duct tape.
  • Place the jug inside a clear plastic bag and twist tie closed. Since it is in a clear plastic bag it is like its own greenhouse.
  • Place in a sunny spot outside out of the way , so it will not be bothered or have to be moved.
  • Before transplanting , harden off the seedlings by taking the jug out of the bag and propping it open.

This is a frugal way to start your own garden or to garden indoors. Easy and fun to watch them grow.

How To Build A Cold Frame Out Of Re-purposed ‘Junk’

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How To Build A Cold Frame Out Of Re-purposed 'Junk'

Image source: Pixabay.com

When I was a kid, I assumed you had just a few months to plant, tend to, and then harvest plants and vegetables. I was wrong.

When I started out working for a farmer I was introduced to the age-old “cold frame.” I learned it was a way not only to extend my growing season but also to grow some crops during winter. Cold frames also can help you get an early jump come spring, when you are chomping at the bit to get your spring crops planted.

What is a cold frame, you ask?

Simply put, it is a box-like structure with four sides designed to trap warmth and provide a sanctuary for cold weather plants, with a clear lid. You can build these boxes out of common materials you may already have laying around — such as bricks, spare boards, wood from pallets, plywood and hay. For a lid, I have used windows from car doors, an old window from a knocked down house, Plexiglas, plastic drop clothes and plastic clear sheeting.

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The size of the cold frame depends on the size of the plants you will be growing. Be sure the top to your container is large enough and thick enough to trap the heat. I like to build my containers around at least 24 inches by 48 inches, although some people build them several feet wide. Height is determined by the plants you are growing. The back of the box should be higher than the front and it should achieve a gradual sloping shape. This design captures more light and provides more warmth and nourishment from the sun than if it were just a flat box with a bit of glass atop it. Often after I plant a vegetable in the cold frame I surround it with straw for added insulation.

Some people build a permanent cold frame. But because I live in a warmer climate, all of mine are portable and made from plywood with a folding glass lid.

I place the container facing south. The location must not be in the shade, and it should be in a place that gets the most sunlight during daylight hours. You location should have decent drainage and yet be sheltered from a harsh winter wind.

Plant Care in a Cold Frame

Image source: instructables.com

Image source: instructables.com

When planting, I remove the first four inches of top soil and lay down a layer of flat rock, and then put the soil back on top. This makes our cold frame into almost an oven. It also allows for drainage after a downpour so as not to flood your plants. You even can place you plants in pots or on trays.

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Cold frames are like children and need attention. For example, you will need to follow the weather forecast when planting and tending your cold frames. At times, you need to keep your plants cool, as your cold frame can act as an oven. For summer plants you want you temperature inside a cold frame to be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but at least north of 50. For many spring and fall crops, above 45 and under 60 is ideal, although some plants, such as kale, can handle temperatures far less than that.

On days when it’s around 40 degrees outside, keep your top open a few inches, and when it gets close to 50 or 55 degrees remove the top completely. Otherwise, you risk scorching your plants.

When the thermometer plungers into frigid conditions, insulate your plants with straw, newspapers, even blankets. You will lose most heat through the top of the cold frame, so a quilted cover is a great option. Just remember to uncover it come daytime so your plants can again be warmed by the sun. Lastly, keep the snow clear from your frames as that will block heat.

What are your top cold frame tips? Share them in the section below:

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