Cold Frame Gardening

comments (27) August 13th, 2009

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With a cold frame like this, you can grow greens and other cool-season vegetables right through the winter.
Download plans, a materials list, and instructions for building this cold frame.
Sown the first of August, these carrots are eating size by the time the snow flies. Protected by a layer of straw, theyll stay crisp and sweet all winter.
With a cold frame like this, you can grow greens and other cool-season vegetables right through the winter.Click To Enlarge

With a cold frame like this, you can grow greens and other cool-season vegetables right through the winter.

Photo: Ruth Lively

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Like most vegetable gardeners, I’ve always been interested in extending the har­­vest beyond the confines of “the growing season.” Along with the prolonged enjoyment of puttering in the garden, I treasure the reward of continuing to eat fresh, home-grown food. The easiest and most economical way to do this is with a cold frame.

If, like me, you’re not ready for the gardening year to end with the season’s first hard frost, then maybe you’re ready for a cold frame, too. This simple bottomless box with a removable glass or plastic lid protects plants inside from excessively low temperatures, wind, snow, and rain. In doing so, it creates a microclimate that is a zone and a half warmer than your garden. My garden may be in Maine, but the plants in my cold frame think they’re in New Jersey. A cold frame in New Jersey provides Georgia weather. The result is a harvest of fresh vegetables all winter long.

  Why all this talk about winter crops when you’re still waiting for the first tomato?
Because you can’t wait until winter to plant the winter garden. The rate that plants grow diminishes with the shortening days of fall until it almost stops. By then, the plants need to have reached harvestable size. After that, they’ll hibernate successfully in the shelter of the cold frame.

I start sowing seeds in my cold frame mid-July (see A cold frame timetable), but that's because I live in Maine. You'll need to adjust your planting schedule for your local climate.
I began serious exploration of winter cold-frame gardening back in 1981 when I took the job of farm manager at a private school in Vermont. The program was supposed to supply the school with food while engaging students in a hands-on way. The problem was, there wasn’t much overlap of the gardening year and the school year. To involve students in fresh vegetable production, it would have to happen in winter. And if winter horticulture were to catch on with teenagers, it would need more charisma than a Brussels sprout. A large, heated greenhouse was out of the picture, and so I turned to cold frames.

Bottomless box with a skylight

The beauty of a cold frame is that it’s simple. Mine would have been familiar to a gardener a hundred years ago. Each one is a bottomless box made of 2-in. thick planks, 12 in. high at the back and 8 in. high at the front, and covered with glass frames, called lights.

  Get cold frame plans
Download plans, a materials list, and instructions for building this cold frame.
The back of the frame is cut higher than the front so the angled lights can catch the slanting winter sun. I site the frames with the lights sloping toward the south in a spot where they will have as much winter sun as possible. Some shade is tolerable, but full sun is best.

If you have access to old storm windows, you can use those as lights. If you don’t want to build your own frame, however, you can buy a sturdy ready-made polycarbonate-glazed cold frame for a few hundred dollars (companies that sell cold frames include Charley's Greenhouse & Garden and Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply).

Grow cold-tolerant crops
One of the keys to success is to focus on vegetables that thrive in, or at least tolerate, the cold. No, a cold frame isn’t going to put vine-ripened tomatoes on your table in January. But it will easily provide you with the best carrots you’ve ever tasted, firm-fleshed leeks and scallions, succulent cooking greens, and a host of salad ingredients.

Most of the popular vegetables Americans grow are “chilling sensitive,” which is to say they don’t appreciate temperatures below 50°F. There are, however, many “chilling-resistant” crops, vegetables that survive winter’s freezes, providing they have some protection.

Spinach is one of the best such crops. It yields all winter in the cold frame. So does chard. Scallions are good, too—even better from the cold frame than from the outdoor garden. Carrots are outstanding. I make a big sowing on August 1 and enjoy delicious, tender baby carrots all winter. A thick layer of straw applied in late fall protects them from temperature swings. The cold turns some of the carrots’ starch to sugar—my kids liked them so much they used to call them “candy carrots.”

A cold frame is a bonanza for salad lovers. Lettuce is available until about mid-December, when it finally succumbs to repeated freeze-thaw cycles. That doesn’t bother me, though, because there’s a true winter salad green for cold-frame growing, and that’s mâche, also known as corn salad. This traditional midwinter European salad crop is far hardier than lettuce. I’ve found that mâche can be harvested while frozen and still look beautiful after it thaws (scallions also can be harvested frozen). The others need to be picked unfrozen. But that is really no problem because the interior of the cold frame gets above freezing on most winter days, even when it’s cloudy.

After learning about mâche, I began looking to Europe for more winter salad ingredients. Frisée endive proves quite hardy, as does radicchio. But my three favorites are cultivated weeds. One is claytonia, a California plant also known as “miner’s lettuce” because it was eaten in Gold Rush days. The round, succulent leaves on thin stems have a fresh, sweet taste and are second in hardiness to mâche. The Europeans imported claytonia and domesticated it to what they call “winter purslane.”

Salad greens Spinach
Salad greens thrive in a cold frame. Two of the author's favorites are claytonia, which has heart-shaped leaves (lower left), and minutina, the grassy-looking row down the center.   One sowing of spinach yields from falll until spring when grown in a cold frame. Harvest it leaf by leaf, cutting 1 in. above the crown.
Mache   Mache
Instead of beaing locked in frozen earth, cold-frame leeks are a cinch to harvest, and more of their flesh remains edible. Photo: Barbara Damrosch.    One of the best cold-frame crops is mâche, a European salad green. Harvest and eat the entire plant, which has a mildly nutty flavor. Photo: Barbara Damrosch.
Minutina, a relative of the plantain weed, is popular in Italy. Minutina has slender, lightly fringed leaves that have a salty taste and crunchy texture. And in the chicory family I found ‘Biondissima Trieste’, a non-heading type which can be planted thickly to yield abundant quantities of delicious, tender, round to finely indented leaves. Arugula, dandelion, escarole, mizuna, parsley, sorrel, and mustard and turnip greens are also chilling resistant.

How many varieties you’ll be able to grow in your cold frame depends on where you live and the severity of the weather. For gardeners in Zone 6 and south, a cold frame will guarantee bounteous harvests. In the frigid winters of Zone 3 there are only five crops—spinach, scallions, mâche, claytonia, and carrots—that you can dependably harvest all winter, and only mâche during the coldest periods. If you want to increase the number of things you can harvest, erect a plastic tunnel over the cold frame, which will make a quantum leap in protection and crop variety.

A cold frame timetable  
Probably the most important point in using a cold frame is to start your plants early enough. I begin in mid-July, sowing seeds for slow-growing or heat-tolerant crops like scallions, chard, parsley, and for winter greens such as escarole, endive, dandelion, and radicchio. On August 1, I sow my entire winter carrot crop. By mid-August, I’m seeding mustard and turnip greens. And in September I sow all the salad greens that germinate in cooler soil—mâche, spinach, claytonia, arugula, and mizuna, as well as radishes.

From time to time, spaces open up where a crop finally gives in to winter, or where I’ve harvested whole plants such as mâche. I sow seeds for new crops in these holes. Arugula, mâche, spinach, claytonia, radishes, and lettuce will germinate during the winter. If they fail, I try again. As the sun climbs higher in late winter, these seedlings are poised for rapid growth, and about the time my earlier crops are finished, the winter-sown ones are ready for harvest. 
Carrots in a cold frame

Sown the first of August, these carrots are eating size by the time the snow flies. Protected by a layer of straw, they'll stay crisp and sweet all winter.

Managing the cold frame
On a sunny day, a cold frame can quickly become a hot frame. You don’t want to be saving your crops from winter, only to have them cook before you can harvest them. A cold frame can overheat, even on a cloudy day. Keep the temperature below 60°F during the day by opening the frames a little. I can vent mine manually, because I work from my home. I recommend installing temperature-activated ventilating arms to look after this task for you. I like the Univent control from Charley’s Greenhouse & Garden because it’s the only one I know of with a quick-release feature that allows you to open the light all the way. It’s always better to err on the side of overventing. If you’re going to be gone all day, or if you’re unsure about the weather, vent.

  Manuallly venting the cold frame
Vent the frame to prevent overheating. Heavy glass lights must be vented manually. If you use a lilghtweight glass substitute, you can install an automatic device to do this job for you.
  Cold frame min/max thermometer
  Set up a min/max thermometer inside the cold frame and shield it from direct sun with a board.
A minimum/maximum thermometer inside the frame helps me keep track of temperatures. In times of extreme cold, an insulated, reflective cover over the frames at night is helpful as long as it’s opened during the day to let in the sun. My frames have dropped to 10°F inside with no problem.

I’ll leave a new snowfall on the frames for a few days as insulation if it’s bitter cold. Heavy wet snow, though (6 in. or more), could break glass panes. I’ve found I’m less liable to break them myself if I remove the snow with a broom instead of a shovel. Once, when I was away, my frames spent three weeks under snow, and the plants didn’t suffer.

Occasionally people tell me that by fall they want a break from gardening. But that’s the best part: You can have your break and eat it too. After early fall, very little gardening takes place. Just some watering until November and then no more until spring. Venting can be handled automatically. I’ve found no weeds or pests in my cold frames. Harvesting is the main task, which is the aim of all this activity anyway.

And how good is the harvest? I can best describe it as a season of continuous delight for the table as well as for the soul. Even after all the years I’ve been growing in cold frames, I still marvel at the contrast of the weather outside and the bounty within. I still find myself coming into the kitchen with a basket of fresh greens for the evening salad and exclaiming, “You wouldn’t believe what’s available out there!”

“Yes, we would. We’ve heard it before,” say the eager eaters. “Please stop enthusing and make the vinaigrette.”

Read more about cold frames...

by Eliot Coleman
August 1996
from issue #4

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posted in: Projects, greens, fall garden, cold frame

Comments (27)

charisbaker writes: beautiful way to keep your garden clean & beautiful
Posted: 2:03 am on August 20th
lyunmoss writes: Incredible
Posted: 5:55 am on July 26th
DonnaCox writes: just great one
Posted: 2:15 am on July 26th
Alvinbass21 writes: Its good working process.
Posted: 4:47 am on October 8th
TjBakewell writes: I wouldn't recommend making your own cold frame, its very hard work and they arnt all that expensive to buy! Also, lets face it most of us are getting on now and we dont want to be messing around building cold frames. I bought my own cold frame kit and it works very well and is easy to assemble.
Posted: 9:38 am on January 5th
DanielBlake writes: Incredible...
Posted: 5:11 am on November 17th
Maxbannett writes: incredibly Awesome
Posted: 5:06 am on October 30th
Oscarwilson writes: Work of Perfection... Just Beautiful
Posted: 3:57 am on October 30th
Masongreen writes: incredibly Beautiful
Posted: 3:27 am on October 30th
Archiefox writes: Great Concept...
Posted: 2:45 am on October 30th
Thomaswain writes: Awesome...
Posted: 8:11 am on October 29th
Mikespencer writes: Incredible...
Posted: 7:36 am on October 29th
Dominichemmer writes: Just Great...
Posted: 7:18 am on October 29th
Sandraclif writes: Nice...
Posted: 6:46 am on October 29th
Adwardstim writes: Beautiful....
Posted: 6:04 am on October 29th
Jonathanray writes: Awesome
Posted: 5:19 am on October 29th
silaswren writes: Beautifully done
Posted: 12:25 am on October 10th
QcCity writes: What I found useful if you have the time is to cover the glass on clear nights with a cardboard onto which aluminium foil is fixed, the aluminium foil facing down.
This will reflect back the heat from the ground instead of having it radiate into space on clear nights. It was seven degrees F less cold under the foil than under ordinary glass or plastic.
Posted: 10:27 am on June 16th
Sweet_Potatoes writes: Remember to use water storage for heat release at night.
Plastic jugs with black-dyed water.
Posted: 2:02 am on July 21st
Piterson writes:
nice work . I like it,Very interesting article, Anothony. You've got me hooked up - keep up the nice work!

Posted: 1:25 am on July 5th
Sweet_Potatoes writes: The R factor of one pane of glass is 1.
Put two panes together and get R of 1 1/2.
Separate the two panes by 1 1/2 inches -
which is optimum - and get R of 3. So the
air space is important.
The R of plastic sheet is zero, but I've
used plastic with glass and it gave an

Posted: 2:32 pm on June 8th
vladsbtch writes: I am going to try to make one for this winter. Here in Nashville,TN I should have a good crop!!! Thank you for sharing!!
Posted: 8:00 pm on July 16th
bilili_3 writes: I am going to build a cold frame within the next few weeks. Got to start planning what I want to plant so I can order the seeds now while they are in stock. I love this idea and I bought Elliot's book on the subject which I strongly recommend.

Posted: 7:22 am on April 22nd
LeslieinPayson writes: I have some supports for my tomatoes which are about 4 ft. above a raised bed. I was thinking about covering them with heavy plastic for a sort-of cold frame. The plastic would be straight across the top. Will plastic likely be enough insulation? We are in an area tha gets down to 20s and even teens in mid-winter, but the days are often 50s and the ground never freezes. I'm figuring I will need to open the sides of the frame many days.
Posted: 1:33 pm on August 14th
RuthHenriquezLyon writes: Thank you for this article; it's the best I've read so far, especially as concerns types of plants to grow in winter, plus when to plant them, and how to manage them in the frame. I'm looking forward to trying it out.
Posted: 9:03 pm on May 29th
badlandskid writes: I use discarded glass bathroom shower doors for my cold frame. They are quite sturdy. And I add a light bulb for extra heat.
Posted: 12:30 pm on March 20th
badlandskid writes: Perhaps you could increase the insulation effect of the plastic by applying it double with an airspace between just like double glazed windows for house.
Posted: 12:24 pm on March 20th
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