From the Desk of Ed Hume: Gardening in a Cold Frame

October 26, 2011 at 11:11 AM Leave a comment

Do you remember how Grandma and Grandpa did their Winter gardening in a cold frame?  Remember they had iceboxes, not refrigerators, and it was sometimes a whole week or more between trips to the grocery store?  So a cold frame and root cellar were very important in growing and storing their vegetable and fruit crops.  Their vegetables from the cold frame were fresh, very nutritious, and had great flavor. So why aren’t we growing some of our own vegetables in a cold frame now?

Today, it’s estimated that our vegetables travel (farmer to us), on average 1,500 miles.  For example, I just heard recently 70% of all our garlic comes from China.  So in many cases these are varieties that ripen in transit, which results in some of the flavor and nutrients being lost along the way.  (At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the produce sections in many local stores feature top quality, locally grown produce.)

Imagine having fresh leaf lettuce, spinach, chard, or radishes for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, or even as late as Mother’s Day.  It’s possible if you grow your own vegetables in a cold frame.

How do you make a cold frame?  It’s easy!  Simply start with an old window sash, sliding door, or make your own frame.  If you don’t have one, your neighbor or a salvage yard is apt to have one.  Build a base to hold the frame/window sash with scrap lumber.  You want the backside of the base to be higher then the front side.  I suggest the backside be waist high and the front side about knee high.  Build this base in a spot where it will get full sun, facing it so the backside (high side) is to the north and the low side is facing south.  In other words, it’s important that the cold frame faces south so it gets full sun exposure.  The actual size of the base is determined by the size of the window sash/sliding door/frame.  Put two or three hinges at the top (high side) of the sash/frame so as to provide access to the planting area.

Next, prepare the soil within the cold frame by adding some organic humus with a good grade garden soil.  Compost, processed manure (the bagged stuff), peat moss, or coconut fiber are good forms of organic humus.  Prepare the soil to a depth of eight to twelve inches.

This late in the year you may want to start your seedling plants indoors then plant them out into the cold frame once they are sturdy seedlings.  Earlier in the Fall the lettuce, spinach, chard, or other crops could have been seeded directly into the cold frame soil.

On warm Fall or Winter days the cold frame can be left open, closing it at night and keeping it closed on cool or cold days and nights.  On a rainy day, it can be left open so the rain can do the watering for you.  The need for additional watering will vary depending upon seasonal temperatures, so you may have to experiment a little to determine frequency.

If it gets exceptionally cold be certain to cover the entire cold frame with burlap, blankets, or similar material to keep your vegetable plants from freezing.  Then as soon as the temperatures moderate, the covering should be removed.

Begin harvesting the succulent outer leaves of leaf crops as soon as they are ready to eat.  A taste test is the best way to determine the correct timing.

Please check out my articles “Winter Gardening” and “Gardening in a Cold Frame” which are posted on our web site www.humeseeds.com, as they will give you more detailed information on building and gardening in a cold frame.

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