Getting a Head Start on Spring Growing With a Cold Frame

What’s a die-hard gardener to do in the middle of winter, when the ground, outside,  is still too cold to plant anything?  Start growing in a cold frame!

A cold frame is used to protect young plants from the outside elements and cold weather.  It functions like a mini-greenhouse and is a great way to get a head start on or extend the growing season.

A couple of weeks ago, I started some seeds of cool weather vegetables:  broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale.

Some have developed their second set of leaves, and because they are starting to take up too much room indoors, I’ve decided to re-pot them into larger containers and take them outside to continue growing inside the safety of a cold frame.

Cold frames are very easy and inexpensive to construct.  All you need is some scrap lumber, nails, old windows, and a little effort to put it together.  I’m always on the lookout for free scrap lumber and windows and pick them up every opportunity I get, and store them in my backyard…I don’t think you can ever have too many cold frames in the garden!

The first step in construction is to build the wooden frame.  A simple box is all that’s needed.  It doesn’t even need a floor.

Once it’s been constructed, place it into an area of the garden where it’s sure to capture a lot of sun.  Typically, cold frames are placed on the south side of buildings, where they’ll get plenty of sun and can also take advantage of the radiant heat coming off of the building.

I’ve placed mine out in the open, at the end of one of my garden rows, away from any trees or other large structures that might block the sun.  At the bottom of the frame, I’ve shoveled in some fresh chicken manure and kitchen scraps.  As they break down, and decay, they’ll give off heat, helping the plants stay a little warmer at night.

On top of the compost, I added a layer of almond hulls for extra insulation.

For windows, I’m using an old cabinet door, with a missing middle pane (which is actually quite helpful, as you’ll see in a moment), and another, smaller framed window that fits perfectly over the missing window section.

Now, the cold frame is ready for the plants!  I snuggle them into the almond hulls, and place the windows on top…

Many cold frame kits or plans are constructed to allow for the window to slope towards the south, so that it can capture the maximum amount of sun.  Mine lays completely flat, and I think it works just fine.

Now back to that middle window section that you may have been wondering about…Because the middle window of the original door is missing, when it’s warm outside, I simply lay the other window, on top, at an angle.  This allows fresh, cool air to enter into the frame, keeping the plants from over heating, while still protecting the tender plants from any harsh winds that may be swirling about.  When the temperature drops, I simply move the window back into place and leave it until the outside temperature climbs back up again.

As the plants grow taller, I’ll need to transfer them into another, larger, cold frame.

I love using cold frames to get a head start on my spring garden, growing seedlings that will later be transplanted into open ground.  It’s another great way for a die-hard gardener to stay busy, and continue gardening, even in the dead of winter.


Gardening in the Winter

I love being able to “garden” in the middle of winter!   While it may be indoors, and on a much smaller scale than what takes place out in my main garden, winter seed-sowing brings just as much joy to my life as outdoor spring planting does (especially since I get to do it in the comfort of my perfectly toasty, 75-degree home!)


These are Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, my favorite variety for their ease of growing, early harvesting, sweet and flavorful taste, and beauty in the garden.

This year, I’m using Jiffy products for seed starting.  I love these “all in one” containers that make seed starting a happy occasion, rather than a chore.  All I have to do is fill the bottom of the container with water, wait for the pellets to absorb it, plant the seeds, cover with the transparent plastic cover, and wait for the seedlings to emerge.  Nothing could be simpler — and I’m all about simple when it comes to starting seeds!

What I love about these Jiffy seed starting kits is the way that they handle water.  In the past, I’ve lost a lot of seedlings to damping off (due to over-hydration), or drying up (due to under-hydration).  I don’t think I’m going to have that problem this year, as this system makes it much easier to control watering.

I’ve got a head start on most of the cool weather crops with this first planting:  broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, onion, and peppers (which are not really cool weather plants, but seeds can still be started indoors in our area at this time of year).

At the end of January, I’ll be starting the seeds of annual herbs, more onions, garlic, spinach, more peppers, and tomatoes.

The main reason for starting my own seedlings is that it is much more economical than purchasing transplants at the nursery, or local hardware store.  Even if I’m not planting a lot of a certain variety (like eggplants, a certain tomato, or spaghetti squash), if I’m careful to save the seed in a cool, dark place, I can usually get three to four years worth of good germination from that one packet, before I need to purchase another one.  Also, I can re-use the tops and bottoms of the Jiffy kits, from year to year, leaving me only to replace the growing pellets.

I realize that there are cheaper ways to start my own seeds, but time is precious to me right now, and with all of the cooking, cleaning, teaching, blogging, and other things I’ve got going on in my life, I’m willing to pay a little more in this area so that I at least have a little  time to relax at the end of the day!

Another reason I prefer to sow my own seed is that I get to grow varieties that just can’t be found in my local stores — heirloom seeds that have been handed down over the centuries, that have great histories,  and come from all around the world.  My favorite places to order seeds from are: Baker Creek, Bountiful Gardens, and Southern Exposure.  I love what these companies are dedicated to preserving!

I also think home-grown seedlings are much healthier and perform better in the garden than their store-bought counterparts, but that’s just my opinion, and you’re welcome to disagree.

So, what about you?  Are you a seed-sower, or do you prefer to purchase ready-to-go transplants?  If you’ve never done it before, why not go out and purchase a small Jiffy starter kit and some seed and start “gardening in the winter” right along with me?