Spring in the Garden – Dismantling the Cold Frame

This past winter, I decided to give cold-weather gardening a try.  The winters lately have felt too long, and sometimes dreaming your way through the seed catalogues that arrive en masse at this time of year just isn’t enough to satisfy your gardener’s heart.  In winter, I miss the excitement of starting seeds under the grow lights indoors, of transplanting the seedlings outdoors, and checking in on them each day to see how much they’ve grown and whether they need watering or feeding.  Francisco wasn’t as quick to admit it, but I think he did, too.

We weren’t about to convert our entire garden into a winter haven for veggies, since both time and resources are a bit too tight to allow for that.  So the solution we arrived at was a simple cold frame—a raised bed about 3′ wide x 15′ long.  Last summer, we used this particular bed for tomatoes, so we already had some posts secured to the sides of the bed to form the basis of the frame.  From there, all we needed to do was to staple on some clear plastic around all the sides, and then add some black plastic garbage bags to the north side in order to help the cold frame adsorb as much solar heat as possible.  We fashioned two lift-up lids from wood, pvc pipe (for the hinge) and, of course, more plastic.   Since the length of the bed faced to the south, we made sure to angle the lid about 25 degrees in that direction, so that more sun could penetrate our mini greenhouse and keep things toasty warm.  Converting our raised be into a cold frame was probably about a 2-hour project in total.

We started this project on a cold day in early January, when there was still snow on the ground from one of Georgia’s few-and-far-between snowstorms.  Brr, it was cold, but I can tell you now that it was totally worth it.  The cold frame is now packed to the brim with gorgeous greens that are approaching 2-3 feet in height!

What did we plant in the cold frame?  It was hard to choose, I’ll tell you that.  With limited space, we were only able to pick our favorites to grow, as well as some high-producing, hearty varieties of veggies.  At the top of my list was lacinato (or dinosaur) kale.  They have long, dark green, crinkly leaves and are absolutely divinely delicious.  They can be used in salads, added to winter soups and stews, or (my favorite) added to green smoothies.  They’re members of the brassica family (along with broccoli, cabbages and the like) and are really high in vitamins and minerals.  On top of all this, they’re highly cold tolerant, and a little frost is actually supposed to enhance their flavor:

Lacinato Kale

We also planted daikon (a big, mild, white asian radish) because the root can be eaten as well as the leaves:

Daikon radish

Pak choy, which is a type of chinese cabbage (largely without cabbage flavor).  They’re great in stir fry, but I love them best in a green smoothie, or just picked off the plant, rolled up and eaten right there in the garden:

pak choy

Arugula, the peppery green rumored to be an aphrodisiac, and whose flowers and seed pods are just as edible as the leaves:

arugula

Turnip greens, since we’re in the South, and they’re yummy in soup or sauteed with a bit of garlic, lemon and olive oil:

turnip greens

Collards, again, because we’re in the South.  They’re tasty, tolerate heat well, and if we can keep the cabbage moth larva off them, they’ll produce right through the summer:

georgia collards

Ruffled endive (escarole), which is less bitter than other endive varieties and has a gorgeous texture (I can’t believe I forgot to take a picture…will post one soon!):

escarole

By JC i Núria on Flickr.

And finally garlic (mostly because we let some sit in the kitchen for too long and they started to sprout—ironically, they’ve grown faster than anything in the cold frame!)

garlic

As I write this, I’m in the porch hammock in short sleeves and my bare toes are curled into the weave of the hammock. The sun is warm, and there’s a smile on my face.  When spring arrives, it is exquisite—even in the South.  Lately, we’ve been having fickle weather that’s been a little hot-and-cold, quite literally.  When there was a consistent stretch of mild days last month, we decided to pull down the walls and lid of the cold frame.  The plants had been pushing at the lid, and the thermometer inside the cold frame would read almost eighty degrees on fair days.  Even opening the lids only cooled the cold frame down marginally.  The plants grew like mad with the addition of the direct sunlight and spring rains, and it’s now winding down, though we’re still enjoying our first harvest of early season greens.  Yum.  Here’s what the cold frame looks like today:

open lotus garden cold frame

Have some cold frame experiece of your own?  I’d love to hear about how you built it, and what you grew, which you can share by posting in the comments section below.  Happy spring to everyone!

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About Ashley in Open Lotus Garden

Organic and biodynamic gardener, writer/editor, lover of nature, animals, and the world.
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3 Responses to Spring in the Garden – Dismantling the Cold Frame

  1. Wow! This is something I’ve wanted to try, cold frame gardening. I have a plan to use hay bales and plastic, something my 78 year old father came up with. Inexpensive, but should work. This winter though I devoted time to planning this year’s garden and then I’ll be doing the cold frame later. I too, am ready for Georgia to make up it’s mind as to what season it really is!

  2. Wonderful post, inspiring to know that we can be four-season gardeners in many many places. Love the big & up-close photos, those are definitely some vibrant veggies!

    I wonder if a cold-frame could be made without plastic? Bamboo “piping” perhaps? Not sure what natural thing could replace the plastic sheeting though. There is a bit of irony in using greenhouse gas producing plastic for a mini-greenhouse… I was actually thinking about that today while working in a big one. There is the plant-based plastics, so maybe that could be made for this purpose. How did folks do it in the pre-plastic days? Or maybe there werent any cold-weather techniques, I dont know.

    In any case thanks for sharing your beautiful garden experience, I look forward to future posts.

  3. Fall can be a great time to start a cold frame! Imagine winter greens to tide you over through November, December and January. I’m definitely going to start my winter seeds a bit earlier this time around. Keep me posted on how your garden does this beautiful season we have before us. 🙂

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