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:
We also planted daikon (a big, mild, white asian radish) because the root can be eaten as well as the leaves:
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:
Arugula, the peppery green rumored to be an aphrodisiac, and whose flowers and seed pods are just as edible as the leaves:
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:
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:
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!):
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!)
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:
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!