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The Urban Gardener: Cold Frames Endure

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Many urban gardeners suffer from remorse. Yet do not despair. Gardeners are hopeful people. We nurture, foster, coddle our plants. Enchanted, we participate in the grand cycle of seasons. Not for us rigid obedience. We know short winter days are interludes. There are many ways to prolong growth far beyond the usual. For me, hope’s cousin is the cold frame. 

Regardless of your growing space there are simple techniques that loosen tender plants from winter’s grip. Gardeners are observant. We watch the sun’s declining arc and the rise of Orion’s Belt. The moon is never more apparent. Stars offer distant memory of light created eons ago. Beneath such inspiring night skies and during shorter days are fertile grounds. Feet planted upon the earth, eyes looking upward, we coddle our plants. We know they adjust to cold. Let’s enjoy the protection developed over centuries before artificial light and heating systems. There is a simple answer within the urban gardeners grasp. It’s the cold frame. 

Perhaps you have a spot already; one facing the south and protected from the north. The urge is present; you’ve anticipated a hard frost to kill off the once grand coleus. Fall is all around us, annuals offer spent blooms full of seed. I’ve gathered favorite zinnias deliberately left alone to develop a multitude of promises. They winter over just fine in large manila envelopes hung on a line in the dry basement. Verbena, marigold, sunflowers, coreopsis, morning glories and so many others fill manila envelopes found in the office. They’re filled with lines for send to and from, finally down to the last address, “the garden”.  Delivery?  It’s after the last frost. Hope has many destinations.

Yet some plants are unsuitable for bring indoors. Do not despair. With a bit of ingenuity, a few nails and a grin, there is a quiet alternative. Look for where the sun lovers rejoice, the tomatoes, basil and peppers, the sunflowers and roses paid full homage, where the sun’s beneficent glow remains. Nothing is more adaptable for capturing the sun’s complex measures of light and heat than the cold frame. The earth’s natural warmth, fueled from deep within, is present only a few feet beneath our feet. Combine the two energies and already you’re ahead of the game. Next is to protect from chilling winter gales. Our prevailing winter winds are from the northeast and northwest. Keep this in mind. We’re going to shield the tender and resilient. 

Imagination is your strongest asset. Urban gardeners have many resources at their doorsteps. Homeowners replace old windows and glass doors with more energy efficient products. Often the old windows are carefully arranged on the sidewalk, the taboo of breaking glass preserves window panes from breakage. Re-purpose the dismissed old and renew. Their usefulness is still strong. Years ago I harvested a motley crew of window frames and brought them to the garden. Resurrected, they are now clobbered together with a minimum of nails to form boxes and rectangle islands of micro climates.  

Community garden plots are perfect for cold frames. Already plotted out in raised beds they are ripe for the weekend do it yourself. I took a couple solid but very ordinary old doors, replete with glass knobs and brass locks and put them end to end oriented east to west. Dug in a few inches into the soil, each end has a window frame nailed to the doors at right angles. I eyeball this construction. More thoughtful folks may devise more precise structures, like all enterprising gardeners I free old windows destined for purgatory in the landfill for further life. I’m ok with a bit of whimsy and mismatch, my purpose is within.

Cover the box like structures with window frames, ultimately you’ll have a space blind to the northern cold but receptive to the winter sunshine. Make this frame as draft free as possible. In the race to achieve a protected space before cold settles in we must move along. I leave the covering topside windows unfastened for easy access. Inside, cultivate the soil. Loosen the soil. Sometimes, fall planted kale, spinach, endive, lettuces, parsley and arugala are already established. Box them in with cold frames. 

I move leeks from their permanent bed to the cold frame. The many seedlings from last summer’s bloom have had a few months to establish themselves in thick clumps. Gently dig under and around them, lift the clump to the cold frame. In short trenches 6-8 inches deep I mix in compost, bonemeal, a little peat and perlite. Kindly separate the leeks. Try not to bruise these staples of fine eating. Plant each stalk deeply with compassionate concern for their white roots, don’t away shake soil from the tender roots.  Space a few inches apart and fill in the trenches with your best composted enriched soil, firm up and water. Plant rather close. As removed, tuck in the soil and the remaining leeks will fill in the empty space. 

Thickly seed in kale, lettuce, spinach, and other spring greens. Bury potted tender plants, such as rosemary and lemon verbena. Make pencil thick, slant edged cuttings from the growing ends of your favorite fruit trees and shrubs. Moisten and dust with rooting hormone.  Apples, pears, peaches and apricots will root in cold frames. Before long your cold frame will be an oasis of green growing plants. After the winter equinox days will lengthen. The green is more apparent as snow covers the rest of the garden.

 I barricade the north side with mounds of leaves layered with a bit of topsoil for insulation or stack bales of hay. Winter’s frozen fingers will reach around the cold frame. Don’t fear, inside the glass windows, once destined for the landfill trap the sun’s heat passively. Warmth from the earth’s core will defy frost in the ground. 

Have some fun: pot up your favorite spring bulbs such as daffodils or tulips and bury into the soil within the cold frame. Take out a pot every couple weeks into winter, water and place in a sunny spot inside the house. Nothing cheers the soul or the urban gardener like frisky forced blooms. Cold frames live up to promises. Why not build truth into your garden? All are better for it. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit tree.


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