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Urban Gardener: Cold Frames Save the Day

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Cold frames: The tried and true solution to sudden plunges in temperature.

April is the cruelest month. We look forward to spring and see grass greening and happily listen to birdsong in the morning. Bright daffodils punctuate borders and odd spots hidden by brighter summer days. Jonny jump ups beguile fantasy. Inspiration springs forward. Lettuces planted peas in the ground, successive plantings on the charts and we emerge from heavy coats into sweatshirts. Ah, lovely spring. We put cuttings from tender houseplants into pots and move them outdoors.

Then some errant polar vortex gets lost and swirls south. Heavy rains are welcome. The seeds are all set. The rain turns colder and colder translations coat everything in a shining layer of sleet and ice. Loss and doom darken gardener’s dreams. Green paradise seems just so much fantasy. Is there hope?

The cold frame solution

Yes, Martha. Let’s take a look at the tried and true solution to sudden plunges in temperature. Long ago gardeners adapted the natural warmth of the ground. We build cold frames to protect and nourish the new life during cold spells. This is not magic but it is a method that produces results for urban gardeners of every stripe. Small or large, the cold frame is simple, affordable, and the go to garden project on a scale accessible to all.

A cold frame is usually a temporary shelter for those months when freezing temperatures are likely and beyond. Mine are made of mostly found materials: last fall’s bales of hay that surrounded the compost heap are still cohesive. I used four bales to form a hollow square and re-cycled an old storm window found on the sidewalk a few years ago as a cover. There is no frost in the ground now, the true culprit is cold air manifest as gales blowing into the garden and carrying off ambient heat. Beneath the soil our planet is actually a constant 55 degrees. A cold frame shields plants from wind and harvests the natural upward movement of heat towards the surface.

A wide range of plants thrive in protected circumstances far shorter than a green house. Cold frames need not be large or permanent. Rather, adapt the frame to your personal garden. A cold frame is a successful way to nurture seedlings and harden off transplants before final planting. This is a way that works. Bales of hay for summer mulches are my favorite cold frame walls. Just high enough to shelter potted plants and not overtake the garden; the bales continue their slow translation into compost.

Many nursery plants arrive in very small pots or bare rooted. For example, I enjoy growing roses. The industrialized packaging of roses delivers a plant with waxed stems and smidgeon of potting soil. I transplant the 2 year old cuttings into 2 gallon plastic pots that have seen a lot of transplanting and show no signs of decay or breakage. A broken shard from a clay pot covers the bottom hole and I fill with a mixture of garden soil, compost, peat, and my all-time personal favorite, bone meal. The re-potted cuttings are carefully positioned in the middle of the pot and presto, have room to grow but none of the hazards of the open garden, such as playful children and pets.

Positioning and usage tips

Position your cold frame with an eye to the sun and the future. The roses survived the sleet and frozen rain under the old storm window just fine. I remove the mulch under them and pack the pots closely together but with room for leaf growth. They are in constant contact with the soil beneath. Pay attention to watering. Keep the pots moist and let them drain directly into the soil beneath. Are there small gaps between the bales and glass? I trowel garden soil into the gaps and plug the frame as best as possible.

I treasure cold frames. They give some peace of mind to those of us who awaken to recently planted spider plant sprouts frozen on the porch steps. The roses, the goji berries, even a couple 2 year old pears from the nursery are tucked into the cold frame, safe and bright green. Despair fades away as quickly as the overnight sleet and snow. Hope returns. Yet there is more to this versatile cold frame.

Cuttings are a favorite propagation technique, as ancient as effective. Rootone, a root growth end using hormone commonly available in any garden center is well worth its cost. I dust virtually every transplant’s root system with it. Under the cold frame’s shelter the transplants thrive. They defy harsh weather and protect from brutal gales. A zone of tranquility nurtures the plants into the future.

Cold frames are fine for more than a holding ground for transplants. They also offer an early planting area for cool weather plants such as endive, arugala, lettuces, beets and kale. These plants are seeded directly into the ground beneath the covering glass window. It’s easy to understand that glass windows can be expanded into rows of covered ground at little or no cost. Keep an eye on the orientation of the cold frame with a constant bias towards the sun. Soon, warm weather will dominate the day and prevail through the night. Enjoy yourself and create a cold frame or two and discover a new way to cope with April’s cruelties. This too shall pass, the apricots are in bloom, the daffodils brave it out, crocus pleases the eye, and grass is greener. Hurrah!


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 trees.


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