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Extend the Garden Season with a Cold Frame

Cold frames for starting seeds - Tractor Supply Co.

Are you antsy to get out into the garden, even as early as February? Are you sad when you harvest your last lettuce in the fall? You can extend your growing season with a simple "mini-greenhouse" structure called a cold frame. There's no rule about the size, shape or materials used to make cold frames. And although you can buy kits, you can also easily assemble cold frames yourself.

What Is a Cold Frame?

A cold frame is a structure, usually no taller than 4 ft., that sits directly on the soil and is used to raise the temperature of the air inside the frame and the soil under it. Cold frames work like small greenhouses, multiplying the heat of the sun as it shines through the top. Cold frames always have a clear or nearly clear top called the "light." Old storm windows or storm doors are often repurposed for this use. The sides of a cold frame can be clear (made from Plexiglas, poly or glass) or of thicker, more insulating materials (such as straw bales or cinder blocks). In the coolest areas (where temperatures are below 32 degrees for months), insulated sides are especially important for extending the seasons. Cold frames can be small and portable, or stationary—built as appendages to the sides of garden sheds or houses.

How Do Cold Frames Work?

Cold frames work by trapping and retaining the heat from the sun, elevating humidity around plants, and protecting plants from cold winter winds. Cold frames don't keep temperatures consistently elevated the way large, heated "hothouses" (greenhouses) can. In a cold frame, the temperature is usually 10 to 20 degrees above the outdoor temperature. On sunny days, the temperature inside a cold frame can increase enough to "cook" your plants, so all good cold frame building plans include instructions for a "vent" system. This can be as low-tech as using a piece of 2 × 4 to prop open the glass top during the day.

Get the Most out of Your Cold Frame

To use a cold frame in the garden, you must select the most suitable plants. Some vegetables are sensitive to chilling (they stop growing or decline when temperatures are lower than 50 degrees). Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other warm-weather vegetables aren't good cold frame candidates (unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, where there simply aren't enough heat hours to grow these without a cold frame).

Cool-weather vegetables like lettuce, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, greens (mustard, collards, arugula), cauliflower, kale, parsley, celery and Swiss chard work well in cold frames. For winter harvesting, plant transplants of these vegetables in the cold frame in late summer. Leave the lid up to prevent temperatures from rising above 70 degrees. Once the plants are established, they'll be ready for cold weather.

Cold frames can give you a jump start on the spring season. Plant transplants of cold-weather vegetables in your cold frame once outside daytime temperatures are regularly at least 35 to 40 degrees.