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Cold Frames for an Early Start to Your Garden

Updated on March 23, 2020
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Gardening is my escape and my passion. Learn how to grow some vegetables right in your own backyard.

Garden Cold Frames - Extend Your Growing Season

Most gardeners are ready and raring to go in the early spring; seed catalogues have been flipped through and ordered from and you just want to get those vegetable seedlings in the ground! Whoa! It's too early so how do you quench the thirst for getting something growing? A cold frame is a good way to get started with the early garden, and works well with a raised bed garden in particular. Here is a look at some features to be mindful of when using a cold frame to start your garden.

From early seedlings - to this!
From early seedlings - to this!

Cold Frames

Jump Start Your Seedlings!

We all are looking for ways to get garden crops sooner, or get more of them. You can get an early jump by using a cold frame to start your seedlings.

If you live in the northern states, the gardening season seems like it may never start, and it's just too short for some long season warm weather vegetables like okra or some varieties of melons. For those in the south, it would seem that the growing season is long enough, but with the very hot summer months some crops just either won't survive the heat and dry weather, or even if they do survive, they won't produce much when temperatures get above 85 or 90 degrees. This includes some of the old standby favorites like tomatoes, lettuce, or even bell peppers.

While many vegetables can be started indoors, one problem with doing that is that they get acclimated to either greenhouse or indoor conditions and can be ill-suited to set out early in the season when the nighttime temperature swings can be at their most extreme. These tender seedlings can be easily damaged by temperatures close to freezing. One way to help them acclimate is to "harden them off" which is basically a methodology of slowly introducing them to the harsh outdoor environment.

The old standby tool for doing this is a cold frame. A cold frame is similar to a raised bed garden, as it can sit above the main garden, but it is covered with either a poly or glass window.

Cold Frame or Hot Bed?

Sounds fun, doesn't it?

A cold frame differs from a hot bed in that a hot bed usually incorporates an additional heating source, and doesn't depend only on the solar heating of the sun shining through the window like a greenhouse. These additional heat sources can be as varied as a simple resistance wire electric heater to situating the bed over a manure pile.

Cold frames can also be used to help perennials over winter in colder temperatures. Cold frames are a great addition to any gardeners arsenal, and can be made or purchased in a size to fit your specific gardening needs.

Building A Cold Frame - DIY

A cold frame can be made from a wide range of construction materials. The simplest might be to stack bales of hay around the planting bed and to place a discarded window from over the bales of hay. Or instead of bales of hay, a wooden box can be constructed to fit the window and form a tighter seal from outside air. You can improve the performance of the cold frame by adding weather stripping to reduce the air infiltration. The slightest bit of (freezing) cold air getting in will be doom to your plants!

If you are going to be using the frame in some warmer temperatures, it may be best to have the window on hinges so that it can be propped up to allow some air circulation and regulate the temperatures so that the plants inside don't over heat.

There are many commercial cold frames as well. Some are simple polyurethane tents that fit over just a few plants. Others are large raised beds that actually are designed to stay in place the whole gardening season, with a removable cover that is only there during the colder days of the growing season.

Repurposing and DIY All In One

Our friends live on 20 acres on the outskirts of an urban area. They are planning on converting this existing structure to a cold frame or greenhouse to start their seedlings. What a creative way to use a space already on the land!

Frost Dates and Spring Garden Calculator

Cold frames will indeed help you get your garden started early, but you must still be aware of the initial planting date and the first frost date for your area. These dates are an average time of when you can start to plant and when you can expect the first frost. Of course, Mother Nature is in charge so they are only guidelines for the area you live in. In our household, these dates are as commonly known as birthdays or holidays!!! If you do not know your regional information, use this very handy calculator by inserting your zip code.

Have You Used Cold Frames for Your Garden?

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