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Winter Gardening 101: Making and Using Cold Frames

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For some of us fall is the time of year we put the garden to rest and take some time off to recuperate. For others this is the time to sow the seeds that will produce our winter crops. I know that as people read this many of them are envisioning expensive greenhouses with fancy heating systems or other elaborate preparations. But things don’t have to be that way. Growing winter food does take some simple equipment, but beyond that it is not much harder than summer growing.

Cold Frame Basics

The basic equipment needed is called a cold frame. This can be made from a number of things or bought from an online dealer. I am trying to make my own since the ones I have seen listed for sale look too tall and too flimsy for me to want to deal with. This is beside the fact that I am too cheap to spend money on something so easily made at home.

The basic materials needed to make a cold frame are:

  • Clear plastic sheeting. Greenhouse plastic will last longer, but any sturdy plastic will do.
  • 2x4 or 2x6 lumber.
  • 2 ½ to 3 ½ inch wood screws.
  • A staple gun with staples.


  • Cut the lumber to 18 or 24 inches and screw the ends together to make a box.
  • Place the plastic sheeting over the open top of the box, fold the edges of the plastic down to the sides of the box and staple.

Glass or Plexiglas can be used, but they need the box to be cut to the specific size of the glass.

Using a Cold Frame

That was quick and easy. To use the cold frame take it out to the garden and place it plastic side up on the ground. Make sure the bottom is not sealed to the ground. Now move the cold frame, plant some lettuce or pea seeds, add a little water, and replace the frame. In most areas you will not need to add any more water. Most areas will require you to raise one edge of the frame 6 inches or more to prevent your plants from burning during warm days. You will likely get mice coming into the frames to get warm and pick off a quick winter meal, so plant more than you need. Unless, of course, you have a completely reliable cat for winter mousing.

Other Winter Gardening Methods

Other simple devices that can cheaply provide winter vegetables are cloches (aka bell glasses) and low tunnels. A cloche is just a low glass or plastic bowl shaped plant shelter that can protect a small cluster of plants or a single medium to large sized plant. A low tunnel is like a mini green house that is 12 to 18 inches tall. It is usually made out of greenhouse plastic and runs the length of whatever size traditional garden row you happen to have. It usually has a hoop frame made out of wire or thin PVC irrigation pipe.

I should note that a cold frame can grow most cool season plants through most of the winter and that the plants can be seeded up until December and the beginning of January. After you have a season under your belt with a few simple plants you will be ready to experiment to your heart’s content!

PS. Just as I was getting ready to make my cold frames a neighbor gave me some unused windows. I still have to put frames on them, but recycling old materials is much better and the glass can last many more years than plastic sheeting.


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