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How to Build a Cold Frame: Tips for Cold Frame Gardening | The Old Farmer's Almanac

How to Build a Cold Frame

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Extend Your Season with a DIY Cold Frame

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Cold frames let you extend the growing season by sheltering vegetables from cold weather. We’ll show you how to make a cold frame to see if cold frame gardening is right for you!

What Are Cold Frames?

At their simplest, cold frames are bottomless boxes that are set over plants in the garden to protect them from adverse weather. They are usually built low to the ground and have a transparent roof to let in light and a hinge for easy access.

Cold frame and hoop houses

Why Use a Cold Frame?

Cold frames protect plants from strong winds and retain heat. Gardeners use cold frames to extend their gardening season—both in the autumn to protect plants for a few more weeks and in the spring to get a jumpstart on sowing seeds. Cold frames are also used to “harden off” seedlings that were started indoors.

  • Try sowing seeds of crops such as radish, lettuce, endive, and scallions directly in the frame for an early or late harvest.
  • You can even raise them there all summer as long as the cover is removed when warm weather arrives.
  • Consider growing winter lettuces or other salad greens, like spinach or kale.

How to Make a Cold Frame

Cold frames can be bought or constructed from timber and plastic, but concrete blocks or bricks can also be used. You can even construct a simple, bottomless wooden box and set it in the garden or atop other good soil in a sunny location. Watch our video, below, for step-by-step building instructions!

Cold Frame Building Tips

  • Most gardeners use wood to build the frame, since it’s readily available and is easy to cut to the required size using hand tools. If you’re lucky enough to find scraps of hardwood, then use this, as it will last longer than softwood.
  • Avoid old wood that’s been treated with creosote or similar non-earth-friendly products, especially if you’ll be positioning the cold frame directly on the soil. The wood can always be painted with a non-toxic paint if you’re worried about it looking scruffy.
  • Top the box either with glass (perhaps an old storm window) or a frame covered with clear plastic. Thicker materials will provide more insulation, of course. Old windows and shower doors are classic subjects for this project. Hinge the cover or add a sliding lid so that it may be opened for ventilation on warm days.
  • If you have high-sided raised beds, you could add a sheet of glass on top to construct a temporary cold frame.
  • Temporary frames or “cloches” can also be made by leaning old storm windows tent-style over the plants along the length of the garden row.
  • For those of us with limited time and/or DIY skills, try cutting the bottoms out of plastic milk jugs and placing them over individual plants, holding the jugs in place with mounded soil. During sunny days, remove the caps for ventilation.

Cold frames and hot beds

How to Make a Hot Bed

A hot bed is a cold frame that is heated. Some gardeners use electric heating tape or cables, but the age-old method of using horse manure or compost works well, too. 

  • For a nonelectric hot bed, excavate 18 to 24 inches under the frame and add fresh manure or compost.
  • Turn and moisten this material every couple of days for a week until it settles, then cover it with 6 inches of soil.
  • As the manure or compost decomposes, it will generate enough heat to protect against early or late frosts.

See our video with step-by-step instructions on how to build a cold frame.

Do you use a cold frame or hot bed in your garden? Share your technique in the comments below!

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