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Growing Vegetables in a Cold Frame or Hot Bed

Imagine harvesting fresh lettuce, spinach, radishes, green onions, potatoes, and other vegetables from your own garden this winter. In fact, you could have a fresh homegrown salad and select vegetables just about anytime. Yes, it's possible, if you grow your own vegetables in a cold frame or hot bed. Cold frames are easy to construct, take very little care, and can provide you with fresh vegetables throughout the fall, winter and spring seasons. With the proper construction and use of a cold frame it is possible to have fresh vegetables from your own garden all twelve months of the year.

HOT BEDS
You can turn your cold frame into a hot bed by simply submerging a heating cable into the soil in your cold frame. Actually, a light globe, lit on a cool night will even help to provide warmth to your winter crops. The heating cable will also be of great value in helping root winter cuttings or start new seedlings. Of course, the heat will also help the winter vegetable crops to maturity quicker. This may allow you to harvest a larger crop.

MATERIAL FOR A COLD FRAME
You might have the neccessary building materials on hand, or you can easily purchase them, or obtain what you need from a salvage yard.
The size doesn't make any difference. Start with an old window sash or aluminum/glass doorframe, then build the box to those dimension's. For example, if the window sash is 36 inches wide and 6 feet long, that's the size you want to make the frame. If the sash does not have glass in it, you can replace the window opening with greenhouse glass, insulated window glass, fiberglass, polyethylene or a similar material.
It's best to use sound sturdy 2 by 8's, 2 by 10's, or 2 by 12's, to construct the sides of the cold frame. Use 2 by 2's, or 4 by 4's for the corners. Use 2 x 4's, layed flat for the top of the walls. You can use new wood or to keep costs down by using any used lumber what you have on hand, or buy second grade lumber.
If you have a mole problem in the area chosen for your cold frame site, line the bottom of the cold frame with wire cloth to seal the bottom of the cold frame or hot bed. We use the wire cloth, with 1/4 inch holes. This prevents the mice from following into the mole holes into the cold frame, or hot bed to eat our potatoes or other vegetables.

PLACEMENT OF THE COLD FRAME
The cold frame should face south for maximum sunlight and with at least six hours exposure. The cold frame window should have at least a 10 percent angle for added sunlight exposure. If a southern exposure is not available the second choice would be a western exposure. Third choice would be an eastern exposure and the least desirable would be a northern exposure. Also a reflector may be used to help direct the sun's light and heat toward the cold frame. When possible select a site with a slight forward facing slope, for better drainage during heavy rains. If necessary, a drainage ditch should be dug to help drain away excessive rain, before it soaks into your cold frame.

BUILDING A COLD FRAME
You don't have to be a skilled carpenter in order to construct a cold frame. Either place the cold frame on top of the ground or build it into the ground. You will find you will get better insulation if it is at least built partly below ground level. If the cold frame faces south, build the cold frame so it is higher in the back (the north side) and lower in the front (the south side). The cold frame window should have at least a 10 percent angle for added sunlight exposure. Ideal dimensions would be approximately 18 inches at the back and 12 at the front. This provides a good angle for sun exposure and a slope for excessive rain to drain off.
Place the cold frame window on top of this frame, fastening it in place with hinges on the high end, the north side. Be sure that the window lines up closely with the edges of the cold frame.

SOIL PREPARATION FOR PLANTING
Prepare the soil to a depth of 12 to 18 inches. Mixing compost, processed manure, peat moss or other forms of organic humus with your existing soil to create a good fertile soil. Or, if your soil is quite poor you may want to start with a premixed commercial planting soil. You probably will find it necessary to renew the soil every year or two.

COLD WEATHER PROTECTION
If winter weather gets exceptionally cold, say down into the low twenties or teens, you will need to cover the cold frame with foam insulation panels, layers of burlap bags, or thick old blankets to provide added protection during the cold spell. Then once the cold weather has subsided, the covering material should be removed. Of course, if you have added a heating cable that will help some, but probably not enough heat to save your vegetables, so covering with insulating material during really cold weather is still required.

WARM WEATHER CARE
On a warm sunny day, during the fall, winter or early spring it will be necessary to open the window sash for ventilation. You can use a stick or wedge, or any similar material to prop it open. Also, during the warmer early fall and early spring months it may get too hot, making it necessary to cover the window sash with a shade cloth, or by treating the glass with a lime wash, to provide additional shade and cooler temperatures for your plants.

WATERING PLANTS IN A COLD FRAME
Experiment a little to determine how frequently to water your cold frame because the watering requirements will vary from day to day and season to season. Generally, during the winter season the cold frame will only need to be watered once a week. Or you can let Mother Nature do the job by opening the top of your cold frame on a warm rainy day.

FERTILIZING
If the soil is prepared properly, there should be little or no need for feeding during the winter. The exception may be leaf crops, like lettuce, spinach and chard. A light feeding of an organic type 'Vegetable Garden' fertilizer two or three weeks after planting would be beneficial.

SLUGS
The warmth of the cold frame may attract slugs, so be on the lookout for them and take appropriate steps to keep them under control before they become a problem.

BEST VEGETABLES TO GROW IN YOUR COLD FRAME
Leaf lettuce is undoubtedly the best crop to grow. It grows rapidly and abundantly in a cold frame. And, there's nothing like fresh, nutritious greens, picked from your own garden during cold winter weather. Spinach is also an excellent green to grow. Other crops that grow exceptional well in cold frames or hot beds are green onions, radishes, and chard, round or little finger carrots, little fingerling potatoes, endive and other greens. As you become more familiar with using your cold frame/hot bed, you will undoubtedly want experiment with other vegetables as well.

IN SUMMARY
Cold frames and hot beds can be used to extent the growing season for vegetables such as potatoes, cabbage, and squash. Just plant late pototoes varieties, cabbages, pickles, and squshes in the cold frames or hot beds. Schedule their planting so that they can be harvested later, after the vegetables in the garden are done growing and are harvested.

In addition to growing vegetables, a cold frame or hot bed is an excellent place to start new seeds in springtime or to take cuttings in the fall and winter months of your favorite evergreen plants. In fact, the propagation of new plants, including rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas and other broad-leafed and conifer evergreens, can take place in a cold frame. The cuttings can be taken any time from September until early February. You will find the cuttings will root better with bottom heat from a submerged heating cable.

If you want to cut costs this winter and grow some of your own produce, now would be an excellent time to build your own cold frame or hot bed.
If you have not built cold frames before or you would to learn more, the Storey Country Wisdom Bulletin, Buiding & Using Cold Frames: Garden Way Publising Bulletin A-39, would be helpful.
A copy can be borrowed from your local Library, or your own copy can be purchased through our bookstore, Lübeck Haus Bookstore. Link just below.

If time is a problem in building your own cold frame or a hot bed, some specialty suppliers offer nice looking, pre-made insulated cold frames and hot beds, including accessaries.

Storey Country Wisdom Bulletins

Lübeck Haus Bookstore offers a selection of Storey Country Wisdom Bulletins.
Storey country bulletins offer practical, hands-on instructions designed to help you learn how to master dozens of country living skills quickly and easily.
Since 1973, these popular 32-page publications with more than 200 titles in this series, have helped the reader to develop their skills needed for country living. From traditional skills to the newest techniques, Storey’s Bulletins provide a foundation of earth-friendly information for the way you want to live today.
Bulletin categories include: Animals & Farming, Crafts, Equine, Food & Drink, Gardening, House & Home, Nature & Outdoors, Pets, and Well-Being.

Click on Storey Country Wisdom Bulletins

Gardening Books And Tools

Lübeck Haus Bookstore has many books on gardening, plant propagation, and building outdoor structures. And gardening tools and gardening equipment.

Utility Links

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This page was revised and last updated September 24, 2015.