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How to Build a Simple Cold Frame

| Prepare, Video

A simple cold frame is just what you need to get more out of your garden, from getting an early start coming into spring to extending your growing season well into fall and winter. Cold frames are easy to build — you can make one in an hour or two — and the materials are inexpensive. I’ll walk you through how to build a simple cold frame like the one I use in my own garden.

Slow-growing root crops like carrots and beets and greens like kale, spinach, arugula, lettuce and mustard all do well in cold frames, far beyond your local first frost date. The temperature inside the cold frame will typically stay between 5 and 10 degrees warmer than the temperature outside.

 

 

A cold frame is a box with an open bottom and a transparent lid that acts as a mini-greenhouse, collecting sunlight and trapping thermal energy. Placed over your garden bed, it creates a micro-environment that has warmer soil and is less subject to frost. Ideally, the cold frame should be positioned with the low end in a south-facing direction to maximize the sunlight and heat it collects.

For the lid, use glass (like an up-cycled used window sash), acrylic, a plastic sheet or another transparent material. Plastic sheets are convenient because they can be cut to fit any size cold frame. The same hinges that are used for a bedroom door are perfect for repurposing to attach the lid to the cold frame while still allowing easy access.

 

Opening cold frame lid

A cold frame lid will need to be opened and propped up for planting, inspection, venting and harvesting.

 

One side of the cold frame is taller than the other for two reasons. One, to provide the greatest opportunity to capture the sun’s rays, and second, to shed rain and snow, as well as leaf litter and other debris. You don’t want anything sitting atop the lid that will prevent sunlight from getting in.

 

Closed cold frame

Design the cold frame so that its top has an angle. There’s great exposure to the sun when placed in a south-facing position, and leaves and snow are less likely to collect on the lid and block the sun.

 

Cold frames get much hotter than you’d think, especially in fall when daytime temperatures can be warm and there are still several more hours of daylight than in winter. To avoid overheating your plants, which can promote “soft growth” that is easily damaged in winter, you should vent your cold frame. All it takes is lifting the lid in the morning and propping it open a few inches with a spare brick or scrap piece of wood. (To hold the lid up while harvesting, a stick or tall stake is useful.) Return before the sun goes down to close the lid so the micro-environment will stay warmer than the overnight temperature outside.

 

Lid of cold frame

There will be times that the lid will need to be propped open to allow excess heat to escape on warmer days.

 

Niki Jabbour, an author and gardening expert from Halifax, Nova Scotia, recommends venting any day the temperature outside is warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Once temperatures are consistently below 40, she keeps lids closed permanently — except for when she’s harvesting. 

The first step to building a simple cold frame is to determine the size that best fits your garden. If you have a 4-foot-by-8-foot raised garden bed, for instance, a 4-foot-by-4-foot cold frame will nicely fit over half of the bed while still being small enough so that it can be easily removed and stored in spring. If you plan to use a window sash for your project, you’ll have to build to the dimensions of your lid.

No matter your lid, you will need plywood, 1”x1” or 2”x2” lumber for the four corners, hinges and screws or nails.

When cutting the plywood, start with the shortest piece first, the front. Continuing to use the dimensions of a 4-foot-by-4-foot cold frame as an example, cut a piece of plywood to be 4 feet wide and 7 inches tall. For the back piece, cut 4 feet wide and 12 inches tall. The two remaining sides will be identical: 4 feet wide, flat on the bottom, 7 inches tall on one end, and 12 inches tall on the other.

For the four pieces of lumber that will secure the corners, cut two that are 6 inches tall, for the front, and two 11 inches tall, for the back. You want these corner pieces to be just slightly shorter than the box so they don’t interfere with closing the lid completely. Screw the box together.

 

Assembling a cold frame

Building a simple cold frame is easy and can usually be done with scrap lumber and other supplies you may have lying around the house, garage or shed.

 

If you are making a lid from scratch, the plan is to secure durable, clear plastic sheeting to a lid that matches the dimensions of the top of the box. Cut the 2”x2” lumber to the desired dimensions, roll out the plastic sheet and staple it on.

 

Plastic sheeting

Clear plastic sheeting provides a greenhouse-like effect, letting in sunlight but trapping warmth.

 

Cut off the extra plastic with a utility knife. To secure the plastic sheet further, nail trim pieces on top, so the plastic is sandwiched in between.

 

Adding trim to cold frame

Add trim to the top of the plastic sheeting to secure it in place.

 

Attach the lid to the back of the cold frame with the hinges. An extra 2″x2″ on the inside of the box will give the screws something sturdier to grip.

 

Adding hinges

Adding hinges will allow the lid to open and close and be propped up when needed. You can even use old recycled door hinges for this project.

 

Your cold frame can be smaller or larger to suit your garden, and it doesn’t need to be square either. It can also be taller, depending on what you intend to grow, but understand that larger cold frames will have a harder time keeping heat in.

If you’re placing the cold frame so that it rests on top of your raised bed frame, be sure to fill the gap between the soil level and the bottom of the cold frame so that you don’t lose any heat. Extra mulch or straw tucked into place, is an easy way to fill the void.

 

Joe Lamp'l and Todd Brock

Any gap between the cold frame and the soil should be filled with mulch or straw to prevent heat loss.

 

If you haven’t watched the video on building a simple cold frame yet, scroll up to see DIY expert Todd Brock show how it’s done.

Have you built a cold frame? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

022: The Year-round Vegetable Gardener with Niki Jabbour

172: Tips for Growing Cool-Season Vegetables in Fall

joegardener Online Gardening Academy: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Essential Gardening Fundamentals: The basics on healthy soil, planting, watering techniques, composting, raised bed and other gardening methods, fertilizer, the many benefits of mulch, and more.

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joegardener Facebook

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Growing a Greener World®

GGWTV YouTube

GGW Episode 1013: The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener 

Backyard Homesteading All-in-One for Dummies 

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*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Park Seed, and Exmark. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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