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11 March 2013

Considering a Cold Frame?

If you haven't previously thought about having a cold frame in your garden, you may be persuaded after reading the following article. Even if you only have a small garden you should be able to fit one in and get the benefit.

A cold frame is basically an unheated box which will give your seedlings and small plants protection from the elements while they develop prior to being planted in the garden. The size you choose will depend on the room you have available. If you already have a greenhouse it will allow you to move out plants which need hardening-off, leaving space for other crops.

Your cold frame needs to be sited in a sunny, sheltered spot to maximise the light and warmth that your plants receive. It doesn't need to be on a solid surface - mine is on a good layer of 20mm gravel. If placed next to the house, your cold frame will benefit from the warmth of the building.

You will need to check your cold frame regularly to see if anything needs watering and to look for slugs and other pests which will need removing before they can do too much damage. As the weather warms up you will need to open your frame to provide ventilation for your plants, but don't forget to close it at night to protect from low overnight temperatures.

There is a wide range of ready-made cold frames for sale, made from aluminium or wood with glass, polycarbonate or plastic for the lids. The cheapest ones have aluminium frames, which are lighter and require no maintenance, but should still last a lifetime. Wooden frames look more attractive than aliminium and are sturdier with better insulating properties but will cost you more. Glass is the best material for the lid of your cold frame but polycarbonate is the safer choice if you have children.

The cheaper option is to build your own cold frame, either from wood or bricks. You can have a smart-looking one using new bricks properly laid, with a glass lid in a hinged timber frame, or a rougher version made from reclaimed bricks or wooden pallets and salvaged windows. Mine comprises of bricks reclaimed from a skip, with the owner's permission, laid loose and with a reclaimed double-glazed window unit laid on top. The back wall is provided by my garden shed. If I have taller plants in the frame I just add another row of bricks. I found it useful for drying off my onions as I left some gaps between the bricks to allow more air through while keeping the rain off.

Now that you have your frame built/bought you can put it to work. In spring it can be used for early sowings of broad beans, sweet peas and lettuce in February and March, after which it can accommodate more vegetable plants, hardy and half-hardy annuals and tender bedding.

Summer is the ideal time to sow biennials such as stocks and sweet williams for next spring, as your cold frame will be empty. Just sow them in seed trays and leave them in your cold frame protected from the elements.

Autumn-sown hardy annuals will happily overwinter in your cold frame. Try an autumn sowing of winter lettuce, pea shoots and oriental leaves in planters to provide salads up to Christmas.

Succulents and alpines that don't like sitting in wet compost over winter can be kept dry in the cold frame, and it can also be used for storing plant cuttings through the year if you are into propagation.

You can see that for a relatively small outlay - or even no outlay - you can have something that, with a bit of forward planning, will work for you all year round. It makes you wonder why you didn't think about it sooner.

Happy gardening!!

Rob at
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