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Frame Job

They had been buried under ice and snow for more than three months and I didn’t expect many survivors. Sometimes, close to 3 feet of snow interspersed with the solid strata of ice that accumulated above them. Temperatures had spent a good deal of time in the zero-and-below range. Despite the hard winter, when I opened the cold frame in my backyard there was a cheery green of life. There were a few casualties, but most of the plants I’d placed in the device last fall were sending out new tender leaves and ready to grow with spring’s strengthening light. I saw future homegrown salads in the forecast.

A cold frame is like a miniature passive-solar greenhouse. Its basic design is a frame with a transparent cover over it that allows light to enter. The back side of the frame is often higher than the front. The top slopes down toward the front, allowing more light in and facilitating the runoff of rain and melted snow.

Cold frames are generally dug into the earth, such that the soil level inside becomes lower than the level outside. Compost and other fertility enhancements are often added to enrich the soil inside cold frames, which have no bottom and remain open to the earth below. These semisubterranean structures insulate plants from frosty temperatures, buffeting winds, and frozen precipitants. The warmth of the soil and the heat of the sun help moderate cold-frame temperatures. These “solar boxes” can add productive weeks to the growing season.

The cold frame’s simplest, recycled-junk version is an old wooden storm window with its glass intact, sitting atop a frame of wood that has earth mounded up on all sides. I’ve learned from trying such a design that this technological minimalism can work amazingly well in adding to the veggie-growing days of the year.

I started experimenting with cold frames more than 20 years ago. I built my first one out of junk wood and made its transparent cover out of plastic sheeting stretched across and stapled to a wooden frame. Its dimensions were about 2 feet by 3 feet, with a back wall that was about twice the height of the front. I oriented it to face south, making the most of the low arc of the winter sun. Along the cold frame’s back wall I stacked plastic jugs of water painted black as a simple means to store some of the sun’s heat. As the fall earth cooled, I planted some lettuce seedlings inside and hoped for the best.

I found that the plants in the cold frame grew for a short period in the late fall and then went dormant. They remained green, but produced no new leaves during the short days and cold of winter. It seemed that the low light levels didn’t provide enough energy for growth. However, when the days lengthened as the calendar proceeded toward spring, the plants started growing again, and by the end of March a few small, tasty heads of lettuce began to form. The lettuce that wintered in my cold frame had grown better than it had in the previous spring’s garden. I was soon sold on cold frames.

Last August I started a number of cold-hardy leafy vegetables from seed, attempting to squeeze out a late fall harvest from my backyard garden. As October approached Halloween, I began to dig these plants out of the garden and transplant them into my current cold frame (a commercially available type constructed of quarter-inch double-walled plastic that I’ve used for 15 years). The plants had at least a month to adapt to their new environment before the cold and frozen precipitation began to set in. Among the veggies I transplanted into my cold frame were: Green Deer Tounge, Red Rollo and Green Salad Bowl lettuce varieties; tatsoi (a compact Asian mustard); mâche (also known as corn salad); cress and Red Russian kale. Together these added up to a healthy, winter-hardy salad. As the plants in the garden gave up their green to the frosty forces of fall, the cold-frame dwellers lived on.

Last Thanksgiving, I picked a small but much-appreciated salad from the cold frame. It was my last backyard salad of the year. Mixed with sprouts of alfalfa, broccoli, radish, mustard, mung bean, kale and fenugreek that I grew on the kitchen counter, it was a particularly nutritious (and totally homegrown) ending to the growing season. Soon temperatures dropped and the snow began to pile up. My cold frame disappeared for weeks at a time beneath drifts of white, which actually provided further insulation while letting light filter down to the tender greens below. As the light of day lengthened and the calendar moved toward spring, the plants began to actively convert sunshine into growth.

On the 23rd of March I picked my first salad of 2003. It included both the variety of greens and sprouts mentioned above, as well as the first tender pickings of some additional varieties of leafy vegetables I had started in pots in late February on shelves in the windows of my house. At the start of April, I transplanted some of these indoor plants to the cold frame, filling in available space. I will soon transplant these cold-frame veggies into the garden, freeing the space up for another important garden function.

I start a number of vegetables indoors, including tomatoes and chili peppers. These need to be eased into the outdoor environment in order to avoid severe and possibly mortal injury. My cold frame also functions as a short-term stop between the indoors and the outdoors where such plants can be more gradually “hardened off” to the temperatures, sunlight, wind and other conditions of the outside world. Meanwhile, I continue to pick leaves from my cold-frame veggies for some mighty-fine salads.

Thanks to my cold frame, I was able to celebrate Earth Day with a fresh salad of rich greens. Somehow, it seemed ever so right!

—Tom Nattell

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