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How do I build a cold frame?

Farm and Garden: A reader has asked about building a cold frame to get a head start on a garden. Here are a few tips.

Curt Arens

January 11, 2024

2 Min Read
Man building a cold frame
SIMPLE PLAN: Easy and simple to build and install, cold frames can jump-start your early-spring garden season, even in colder climates. krblokhin/Getty Images

How do I build a cold frame? When I was a kid, our family worked a huge garden with my grandparents. Part of growing a successful garden, my grandmother used to say, is getting a good start.

In the cold country of the Northern Plains, snow might linger on the ground into late April, and it isn’t that uncommon to receive snowfall in early May — as most Nebraska farmers know quite well. Getting a garden started under those conditions can be challenging. That’s where a cold frame comes in handy.

We built one into the ground near our garden — simply a bottomless box made of old wooden planks, using recycled storm windows as the “roof” of the box to capture the sunlight. Solar energy coming through the old windows, or a transparent “roof” of some kind, warms early-planted seeds and protects those early vegetables from the wind and cold temperatures.

Extend the season

As another way to extend the gardening season, cold frames offer gardeners the ability to start their own garden plants from seed in the spring, or to extend the growing season well past the first hard freeze in the fall. Many expert gardeners suggest seeding crops such as radishes or lettuce, and perhaps salad greens like kale and spinach in a cold frame.

Building a cold frame is not difficult. You can purchase prefabricated versions if you like, but the frame of the box can be made at home using old boards, plastic, or even concrete blocks or bricks leftover from a landscaping project. Be sure to set up the cold frame structure on a site with good soil and sunshine.

Recycled materials

For building materials, you’ll want to avoid boards that have been treated with creosote, for instance. You can top the box with old windows, as we did in my youth, or you can use a frame covered with clear plastic — keeping in mind that thicker materials will keep the cold frame warmer and will be less subject to damage from storms, wind and wild critters that may roam about.

If you use windows or other recycled materials, you can hinge the “roof top” if you like, or simply slide them off to the side when you are working your early garden. It doesn’t have to look pretty to be effective. Wooden-box cold frames can be painted to protect them from the elements and deterioration over time.

Please email your farmstead landscaping, turf, forestry or gardening questions to [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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