4 Cold Frames Tested; Find Out Which One Works Best

a-cold-frame-made-from-a-refrigerator“Where’s the fridge?”

“It’s in the back yard,” my husband gestured with his thumb. “We had an accident getting it off the moving truck.”

“How bad?”


We are new to growing, farming, permaculture, and reusing everything possible. Without any background in these things, we are gathering experiences through a lot of trial and a whole lot of error.

“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” I announced one night after dinner while my family was unpacking the winter harvest books. “As part of our home school, we’re going to experiment with different types of cold frames.”

“What’s a cold frame?” asked one of the small ones, right on cue.

“A place where we can grow food in the winter.” I went on to describe the kinds of cold frames we would try, and how they would work. “And the first thing we’re going to do is gut that broken refrigerator!”

Then came the chorus of “why?” I explained that the fridge was an insulated box – exactly what you want for keeping plants warm enough to grow in the winter.

“And it has to face south,” I explained, “so the plants can get as much of the sunshine as they can.”

Refrigerator Cold FrameIt took two days to strip the motor, the tubing, the shelves, ice maker, and drawers off the fridge. Most of the appliance’s internal organs were reusable, but we had to make a trip to the hazardous chemicals section of the dump to get rid of the refrigerant. When it was done, only the walls of the fridge remained. Grunting it onto a hand truck, I moved it down behind the barn where there is a southern exposure and laid it on its back.

Gravel from a local pit went in first, followed by well-aged fertilizer, courtesy of my friend’s horses, and finally top soil. We planted some hearty salad green seedlings from Pete, who runs a Mom and Pop nursery in the Shenandoah Valley where we live. It was late October when I covered the top of the refrigerator-turned-cold-frame with panes of glass rescued from a house rehab.

For the first weeks, I watered like an addict. But, soon I discovered the whole system recycled its own water and if I slid back the glass a few inches on warmer days, drips from the barn roof fell inside and kept everything damp.

A Cold Frame Made from a Storm DoorWonder of wonders – fresh salad at Thanksgiving dinner! Moment of honesty, here: the only seedlings Pete had left when I grabbed them in October were mostly spicy things like mustard and turnip greens and the kids won’t eat them. But I enjoyed them (slathered in salad dressing) because the wow factor was so huge. We even had a fresh salad at Christmas. Now there are broccoli and onions beginning to show growth, along with a healthy-looking turnip peeking its purple top out of the soil.

In the depths of January I added an old bed sheet over the top at night for added insulation from the cold.

At the same time we were preparing the fridge, I started to build another cold frame out of straw bales. I bought twenty rectangular bales of straw and put them outside the chicken coop in a rectangle around a small plot where I planted cabbage and kale. And you know what? When the chickens came out to free-range, they ate those cabbages and that kale along with the grapevines I had planted behind their coop. They proceeded to use the little plot as a nesting place.

Cold FrameSo, with the rest of the straw bales I build a bigger, better straw bale cold frame on the side of a south-facing hill, well away from the chickens. I snuggled new cabbage plants and even some strawberries into a thick bed of insulating straw with an old storm door for a cover. It didn’t fit perfectly, so another old window and a couple more bales of straw help keep out the cold on one side. Those cabbages are still growing inside, slowly. Some small creepy-crawly was eating holes in the leaves, so I added a layer of diatomaceous earth to wipe them out.

My third effort was an herb greenhouse, dug into the side of another south-facing hill. I reinforced the hill with saplings cut to size and then came up with a design to make use of some more glass from the same house rehab. As of late January, one oregano plant right next to the glass is not doing well, but everything else (lavender, sage, chamomile) is flourishing. I also cover this with a bed sheet on cold nights.

submerged coldframeMy final attempt was the only total failure. The object was to dig a hole, put in fresh manure and let it compost for a week, then cover it with topsoil and let the fermenting process warm the soil and thus the plants. The place where we dug the bed didn’t work out because it filled with water every time it rained or when snow melted. It makes a nice watering trough for the chickens, but it is not so great as a cold frame.

In the final analysis, the fridge-as-cold-frame has been a complete success. I intend to make more of these as I come across old appliances. I think I’ll find some greens that the kids find more appealing, and make freshly harvested salad a new holiday tradition!


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