Get a Jump on Spring with a Simple Cold Frame

My father was the gardener in our family. An engineering professor by trade, he enjoyed the physical work and enjoyed the chance to spend some time outside. My mother did not appreciate “company” while she worked in the kitchen, so I became my father’s helper outdoors. We spent many years together back in the 30’s and 40’s, working out in the garden in Iowa.

Iowa had predictably long and harsh winters. To get a jump on spring planting, my father often constructed cold frames to start our seeds while it was still too cold to use the garden beds. He built the cold frames on the sunny south side of our white garage where there was plenty of ambient light and warmth, in a little pocket of shelter from the cold north winds.

The materialsold wooden window my father used were mostly scrounged from neighbors and friends. He would ask around for old storm windows from demolished building or renovations. He used the window measurements to determine the dimensions for his cold frames. He used distressed old 2 x 8 boards to construct the side walls as a rectangle, with corner posts for stability. He added a second rectangle of side walls on top of the first. The second (top) rectangle was tall in the back and short in the front so that the window on top was tilted forward at about a 30 degree angle. With the side walls built, all that remained was to attach the window to the top of the sidewalls using 3 large hinges on the top/back of the frame.

On warm and sunny days when the wind wasn’t blowing too cold, we could prop the window up to allow fresh air and unfiltered light in to the frames. The corner posts were tall enough that we could lift the window to whatever height was desired.  When it came time to harden the plants off, we gradually raised the windows until the plants inside were fully exposed to the sun and air.

My dad’s plants always got an early start in the cold frames on the south side of our garage back in Iowa. I learned a lot watching him build and use those old homemade cold frames. To this day I fondly remember my childhood gardening with him.


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