Tag Archives: Soil

Cold Frames - Mini Greenhouses for New Seedlings

Notes From the Gardener

Richard Reading The Seed Catalogue
Richard Reading The Seed Catalogue


In this climate of ours where winters linger and springs are short, many gardeners employ cold frames to get a jump on the growing season. Cold frames are mini-greenhouses used to start new seedlings, or protect them from the cold of early spring. In fact, they are sometimes called "poor man's greenhouse" because they are cheap and simply constructed.

A cold frame can be something as simple as a wooden box with a sheet of glass placed over it, but most are constructed of four boards nailed together into a rectangle. To maximize the exposure to the sun, cold frames should be located in a southern exposure, preferably on a slope. Covers can be made of glass or plastic, but must shut tightly to protect young plants from freezing temperatures. Depending on the severity of the cold additional covering might be necessary, such as blankets, tar paper or pine needles.

Cold Frames

If you really want to get a jump on the season you can add a heat source to the cold frame. Here are three suggestions:

1.You can build your cold frame next to your house, adjacent to a cellar window. On very cold nights all that will be necessary to do is open the cellar window to allow heat from the house into the covered cold frame.

2.You can also deliver heat to a cold frame by stringing incandescent light bulbs into the interior. The number of bulbs you use and their wattage depends on the size of the cold frame. I have used 40 watt bulbs and found them sufficient.

3.Another method I have had success with, but requires more labor, is using the natural heat given off by composting manure. First, dig a pit 18" deep where the cold frame is to be located. Then fill this with moistened, fresh stable manure if available. After a few days turn the manure, moisten it if necessary, and cover with a few inches of soil. Locate the cold frame over the compost and heat from below will keep the soil and plants warm.

Cold frames must be watched carefully for cold is not the only danger. On a sunny day the heat in a closed cold frame can shrivel up tender seedlings in a very short time. So you must be prepared to remove or prop open cold frame covers on a sunny day and even provide shade using netting or cheesecloth if necessary.


Compost Chores and Garden Cleanup

Notes From the Gardener



As another growing season comes to a close, one of the major garden chores is the cleanup. All the spent plants are brought to the compost for use the following season when it will be returned to the soil. Perennials such as lavender, southernwood and sage are cut back to ground level, where next year's growth is evident on the old wood. What Penny doesn't use on her craft work also goes to the compost. Old squash vines, tomato plants, pepper plants - everything organic goes to the compost.

At first, Penny didn't understand my diligence in gathering organics for compost. She would throw her eyes skyward as I stopped the car at roadsides to put bagged leaves into the trunk. When I berated her for throwing egg shells and coffee grounds into the trash, she was sure I was obsessed. Now, however, Penny is equally diligent for she is schooled in the natural order.

How does one learn such things? By simply being still and observing. For instance, let me relate a recent occurrence. I was gathering together spent plants when I heard the geese overhead. My back needed stretching, so I stood erect and watched a large misshaped "vee" formation of Canada geese split and form two perfectly shaped "vee" groups directly overhead. As my entertainment was passing, a gust of wind drove a leaf so hard against my reddened ear that I "ouched" out loud. This brought my attention to the hundreds of leaves being loosed by the wind and brought to the earth where they were really starting to pile up. The forest floor was thick with them. My wondering brought me to ask where all the leaves went by summer's end. Well, they're eaten, of course. The leaves are actually consumed by a multitude of living things, ranging in size from microbes to earthworms. The leaves then become part of a soil that nurtures the trees above. It was at this point that I realized I was being given a lesson in organic gardening. These oak and pine are some of the largest plants on earth, but they sure don't need any 5-10-5.

When a tree breaks dormancy, the sap flows through its roots deep into the earth and gathers nutrients, delivering them high above to the new growth of leaves. Later the leaves fall. The leaves enrich the soil, the soil feeds the tree. Simple? You bet. I don't need to understand the processes by which organic compounds are broken down or altered. I leave that to those that it interests. My lesson has been this: when living things die they are returned to the soil, which is enriched and may now sustain new life. Simple.

I recall once reading how rains can leach nutrients from the topsoil into the subsoil so deep that they become "lost" or unavailable to plants because their roots just don't reach them. When I think of the depth that a large tree's roots reach into the earth, I realize how much of those "lost" nutrients are recovered and how nutrient laden leaves must be.

Our neighbor has just offered us his leaves again this year. Judging from the size of his place and the size of my truck, this will require numerous trips. Oh well, the thyme can be cut another day. Priorities. Some people shake their heads when they see me stockpiling leaves. I shake mine when I see people burning them.

A few lines from a favorite poem by Robert Frost come to mind.

"..I may load and unload

Again and again

Till I fill the whole shed,

And what have I then?


Next to nothing for weight:

And since they grew duller

From contact with earth,

Next to nothing for color.


Next to nothing for use,

But a crop is a crop,

And who's to say where

The harvest shall stop?"