Cold Frames and Cloches

Cold frames are simple devices that are versatile and can help you all year long. I know that we usually think about these things in terms of getting our seedlings started in the spring, but they also help promote protection in the summer, extend the season into the fall, and can allow us to harvest vegetables even in the winter. And, they're great seed starters any time of the year.

A key element of my plans for greater self-sufficiency includes being able to harvest long after the summer season is over. If you build a framed device like these, you'll be able to do much the same. Wouldn't it be nice to forget about the higher cost of produce in the winter and simply enjoy something fresh from your garden? I think so.

I know it seems unlikely, but a cloche (pronounced clo-shh), row covers and cold frames can be a year-round helper to protect against frost, hail, storms, critters, bitter cold and high winds. It's relatively easy to create your own, and simple cloches cost almost nothing to construct.

Let's look at the principles and advantages of these devices so we'll understand how best to use them.

They Offer Physical Protection

Whether you have tender young plants, healthy growing plants, or a crop that's getting ready to harvest, they could all use a little protection from the elements. Simple cloches or cold frames can help you in this regard.

Here in Wyoming, we have high winds that will bend plants over and dry them out. We also have more occurrences of hail each year than anywhere else in the United States. Providing plants with physical protection is a must if we're going to keep them healthy and producing food for us.

When I lived in Michigan, we would have rain that lasted for days on end, sometimes a good hard rain. This type of precipitation can knock plants to the ground and wash soil away from surface roots. Protection for the plants is helpful to minimize the effects of such weather.

Only the smallest and most persistent of critters will get into your cold frames and cloches to nibble away on your plants. I have trouble with mice, but a tightly closed cloche helps keep them out. A framed protective structure can foil rabbits and birds as well. Having problems keeping your dog out of your garden? If it's contained within a protective frame, you have the problem nearly solved. There is nothing that says you can open up the top of your protective frame and let the sun shine in. A top of poultry netting can discourage most animals from traipsing through your vegetables.

Here's how to make a cloche for next to nothing in terms of cost.

Moisture is Retained

In climates where warmth and wind help dry out the soil, frames and cloches can help retain moisture.

This is especially important when first planting seeds and trying to grow seedlings. There is little danger of overheating the soil and killing young plants by trapping in heat from the sun, so sealing things up with framed-in protection helps warm the soil and keep moisture right where it's needed to sprout the seeds.

For mature vegetable plants, it's probably not a good idea to have a humid environment, as it tends to promote diseases, but it's a good thing for small seedlings. Just be sure to wean the seedlings off the humid environment a little at a time. If you try to take them out of the moist environment and into a relatively dry one, they'll be shocked and could possibly die. Let them get used to the change in environment a little at a time, perhaps over three to four days.

When warmer weather comes, you'll want to make certain the cover is vented to keep plants from wilting under the higher temperatures that can be generated in these miniature greenhouses.

Miniature Greenhouse

The overall advantage of cloches or cold frames is that you're creating a type of greenhouse for your plants or seedlings. It's essentially a miniature greenhouse that is manually operated. That means it offers the same type of protection, moisture retention and multiplication of the sun's efforts as would occur in a larger greenhouse, only in a much smaller structure.

Keep in mind that cloches and similar devices will heat up and cool down very quickly, within minutes, so regulation of the inside temperature will be tricky. And, it most likely will be a manual activity.

Here's an example of a seedling greenhouse that is really a poor man's cloche. Nevertheless, it works well to achieve the objective of extending the season.

Having these miniature greenhouses will allow you to grow earlier than normal, later than normal, and with cold hardy vegetables, you'll be able to harvest in the winter as well...long after your summer vegetables are on the compost pile.

Here's how to make a coldframe from wood with a hinged lid.

As shown in this article, I suggest you make your own cloche out of whatever you think might work.

A Clear Thermal Blanket

Cloches and cold frames offer a type of clear thermal blanket for a small grouping of plants or a single plant. They help trap in the warmth of the sun and that heats up the soil and air inside.

The blanket effect isn't quite what one might expect from a blanket because we're only talking about a single layer of plastic, so its insulating effects are from trapping "dead" air inside. Air that isn't moving can't transfer heat as well, so that's how heat is retained.

To boost the thermal blanket effect after the sun goes down, cover your cloches or cold frames with old sleeping blankets, sheets, towels, old blankets or other material that offers some type of insulation. It will slow down the release of warmth as well as the intrusion of colder air.

Cold Frames and Cloches - their drawbacks

It's only fair to list the potential drawbacks of cold frames and cloches as there are some to keep in mind. Here they are with brief explanations:

Here's an approach to building a cold frame that's manually regulated but relatively easy to adjust. This should be a good way to keep from cooking your plants while giving them adequate protection from the elements.

Great Little Garden Helpers

So, if you're inclined to get a head start, extend the season, or garden "out of season," cloches and cold frames are probably just what you'll want to employ. They are quick and easy to make, and allow you to get a head start on the season.

Best of all, they don't have to be expensive, so your vegetable gardening interests will be fully supported by these little enclosures at a small price tag. Whether you use wood, PVC, wood and steel, or just make a plastic tepee over your plants, you'll enjoy the advantages that cold frames and cloches afford you.

Done with Cold Frames and Cloches, take me Home

Cold frames and cloches and row covers can be quite valuable for starting your plants and extending their growing season.

In the event you're looking for more help than I'm offering, here are additional resources that might be of interest to you.