Winter Garden Warm-up

THE REAL DIRT

December 06, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

As the holidays near, I prepare to gather Christmas greens.

Let others deck the halls with boughs of holly. The greens of my dreams will be piled on my plate beneath an avalanche of French dressing. It's salad greens that I crave, garden-fresh vegetables to celebrate the carving of Big Bird at Christmas.

My greens should be ready to harvest by then.

Forget plummeting temperatures -- the spinach is thriving in the back yard. Despite howling winds, I sleep undisturbed as visions of lettuce leaves dance in my head.

Winter doesn't worry me, because I have a cold frame.

A cold frame is a bottomless box with a transparent lid, made for growing veggies in harsh climates.

In fall, I place the cold frame over the best soil in the garden and sow the seeds of my favorite salad greens. The seeds germinate quickly because they've been duped into thinking it's spring. The ground outside may be as hard as a hockey rink, but inside the cold frame it's soft and loamy. What a trick to play on Mother Nature, who can't get her chilly mitts on my plants. The cold frame keeps my iceberg lettuce from becoming an iceberg.

It's a simple yet effective device. A cold frame can be made from scrap lumber, or purchased at a garden shop. It can be as primitive as a pile of cinder blocks covered with an old window sash, or as sophisticated as a $120 fiberglass box with a solar-powered lid opener.

Cold frames are mini-greenhouses that use the sun's rays to warm the plants. But because they are small (about 10 square feet), cold frames can easily overheat without proper venting. Even on bright, chilly days, temperatures inside a well-built cold frame can reach 100 degrees unless the top is propped open.

The fact is, owners of cold frames should treat their plants as they would their pets. Would you leave the dog in the car without cracking a window? Spinach deserves the same consideration.

My cold frame, made of corrugated plastic, has an automatic venting device that raises the top several inches when heat threatens my plants. However, the top will not open if something is weighing it down -- in this case Timmy, our aging alley cat, who likes to sprawl on the cold frame to warm his old bones. Twice I've had to chase Timmy off the lid, lest the plants suffocate below.

Once, to discourage the cat, I removed the lid altogether. That same day, while gathering herbs from the cold frame, I was attacked savagely by the chives. Too late, I found Timmy hiding behind the clump.

The cat isn't the only creature to explore the cold frame. It's a petting zoo for every box turtle and toad that our 11-year-old can find. Of course, none of them is allowed to enter without having been fed. The last thing I want strolling through my lettuce is a hungry turtle.

Toads I'll tolerate, since the cold frame has become a haven for insects. I've trudged through snow to harvest kale, only to find the leaves covered with aphids which, seeking refuge from the cold, hitchhiked inside on transplants.

Who can blame the bugs? A cold frame can add 30 degrees to the temperature and two months to the growing season.

On frigid nights, when the mercury dips near zero, I'll surround the cold frame with bales of hay, and cover the top with old blankets. Some folks coddle their automobile batteries in cold weather. I'm more concerned with the cold frame than with the family car.

I fondly remember my first cold frame, made of cheap plywood 20 years ago. I was living at home at the time. My carpentry skills are legendary: The nails stuck out at crazy angles, and the sides wobbled and creaked. But I covered that cold frame with an old storm window and placed it in the garden.

When the lettuce germinated, I invited my fiancee to examine my handiwork. She admired the cold frame for a while, then sat on its edge to rest. The box collapsed, the glass broke and my lettuce was ruined.

Meanwhile, my mother took my fiancee inside to examine her seat for slivers.

We had to get married after that.

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