Cold Frames: What They Are and How To Use Them

Oh, the hubris in that title!

For the truth is, I am only a beginner when it comes to cold frames.

For eight years, I have thought about asking my husband to build one for me. I have even gone so far as to mention the idea from time to time, but I never took the step of sending him links to “diy cold frame tutorials” because I was never quite sure how to use them in my harsh winter / summer climate.

Were these tools perhaps best left to the English gardeners with their mild climate and cool summers? I feared that a cold frame would be insufficient in January and altogether too much in July, so why bother?


First: What is a cold frame?

It’s a bit like a small, unheated greenhouse.

A four-sided box is open on the bottom and topped with a removable pane of glass or clear plastic. The box can be placed on bare ground or on top of a raised bed. When the glass is lifted, seedlings and other vulnerable plants can be protected inside.

Second: How are they typically used?

Cold frames are used to protect plants from damaging weather: typically, cold and wet and wind.

They can be used to harden off seedlings as they help acclimatize them to outdoor conditions. Cold frames make a good way station between indoor growing lights and the outdoor garden. They can also be used to hold cold-hardy annuals like sweet peas that have been sown in fall but won’t be planted out until spring. This gives cool-season plants a head start.

Cold frames can protect potted bulbs from too much wet during the winter. They can also hold small plants grown from cuttings until they have grown enough to be planted out in the garden.

They can also be placed directly over soil–in the ground or in a raised bed–and seeds sown within, providing a protected environment for lettuces in cold weather, for instance.

Third: How will I use my cold frame?

No doubt I will learn through trial and error, but here are some of the ways I am already using my cold frame and how I intend to use them (yes, we are already building a second!) throughout this growing season:

  1. For growing trays of cold-tolerant seedlings like peas, sweet peas, violas, and pansies in order to save space under my growing lights for less cold-tolerant plants
  2. For hardening off all of the seedlings before planting them in the garden
  3. For holding pots of daffodil and tulip bulbs all winter, giving them some protection from cold and wet.
  4. For extending the season when I can grow salad crops: I will place over a raised bed and sow seeds directly
  5. I will remember to ventilate my cold frame–propping the top up on warm days–in order to circulate air and keep my plants from being burned


It’s true that I might not use my cold frame year-round here in my zone 6 Pennsylvania garden. July and August are probably too warm to ever need a cold frame, but I am beginning to understand how I might come to rely on a cold frame–or two, or three!–the other three seasons of the year.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Ready, Set, Grow: My Spring Garden Tasks

Don’t Clean Up Your Garden, Restart It

Are gardens dirty places?

I suppose they are, but that’s a good thing, surely. Why then do we talk about “cleaning up” our gardens for the next growing season?

“While the conclusion of winter brings about a necessary period of garden work, I prefer to think of this as a restart rather than a refresh. As the garden reenters an active period, how you steward the return of life should be the focus of your efforts.”

I read these words by Kelly Norris in his book New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden, and I love the subtle shift in perspective he offers.

Rather than viewing our gardens as tattered and messy after the dormant season–in other words, in need of a good tidying–we can see ourselves as caretakers helping everything to get growing again.

Where a garden cleanup might focus on removing plant matter, a garden restart will focus on re-using plant matter, whether in a compost pile or right there as a mulch in the borders.


Here are some of the chores I’ll be tackling in the next few weeks as I help prepare my garden for spring:


  • Cutting back the dead grasses: I am going to try chopping up some of this material and leaving it in place as a mulch


  • Pruning the roses: this will stimulate growth so I will wait till after the chance of really cold weather has passed


  • Removing some (but not all) of the drifted leaves from my flower beds


  • Cutting back the dead foliage of perennials: for instance, I have a lot of catmint (nepeta) needing to be cut to the ground


A Tip: For years, I would “clean up” the foliage of last year’s annual flowers by tugging them out of the ground, roots and all. Now I use clippers to cut them back to the soil. I leave the roots in place, which means I don’t lose any of my precious soil, and the old roots are left to decompose under the ground which improves the soil.


Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Leaf Season

It is leaf season here at Maplehurst in Pennsylvania.

The trees are almost bare, and the grass is covered in fallen gold. And leaves really are like gold for our gardens.

Leaves help lighten up heavy soils, and they help light, sandy soils become more moisture retentive. They are good for every garden.

Rather than see them as a nuisance, here are tips and reminders for harnessing their goodness for your plants:

  • Mow don’t rake

Raking up leaves is hard work, and may not be necessary. Here at Maplehurst, we mow over our leaves with a push or riding lawn mower. Once they have been slightly chopped up and shredded, fallen leaves make a wonderful mulch. A mulch of chopped leaves will eventually break down, feeding the soil and improving its texture. Un-chopped leaves can also be used for mulch, but they could become matted and waterlogged in a way that prevents water from penetrating down into the soil.

  • Store don’t discard

Can’t use your chopped leaves right away? Simply store them in a large container, such as a garbage can, or pile them in a protected place. Over time, they will break down into leaf mould, which makes a wonderful additional to potting soil mixes.

  • Leave them be

It is possible to be too neat as a gardener. The soil in a forest is naturally rich because no one goes in to clear away the leaves. Especially in a woodland garden, it is probably best to “leave your leaves” right where they are. Leaves are also an important winter cover for wildlife.

  • Insulation for tender plants

Each autumn, piles of leaves accumulate in my flower garden especially. And I’m so glad! A thick pile of leaves makes a wonderful protective blanket for shrubs and perennials. I try to make sure that my roses, especially, all have their rootballs well protected by leaves. If you grow strawberries, chopped leaves are a great alternative to straw mulch.

  • Add them to a compost pile

Leaves are a great source of “brown” carbon to balance the “green” nitrogen in a compost pile. You can speed up decomposition by shredding the leaves first, but I generally take a lazy and slow approach to composting, which means I just add them in whole.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

My Favorite Tools and How to Care For Them

The right tool can make all the difference.

I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to learn this. I struggled with certain tasks in my garden for far too long before I accepted that I was making things much harder for myself than they needed to be.

Now I save up for certain tools that I once considered “frivolous,” and I really, really do try to put them away before it rains. Mostly, I succeed at that.

Here are a few of my favorite tools and how I care for them:

  • Bulb planter: I struggled with bulb planting for ages before I watched how easily Monty Don planted bulbs on the British television show Gardener’s World. I ordered my own hand-held bulb planter and used it to sneak bulbs in amongst the perennials in my flower garden. It worked beautifully. This year, I’ve added a stand-up bulb planter, and I’m excited to use it planting daffodils out in the lawn. So far, the only care required for these tools has been hosting the dirt off after use, drying, and storing in my garden shed.


  • Japanese hand weeder: This is my favorite weeding tool hands-down. I use it to quickly slice through the soil, churning up weeds from beneath. Unfortunately, I often lose them in the weeds! But these tools are inexpensive and easily replaced. I do however try to wash mine after use. They can also be sharpened with a metal file.


  • Light-weight, collapsible water hose: It sounds like hyperbole to say a hose changed my life, but this fabric-covered hose did just that this past year. Our summer was more dry than usual, but in the past I have neglected watering during dry spells because I struggle to move heavy hoses around. This hose stretches unbelievability far and is so easy to move around. I love how quickly it collapses, meaning I no longer have the eyesore of long hoses draped all over my yard or sitting in big, lumpy piles. Here is a review of several garden hoses from Popular Mechanics, including two expandable hoses, which is the kind that works so well for me.


  • Terra cotta pot and pot brush: I’ve shared my love for this humble container material before. At the end of the growing season, I empty my pots onto the compost pile, saving the broken bit of pottery at the bottom that I used to cover the drainage hole. Then I wash and scrub out the inside with a pot brush like this one, though I’m sure any stiff, wire brush would work well. Though I don’t personally take the extra step of using bleach or some other disinfectant in my pots, I know some gardeners are careful to do that. Instead, I scrub them out as best as I can and leave them to sit in my garden shed all winter. If left out in the rain and snow, terra cotta is more likely to crack. When these pots do crack or break, I save the pieces to use as filler at the bottom of other pots.


Here are some of the items I use to care for all of my garden tools:

  • Rubbing alcohol: I use this to wipe down my pruning shears when I am pruning roses. This cuts down on the chance that I will carry disease from one rose bush to another. Disinfectant wipes are also convenient for this task.




Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Safer Gardening (Tools and Tips)


Gardening safety.

It may not seem like a fun topic, but it can involve cute boots. Wink, wink.

I had a terrifying encounter with bumblebees in my own garden recently. Bumblebees are normally quite docile, but that changes when you crash into their nest while wearing shorts and flip flop sandals. Oh my.

The whole experience reminded me just how important the right gear and clothing can be.

Here are my favorite tools for a safer gardening experience:

  • Good boots

My search for good gardening footwear has been a long one!

I began gardening at Maplehurst with a pair of tall Hunter rain boots I’d brought with me from our Florida lives. They protected my feet, and they looked cute, but they were HEAVY. I have nearly 5 acres here, and those boots did not make it easy to walk long distances with a wheelbarrow.

When the rain boots finally cracked, I discovered a lightweight pair of rain boots originally designed for Japanese fishermen. I chose them because I was traveling to Alaska and needed boots I could fold into a suitcase. I love those lightweight boots. They never dragged me down, but they also didn’t give a lot of protection.

When those boots finally cracked as well, I went searching for clogs. Tall boots aren’t easy to put on, and I thought slip-ons would be just the thing. I’ve worn a few different brands of gardening clogs, and liked these Sloggers most of all, but I honestly haven’t loved them. If they fit well enough to not fall off then they usually can’t be easily slipped on. I still had to take a seat before my feet could be properly wedged in. And the shoes themselves weren’t always comfortable. Perhaps I simply needed to choose a different size, but those experiences led me to a new choice:

Slip on boots!

The “Sauvie Slip On Boots” from  Bogs have become my holy grail of gardening shoes. Easier to slip on than tall boots, they are super comfortable and very protective. They aren’t as heavy and hot as winter boots would be, and they feel so good on my feet, I actually look forward to wearing them.

Well worth the higher price.

  • Gloves

I have a love/hate relationship with gardening gloves.

While I don’t like dirt under my nails and scratches on my hands, I also find it much harder to pull weeds and tie up twine while wearing gloves. The solution for me has been finding gloves that fit like a second skin. I buy nitrile gloves like these in packs of four or five. I love that I can throw them in the washing machine.

Pruning thorny roses is almost impossible without good protection. I keep these gloves in my garden shed for just this task. The long gauntlet sleeves mean I can really get in there and prune roses that would otherwise tear me to pieces, while the soft, leather fingers allow me to tie my rose canes up with twine.

  • Cotton button-down shirts

Protecting my skin from the sun is an on-going battle. I have sensitive skin that really doesn’t like sunscreen, but I also garden through hot and sticky summers where extra clothing is unwelcome.

My solution has been to steal my husband’s old cotton button-down shirts. They are breathable and lightweight, but they cover my chest and arms well. I don’t even care if they’re stained or the elbows are torn.

  • Tecnu skin cleanser

This is my secret weapon.

I put off buying it for too long because of the high price, but now I won’t begin a gardening season without a huge bottle of it in the house. I actually keep this in my shower at all times and this right by my kitchen sink. When you need it, you need it, and you won’t want to go looking for it.

For North American gardeners, especially here on the east coast, poison ivy is a menace. Because birds drop the seeds, it can pop up anywhere. Even right in the middle of a well-weeded flower bed.

These products are the only thing that works in my experience, especially if you are extra-allergic as I am. The two products are slightly different, and it’s important to read the instructions on the label. That large bottle might feel like overkill, but if you stumble into a patch of poison ivy or poison oak you will need to use a lot of product. I have found that Tecnu prevents rashes if used immediately, but I have also found that it clears up a rash that is starting to appear.

Miracle product, I tell you.

  • A wide sunhat

I have sunhats in canvas and straw. My favorites are made of straw as that seems to be the most breathable on a hot day.

  • Foam cushioned kneeler

I avoided buying one of these for far too long assuming they were for elderly gardening ladies only.

I could not have been more wrong. I used to weed in the most awkward positions, but with a cushioned kneeler, I can protect my knees and weed in a way that doesn’t throw out my back. Win, win!

You can also purchase cushioned knee pads. I have yet to try that, but I might pick up a pair of those next summer.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Pin It on Pinterest