Want to garden but have weeks or months to go before your nearest planting date? Or maybe you have early frosts in the autumn. With cold frames and cold tunnels, you can easily extend your growing season. Add a drop of ingenuity and you won’t have to dish out tons of money either.
Here in New England, our last anticipated frost date typically occurs after Mother’s Day in mid-May and our first frosts start in late September, making for a short traditional growing season. Many people think they can only garden in the time between last and first frosts in spring and autumn but easy ways around this exist which revolve around starting plants indoors, using greenhouses or setting up cold frames and cover for your plants. These extend the growing season by weeks to months. I’m already harvesting lettuce in late March despite snow and freezing temperatures so I know it can be done. Here’s how I build my cold frames for free or next to free.
The first place to look for gardening materials isn’t your local big box store or nursery. When it comes to cold frame materials, you’re only a shower curtain or plastic packaging away from protective cover for your plants. Here are some materials you can upcycle for free and save a buck – and landfill space – in the process.
Shower curtains. These make great material to cover your crops, either for cold frames or as cold tunnels. Use the transparent or semi-transparent ones.
Plastic packaging: Clear plastic packaging makes excellent material in the same way as transparent shower liners. When I bought beds for my guest rooms, I kept the plastic packaging that encased the mattresses. Used on my plants boxes, they’ve kept my greens thriving in temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit and with snow all around!
Old window panes: Use discarded glass or plastic windows for the tops of your cold frames.
Plastic tubs: Have clear storage boxes? Turn them into covers for your plants.
Milk jugs, plastic food cartons, soda bottles. If it’s plastic and somewhat transparent, use them to put over your plants like mini greenhouses.
Vases. Usually we all have extra vases floating around. Invert them over your lettuce or young seedlings to act as greenhouses.
Looking for building materials?
Hoola hoops. Use these for building the arches of your cold tunnels. You can pick them up for $1-$3 at Dollar Tree and Dollar General.
Water hose. Similarly, you can also use that old water hose that’s just taking up space to make the arches on cold tunnels.
Wood pallets. Recycle the wood from these gems to build most anything. You can often find them for free.
Repurpose old projects. On my property is an old, crumbling fence. I took it down and repurposed the boards for a number of projects, including building cold frames. I harvested wood from other projects as well. Look around and see what lumber or wood is just laying around waiting to be used. Get creative.
Branches, sticks, and logs. Even downed branches and limbs can be configured to make cold frames and cold tunnels with some ingenuity. I use excess firewood and logs to weigh down the sides of my plastic.
Nearly Free Materials
Instead of dropping lots of money, I tend to use “near enough” materials that act in essentially the same way as the pricey materials they’re replacing. For example:
Curtains. Clear or transparent shower curtains are often cheaper than cold frames and cold tunnel material. At my local Dollar Tree I buy them for $1.
Drop cloth. You can also use plastic drop cloth as cold tunnel and cold frame material. Again, I pick up rolls for $1 at the Dollar Tree. You can find plastic drop cloth at most box stores in the paint supply section.
Habitat Restore. I like to support good causes and Habitat for Humanity is one of them. They have stores that sell used furniture and building materials at incredibly cheap prices. The proceeds go back into supporting the organization. Often they stock windows, hardware and tools. Other thrift stores do as well.
Clearance wood. Often in big box stores like Home Depot you’ll find a clearance area of culled wood at fractions of the regular price. This culled wood may have defects like chips or warping but that’s fine if you’re just building cold frames or cold tunnels. I picked up 20-something pieces of wood for $1 each at Home Depot on boards that normally cost up to $9 each.
You don’t have to wait forever to start gardening outdoors. Reuse materials on hand or find them cheaply to make excellent cold frames and cold tunnels for your garden. You can gain literal months of extra growing time this way and have fresh, nutritious food. Who doesn’t love that?
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