Get an early start to gardening

Jump-start kitchen gardens with an easy D.I.Y. cold-frame project

LAKE COUNTY — The beautiful spring weather that Baldwin has been enjoying in recent days has many local gardeners itching to get started with their flower and vegetable beds.

Although some long-time Michigan residents maintain that putting out plants or seedlings before Memorial Day is risky, others are trying to extend the growing season by making their own simple and inexpensive cold-frames.

Basically a miniature greenhouse, a cold-frame is a box that lets in sunlight but maintains a warm temperature. It is ideal for starting hardy, cold-weather crops such as cabbages. The cold-frame can be constructed in a variety of ways, either by nailing together a square of wooden boards or windows, or making a box and covering it with plastic.

Dedicated do-it-yourself craftsmen say that using large plastic commercially-purchased tubs or window-boxes is another good option.

Local handyman Jim Thompson, who also has a very green thumb, reports that he has also had good success simply by arranging a rectangle made of bales of straw and covering the top with glass or plastic. “Straw-bales are especially good,” he says, “because they have air spaces and allow for good ventilation.” Thompson does not use his cold-frame for starting seedlings, however. “Seeds require uniformly warm temperatures,” he says. “It’s better to start them in the house where they are protected.” Already, he reports, the zucchinis he began from seeds are about 5” tall and will be ready to transplant as soon as the danger of frost has passed. Seeds like this do require a certain amount of babying, however; they must be regularly watered and benefit from the use of fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro.

Backyard hobbyists can easily find simple do-it-yourself plans for cold-frames on the Internet. One easy design uses 8’ by 12” boards, drywall screws or nails, and sheets of glazing material. Some gardeners employ florescent lights to lengthen the daylight hours. They note that it is important to make your cold-frame study enough so that the top does not blow off, but light enough so that the cover can be easily lifted up for watering.

No one can predict what the weather in Northwest Michigan will do, but Lake County seems to be off to a very good start on its growing season this year. Homeowners report that the tulips, daffodils, and crocuses have already come up and most of the ice is gone from yards and flower-beds.

Seed packets are prominently on display for sale in a number of local stores, and hopeful gardeners are dusting off their trowels and rakes and shovels. Experienced back-yard kitchen-farmers say that in the event that colder temperatures should return, most delicate plants can survive if they are covered with straw or leaves overnight.

It is neither too early nor too late to jump-start your crop of flowers and veggies with a simple and attractive do-it-yourself cold-frame.