Hello and welcome to The Compost Bin. I'm Compostwoman and I live with my family in rural Herefordshire. We have nearly four acres of garden and woodland, all managed organically and to Permaculture principles, which we share with Chickens, Cats and assorted wildlife. We also grow a lot of our own food, run courses in all sorts of things and make a lot of compost!

I am a Master Composter and have spent more than a decade as a volunteer Community Compost adviser with Garden Organic and my local Council.
I'm a self employed Environmental Educator so I run workshops and events where I talk about compost, veg growing, chicken keeping, cooking, preserving and sustainable living. I also run crafts workshops and Forest School/outdoor play sessions in our wood.

We try to live a more self sufficient lifestyle here, as best we can, while still having a comfortable life and lots of fun.

To learn more about us click on the About Compostwoman tab and remember to click on the photos to make them full size!

Monday 22 April 2013

Cold frames and earlier crops (and a major case of greenhouse envy!)

One of the things we love here are tomatoes - we love the taste of a freshly picked, perfectly ripe tomato and we use them a great deal in our cooking even when they are out of season by freezing or dehydrating them and making lots of tomato based chutney, sauces and soups.

I grow a LOT of tomato (and pepper and cucumber) plants in the polytunnel during the summer and I always grow lots of different varieties - I like the flavour and taste of many different ( mostly Heritage ) varieties - which are often no longer grown by commercial producers because they do not meet the "perfection" of shape and size required by supermarkets, or because their skins are thinner and would not handle being transported around, or any one of a number of " business" reasons. I don't care about  all that - my fruits are only transported a few feet from where they grow to where we eat them and they all taste mighty good!
We also use lots of fresh herbs and I don't want to buy or grow new plants every year (waste of money!) so I overwinter my herbs in pots and keep them going ready to start fresh growth in the new year. Same goes for salads and other green leafy veg like kales and sprouting broccoli - I always have plants growing under cover in the polytunnel and so can eat some fresh green food even in winter. Although some of the herbs plants die back, I still get some fresh shoots to use in the kitchen. 

I have just spent the last few days "pricking out" several hundred tomato seedlings from their cramped seed trays into individual 4 inch pots and I have the yellow fingers to prove it :-)  The plants now live either outside, in the polytunnel, or inside in the porch greenhouse. I should have my first tomato from them in early to mid June, if all goes well.
 But the polytunnel is unheated,  and it can still get very cold in there at night, too cold for green leaves to survive the winter and certainly too cold for tomato plants now. So how do I manage to put tomato plants out so early, and have fresh green leaves in winter?

The answer is, I use a cold frame, well several, inside the polytunnel, along with horticultural fleece if needed. I have three aluminuium and polycarbonate cold frames, with lids, which go into the polytunnel over winter and provide an added level of protection to my overwintering plants.

In this photo you can see some lemon balm, watercress and salad leaves whch have been happily growing all winter, inside the cold frame inside the polytunnel. I have been picking from them, cut and come again, since November.

 The advantages of a cold frame are that it provides shelter and a warmer microclimate for the plants inside, compared with being outside - like being in a glass house/green house, only cooler. It also provides an intermediate stage between sowing and growing under cover ( greenhouse or window sill) and finally planting out in the great outdoors (hardening off). Traditionally a cold frame was used in conjunction with a heated greenhouse, the cold frame getting its name from being outside and unheated hence "cold".  In fact if you visit Victorian gardens you will often see magnificent glass houses surrounded by cold frames, outside.

At the moment I have aluminium and polycarbonate cold frames, which were relatively cheap and are lightweight and portable (handy and really useful for me to move around inside the polytunnel) BUT don't, in my opinion, provide as much internal warmth as a traditional wooden framed, glass cold frame. In the past I have built cold frames from old windows and bricks which worked well, but as I am now re thinking the whole layout of our growing area I have also been looking at buying some wood and glass cold frames - which will be beautiful in their own right as well as functional and useful.

I am hoping to add a new greenhouse in addition to the polytunnel this year - I would love a Western Red Cedar one from Gabriel Ash  (if you follow me on Pinterest you will know I love their RHS range of glasshouses, and I have been drooling over the new greenhouse Monty Don has, ever since it was first shown on Gardeners World - some serious greenhouse envy going here!)

But sadly I don't think the funds are available for a Harlow Carr greenhouse like Monty's - especially as we already have an Aluminium/glass greenhouse in bits, just waiting to be re-errected!

But  we do have a south facing house wall and a patio so I have been thinking about a freestanding wood and glass cold frame there. Again, if you follow me on Pinterest you can see some of the ones I have been thinking about; you can also see them on the coldframes product page here. The one I am keen on is The Upright Coldframe and it is actually on offer at the moment at a substantial discount. I also like The Grand Coldframe as I could make that into a Hot Bed  - great to get tomatoes and pepper seeds growing! These cold frame look moveable, but also a lot sturdier and more solid than my aluminium and polycarbonate cold frames. I think they would provide a lot more in the way of shelter and heat, not to mention being less likely to get blown away in a gale.

I really like the Gabriel Ash website and the ethos of the Company and the fact that they are endorsed by the RHS; and have just requested a brochure be sent to me - apparently it should be posted out in a day or so (you can ask for one by email if you are really in a hurry!) so I can indulge in a bit more greenhouse envy :-)

Anyone else built or bought  a greenhouse or cold frames recently? Hopefully we will be able to get started on digging the area out where our new greenhouse is to be sited - when the ground dries out enough. And yes I know I have said that many times recently, but a lot of the groundwork is waiting on the soil to be a little less soggy, as we would like to be able to use the soil after the JCB has driven over it.

Anyway - back to the polytunnel for me as I have more pepper and tomato plants to prick out.  I also have lots of new soft fruit trees to tell you about - but that can wait until later :-)

Thank you for reading :-)

Disclaimer - I am writing a series of posts about my plans and hopes for the garden redesign - this post features a paid link to a company I would be happy to use. As always the words I write are my own and are my honest opinions.


  1. I have one of those mini greenhouses this year, which I am using to try and start off some early seeds (in spite of the cold weather we've just escaped from!).

    Do you eat all the tomatoes from the 100 plants over the year, or do you sell/trade them? I only have a little flat, and my windowsills are looking a bit crowded with only 16 plants!

    1. Hi Bryallen :-)

      We eat - fresh, frozen or otherwise preserved - the produce of around 50 - 60 of the plants I grow in the polytunnel. I grow them on in the polytunnel and I sell any produce from the surplus tomatos at the gate or to friends or where ever.

      I also grow probably 50 plants to order for regular customers who take them year in , year out. They grow them on at home. I grow varieties to meet my customers requirements.

      I also sell around 100 or more plants at "Blossomtime" - my local CSA/apple collective event over the May Day Bank Holiday weekend here. These are from a selection of what I have grown.

      So I tend to keep around 70 plants here for fruit and sell around 150 or more plants to other people.

      But I also sell any surplus where ever I can - at my house gate stall or any other stall I am offered.

      Does that make sense?

  2. Ah that's interesting! I would like to sell surplus plants too, but currently don't have enough space to do it very efficiently. I think I'll stick to my own needs for now.

    Pretty tempted to get myself an allotment next season! Apparently students in Bristol can get them half price, so only £30 for a large plot!


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