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Underground Farm Pays Rent in Heat It Supplies to Building Above

Vertical farms have been touted as a way to feed a rapidly urbanizing world population (I've waxed poetic about them myself.) Critics of the trending technology, however, contend that these energy-intensive hubs are too costly and perhaps impractical to maintain.

Sure, the naysayers have a point, but what if vertical farms did more than just feed mouths? In Stockholm, Sweden, the Plantagon CityFarm located in the basement of the iconic DN-Skrapan building in the Kungsholmen district has a whole other purpose besides nourishing the office workers on site—the farm also recycles its heat to warm the offices above.

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Food

Amazon Has a Patent For a Garden Service That Would Help You Grow Food

Amazon has a new frontier it's looking to tackle: your garden. The tech company recently received a patent for a new service that would let users upload photos of their vegetable gardens then receive a variety of recommendations from Amazon including recipes for the specific veggies they've planted, gardening tools they might need, and even advice on what else to plant and exactly where in your plot it should go.

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GMO

Monsanto Faces Hundreds of New Cancer Lawsuits as Debate Over Glyphosate Rages On

Monsanto has been slapped with another slew of cancer lawsuits over its most popular pesticide as the debate over the health risks of glyphosate rages on.

Los Angeles-based law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman filed lawsuits last week on behalf of 136 plaintiffs from across the country who allege that exposure to Monsanto's glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Three bundled complaints were filed last week in St. Louis County Circuit Court.

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The Growroom

The Indoor Garden That Can Feed an Entire Neighborhood

By Amanda Froelich

There's a lot to appreciate about the Swedish company IKEA. From its numerous projects which have helped raise awareness about the Syrian peoples' plight to its commitment to the environment by using mushroom-based packaging that decomposes within weeks, the furniture business is progressive, to say the least.

Now, IKEA has released open source plans for The Growroom, which is a large, multi-tiered spherical garden that was designed to sustainably grow enough food to feed a neighborhood. The plans were made free on Thursday with the hope that members of the public will invest their time and resources to create one in each neighborhood, if not in every person's backyard.

The tools required to create the spherical garden include plywood, rubber hammers, metal screws and diligence to follow the instructions comprised of 17 steps. The Huffington Post reports that The Growroom isn't shipped in a flat pack like most IKEA products. Instead, users are required to download the files needed to cut the plywood pieces to size and are encouraged to visit a local workshop where the wood can be professionally cut. The free instructions online walk the builder through the remaining steps.

The Growroom

According to a press release, there are already plans to build Growrooms in Taipei, Taiwan; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; San Francisco and Helsinki, Finland. You can add your city to the list by jumping on the opportunity and crafting a Growroom in your neighborhood.

The project is the brainchild of Space10, based in Denmark. The company wrote:

Local food represents a serious alternative to the global food model. It reduces food miles, our pressure on the environment and educates our children of where food actually comes from … The challenge is that traditional farming takes up a lot of space and space is a scarce resource in our urban environments.

The Growroom … is designed to support our everyday sense of well being in the cities by creating a small oasis or 'pause' architecture in our high paced societal scenery and enables people to connect with nature as we smell and taste the abundance of herbs and plants. The pavilion, built as a sphere, can stand freely in any context and points in a direction of expanding contemporary and shared architecture.

Here are images from the open source design:

The Growroom

The Growroom

The Growroom

Reposted with permission from our media associate True Activist.

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This Hospital Prescribes Fresh Food From Its Own Organic Farm

By Liza Bayless

Five years ago, when Lankenau Medical Center was confronted with evidence that it was serving the unhealthiest county in Pennsylvania, the hospital decided to embrace the findings with an unconventional approach: building a half-acre organic farm on its campus to provide fresh produce to patients.

The Deaver Wellness Farm at Lankenau Medical Center. Lankenau Medical Center

The teaching and research hospital just outside Philadelphia was in the midst of its own patient health needs assessment in 2011 when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released findings about health outcomes in Pennsylvania counties. Lankenau is officially located within Montgomery County, one of the state's healthiest, taking into account factors including obesity rates and access to reliable sources of food. But the campus is adjacent to and receives many patients from Philadelphia County, ranked the least healthy of all 67 counties.

"That was really telling because it showed that we were serving a really diverse patient population," said Chinwe Onyekere, associate administrator at Lankenau, of the study's revelations. The findings showed that the hospital's patients had widely varying access to healthy food and nutritional knowledge.

With more than 1.5 million people, Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in the country and consistently named one of the unhealthiest. In 2010, 32 percent of its adults and about 25 percent of its children were obese. The same year, 13 percent of the city's adults had diabetes, and Philadelphia County ranked highest among the country's largest counties for chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

Across the nation, about half of Americans are estimated to have some kind of chronic disease stemming from health risks including lack of exercise, obesity, smoking and unhealthy eating. Treatment for these illnesses, which include asthma, heart disease or diabetes, has accounted for more than 75 percent of hospital admissions and physician visits in recent years.

This has caused some hospitals to look for ways to address health needs before a patient's condition has deteriorated so much that a hospital visit is necessary. At Lankenau, that meant providing its patients with a source of healthy food.

Students learn about fresh produce at the Deaver Wellness Farm. Lankenau Medical Center

Because the doctors, nurses and other staff were not farming experts, the hospital paired with Greener Partners, a nonprofit advocate for local food systems in Pennsylvania, to build and maintain what would become the Deaver Wellness Farm. Onyekere, who heads community needs programs for the hospital, oversees the project.

Since the farm's launch in 2015, it has provided more than 4,000 pounds of organic food to hospital patients at no cost. The produce is used for educational demonstrations and served in the hospital cafeteria. From its community needs assessment, Lankenau's staff learned that many of its patients, especially from West Philadelphia, lacked access to and nutritional knowledge of fruits and vegetables. So Lankenau now facilitates pop-up markets in internal medicine and the OBGYN practice wards.

While patients wait for appointments, medical assistants bring in fresh kale, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, arugula and other produce for them to select. The hospital also provides recipes, and, during an appointment, physicians use the produce to show how a patient can make healthier lifestyle choices.

In the Lankenau waiting rooms, hospital employees lead nutrition courses and food demonstrations. An employee might bring in the materials for a carrot salad, discuss the nutritional significance of each of its ingredients and then chop and assemble the salad in front of patients. Afterward, patients are given the ingredients and a recipe to try at home.

For years before the farm, health educators employed by the hospital ran roughly 14 programs in a health education center with two classrooms in the middle of Lankenau's facilities. Seven thousand to 10,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade took courses each year in physical health, like nutrition, as well as social health issues, like bullying and harassment.

Now, part of the mission of the farm is to serve as what Onyekere calls a "learning laboratory" for classes about healthy eating, and to create a hands-on experience for students to learn about nutrition, gardening and building healthy behaviors.

Outside the hospital, Lankenau—in partnership with The Food Trust and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health—incentivizes healthy food buying by providing coupons called Philly Food Bucks. These coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables are valid at more than 30 farmers markets and are given to patients who express the desire for better access to healthy foods.

"From the moment the patient walks into the door to the moment they leave the office, that whole experience is focused on improving their health," Onyekere said.

Drew Harris, director of health policy and population health at Thomas Jefferson University's College of Population Health, said that only recently have health providers begun to take accountability for addressing food insecurity among their patients. A former practicing doctor with a specialty in diabetes, he remembers having a very different philosophy about chronic diseases and overall patient health.

"Like many doctors, I probably blamed the patients for not getting well," he said. "I didn't really ask the question: Did they have the ability to follow the diet they were supposed to follow as a diabetic?"

Harris eventually became interested in the wider issues that led to chronic illness. While some patients are never taught health literacy, he said, for others "challenges in life can intervene."

"Not having food security—not knowing where your next meal is going to come from or whether you can purchase everything you need to purchase when you need to—is a major challenge," he said.

What's more, the tools for patient treatment taught in the medical profession have been so focused on prescriptions and procedures, Harris said, that doctors do not always learn the importance of stressing to their patients things like how to create a balanced diet and where to access those foods—knowledge that could keep people out of the hospital in the first place.

Though food insecurity is not a new issue, he thinks medical education is just starting to take a more holistic approach.

"There's a much stronger incentive to worry about why patients are not getting better and what we can do to avoid them getting sick in the first place, and a lot of it has to do with their social environment, their access to healthy food," he said.

Still, Harris stresses the need to pressure health providers. "Holding the medical profession more accountable for results—the quality of the care they provide—is going to make a difference," he said.

Onyekere estimates that Lankenau has provided farm produce to about 400 patients so far, and the hospital is about to launch a survey of patients to better understand the program's impact. Although she said patients have expressed that the farm is making a difference and raising awareness of how to incorporate healthy choices into daily life, the research survey will be a valuable resource for other health providers considering similar initiatives.

Going forward, Lankenau plans to grow the farm with four additional raised beds. Though this year's yield far exceeded initial expectations, staff took that as a sign that it can further increase production. Onyekere said Lankenau is also looking to donate its food to additional community partners, like local food banks.

Lankenau is not the nation's only hospital-run farm. Others include St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, both in Michigan; and St. Luke's University Health Network in Pennsylvania. But Onyekere is aware of none that have so extensively incorporated their own organic food into hospital life.

If America is to confront its growing chronic health epidemic, that integration is key, and, as these hospitals show, is already happening. "We're beginning to move from the patient outward to look more at the neighborhood and the larger environment in which that patient lives," Harris said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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It's Time to Get Rid of Your Lawn!

By Mary Talbot

In a case of taking "the grass is always greener" a bit too literally, American homeowners have long strived to make their lawns brighter, lusher and more velvety than their neighbors'. But all that competition has a devastating environmental impact. Every year across the country, lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year, 200 million gallons of gas (for all that mowing) and 70 million pounds of pesticides.

Adams County, Pennsylvania Master Gardener, BBG Graduate and NRDC Member, Audrey Hillman.

You may also know that turf grass, however welcoming it looks for our bare feet, provides virtually no habitat for pollinators and other animals and plants that make up a healthy, diverse ecosystem. In fact, these lawns can do substantial harm to the environment and to both vertebrates and insects. Birds, for instance, may ingest berries and seeds that have absorbed pesticides from the ground. Likewise, rainwater runoff from lawns can carry pesticides and fertilizers into rivers, lakes, streams and oceans via the sewer system. This can poison fish and other aquatic animals and harm humans who swim, surf and eat seafood that may be contaminated. And then, of course, lawn mowers can pollute the air.

Luckily, today more Americans are ready for a change.

"We're on the cusp of a transition that will likely take place over the next 10 to 15 years, away from the conformity of mowed turf," said Ed Osann, senior policy analyst and water efficiency project director with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Water program.

He adds that eradication of all grass isn't the goal. "We're not declaring war on turf or suggesting that we remove every square foot of it. But we want to encourage people to think about whether there are places in their yards that can be converted to allow for a more diverse and sustainable landscape."

The No-Mow Movement

A growing number of homeowners are converting part or all of their lawns to a less thirsty form of landscape.

These no-mow yards fall into four categories:

1. Naturalized or unmowed turf grass that is left to grow wild;

2. Low-growing turf grasses that require little grooming (most are a blend of fescues);

3. Native or naturalized landscapes where turf is replaced with native plants as well as noninvasive, climate-friendly ones that can thrive in local conditions; and

4. Yards where edible plants—vegetables and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs—replace a portion of turf. (According to the National Gardening Association, one in three families now grows some portion of the food they consume).

Making the Change

A successful lawn conversion depends on climate, terrain and of course individual taste. Of the four main no-mow strategies, Osann said, native or naturalized landscaping is likely your best option. It's adaptable to any part of the country and offers gardeners an infinite range of design possibilities. If you want to join the no-mow movement, here are some pointers to get you started:

  • Get expert advice. Begin by talking with a landscaper who has experience with lawn conversions or even a neighbor who has naturalized all or part of his yard. A landscaper can help remove existing grass and recommend native plants to use in its place. Depending on water and weather, a low-growing turf lawn will "green up" about two weeks after seeding. Another alternative is a wildflower garden grown from seed. (Just make sure you choose a wildflower mix that fits your climate and weed out existing vegetation that would compete for moisture and sun). After the seeds germinate and the flowers bloom (in 6 to 12 weeks), they don't require watering unless there's a prolonged drought.
  • Do your weeding. Invasive plants like ragweed, thistle and burdock can crowd out their native neighbors and may run afoul of local ordinances (as noted below). For most no-mow advocates, the payoff in natural beauty and habitat are well worth the effort.
  • Check for incentives. Not surprisingly, western states such as Arizona and California, which have been in the throes of extreme drought for more than four years, have taken the lead in spurring homeowners to do lawn conversions. California, in fact, launched a turf replacement initiative that offers rebates of up to $500 per yard for homeowners who convert turf lawns to native, drought-resistant xeriscaping. On a more grass-roots level, organizations like the Surfriders Foundation, a national environmental group made up of surfing aficionados, have helped transform turf lawns in Southern California parks and homes into ocean-friendly gardens, using succulents and other indigenous plants along with hardscape materials like rocks and gravel that increase filtration, conserve water and reduce runoff.
  • Check the rule books. The no-mow movement may sound idyllic, but some practitioners have faced a surprising stumbling block: the law. In one example, Sarah Baker, a homeowner and scion of a family of horticulturalists in St. Albans Township, Ohio, decided to let her turf grass yard grow wild. Last year, she was forced to mow when authorities from her township deemed her garden, which had become a naturalized but well-tended landscape, a nuisance. Sandra Christos of Stone Harbor, New Jersey, said that after she replaced turf grass with native plants, she was delighted that cormorants, night herons and kingfishers made themselves at home alongside "every kind of butterfly you can imagine." But since receiving a letter from the town clerk, Christos has had to tame the mallow, bayberry, clethra and rosa rugosa along her walkway—or pay a fine.

Sarah Baker in her yard.Amanda Mae Taylor

While local ordinances or homeowner association bans have emerged―mostly out of concern over fire safety, rodent control and noxious weeds―they take on aesthetic concerns too, often proscribing grass over eight inches tall, vegetable gardens (especially in planned communities) or any kind of landscaping that deviates from clipped turf.

A recent white paper by students from Yale's forestry and law schools, in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, surveyed legal obstacles to various forms of no-mow and concluded that, for sustainable landscaping to achieve wider adoption, some municipalities will need to adjust their policies.

That change can happen if residents push for it. Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, amended its nuisance laws to allow for naturalized lawns after locals made the case that their wild gardens improved air and soil quality and reduced stormwater runoff.

Moving away from water-guzzling and chemical-hungry lawns and cultivating yards that are diverse and self-regulating is a matter of mounting urgency worthy of that kind of community organizing. As global temperatures rise and droughts drag on, the demands of turf grass are likely to become untenable.

"Our existing lawns are going to get thirstier and their water requirements will increase," Osann said.

Fortunately, with an evolving toolkit of sustainable landscaping strategies, home gardeners can avoid such effects and help nurture the health of the planet—right in their own backyards.

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Springtime Garden Soil Prep

We’ve come to believe that the oh-so-common planting directive “as soon as the soil can be worked” is almost meaningless. Workable soil is important to planting but other conditions—including amendment additions, pH conditions and soil temperature—have to be considered as well. Your friendly and eager Planet Natural blogger has often advised patience when it comes to spring planting. On the other hand, there’s plenty to be done before the point of workable soil—in other words, when it’s safe to stick seeds in the ground—is reached. And that work can help make your soil workable sooner.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Sure some of our friends in warmer climes have already “got their gardens in,” as my grandfather used to say. But many of us are still waiting (forecast for Saturday night here in our hometown of Bozeman, MT is for snow). Maybe we’ve put in a row of peas along the northern border (with its southern exposure) knowing that the peas we’ll plant in a week or two will probably catch up. Still, planting time is right around the corner, even here in the norther tier states and when that hits we want to be ready. And there’s plenty to do around the garden ahead of spring planting that will facilitate garden sowing and (maybe, weather depending) even help bring that time on sooner.

First, we’ll take a sunny day—or maybe one when it isn’t raining or spewing what the weatherman call a “wintery mix”–and pull back the protective mulch we spread last fall. This of course helps the garden soil give up the moisture its collected and gets it to workable condition. Our mulch is usually a mix of fall leaves we chopped with the mower after raking and whatever else was available: left-over straw that we’d used to mulch between rows, grass collected after fall mowings, goat pen cleanings, chicken coop cleanings (seems everybody’s raising chickens these days) that wonderful mix of trampled straw and manure that we get from our friends’ goat operation.

If the forecast calls for rain or snow, we leave the mulch right where it is.

It’s easy to suggest that any straw or hay you use in the garden be seed-free to prevent weeds. It’s another thing to actually obtain it; in our experience it just doesn’t exist. But leaving your ground uncovered for a few nice days gives the seed a chance to germinate. When you actually do start to work your garden soil, the weed seedlings get turned into the ground.

Often, we’ve already pulled mulch away from some of the vegetables we hoped would over-winter in the garden. Chard is one of our favorites for this, spinach also works. Beets will overwinter well and put up greens at the first chance they get. But as they do, their roots soften. Unless you get them early, stick to the greens. Carrots? You won’t eat their tops (though we know people who use carrot tops to make broths and soups) and once the roots start putting out those little threads, they’re not much worth eating. But those second year carrot tops that do grow up, if left in place, will eventually give you a chance to collect your own carrot seed.

What we pull off the garden bed usually goes right into our still slumbering compost heaps. This is a good time to turn those heaps, though they’re often heavy with spring moisture and difficult to fork up. Do the best you can (or get a compost tumbler). Those dried leaves and straw qualify as brown material. To give your compost the right balance you’ll want to add green material, something that’s often in short supply this time of year. Kitchen scraps are a good idea although most kitchens don’t generate enough scraps to get a proper balance. We like to add alfalfa pellets and, just to kick start the process, a bucket of  unfinished manure in the form of pig muck we dug up  from another friend’s organic, heritage hog operation. Not lucky enough to live by a pig farm? (Can’t believe I just wrote that.) A bag of organic steer or chicken manure will also do the trick.

The longer the spring season stays wet and cool, the more likely we are to solarize our garden bed. Solarizing soil by covering it with plastic tarps, is often employed during the heat of summer to kill unwanted pests, disease and fungi in the earth. Doing it in the spring probably won’t accomplish this. It just doesn’t get warm enough. But it will protect your soil  from rains—make sure you set it up to allow for drainage—and increase soil temperatures that will speed germination once your seeds go in.

So how do you know your soil is ready to be worked? The tried-and-true method is the squeeze test. Grab a fistful of garden dirt and squeeze. If it easily forms a ball that doesn’t crumble, it’s not ready. But if it breaks down into granules as you squeeze (because there isn’t enough moisture to allow it to clump) then it’s ready. Of course, there’s some variations to this. If your soil is heavy in clay, it will clump more easily. Don’t be afraid to get in there and do what needs to be done to improve it.

If you plan on spreading manure in your garden ahead of planting, now’s the time to do it. Getting it on the ground ahead of planting will give it time to decompose, making it more available to your plants. Be careful how much you use and where. Lettuce and other greens won’t germinate well in soil that’s high in nitrogen. We always prefer composting any manure that might come our way before putting it into the garden.

Of course, the most important rule is not to get into your garden before the soil is friable. Bringing in the rototiller or walking around as you turn soil over with a spading fork will just compact the soil even if it’s not apparent at the surface. Trying to break up compacted garden soil can be a frustrating task. What your fork turns over comes up as clods that will harden and be even more difficult to break up. Wait, wait, wait until your soil is ready to be worked. While you’re waiting is a good time to test your soil for its pH and nutrient readings. Then, when its ready for you, it’s time to make adjustments.

When it’s ready to be worked amend your soil with as much finished compost as you’ve got (see When is Compost Finished?). Now you’re really ready to grow.

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How to Use Cold Frames As a Year-Round Gardening Tool

Springtime sees your friendly, think-ahead Planet Natural blogger putting his cold frame to heavy use. Now, in a time of year where frosts are still possible, many of our indoor vegetable starts are almost ready to go into the garden. They need to get use to being outdoors. Many of them can’t survive the night-time cold but can when protected inside a cold frame, maybe draped with a blanket on the coldest nights.

It’s also the time of year we’ve also run out of room under our indoor grow light and need a place to keep vegetable starts where they’ll get more sunshine than they would on a window sill. And we also want to get a head start on some of our long-season plants, like tomatoes, peppers or winter squash.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Can you see why we’re thinking a second, and maybe a third, cold frame might be a good—make that great—idea?

And don’t forget flowering plants. You can get a big jump growing pansies by starting them in pots inside a cold frame.

But cold frames aren’t just an amazing accessory to your spring-time gardening. They’re good for a number of uses all year ’round:

  • Cold frames are a good place to store potted plants and cold-sensitive bulbs and root-cuttings (buried in sawdust or straw) during winters in areas where night-time temperatures aren’t consistently extreme (near and below zero).
  • Cold frames are a good place to make late fall plantings of such cold hardy plants as broccoli, kale and spinach, which can be over winters in a cold frame—plant them right in the ground–and can even provide early spring and mid-winter harvests during warm spells. Fresh greens in February? Yeah!
  • Cold frames are a great place to start vegetable seeds in pots ahead of gardening season.
  • Cold frames are great for hardening off your vegetable starts as they provide warmth (even with the tops up), protect against excess wind, and offer warmer over-night temperatures.
  • Cold frames are an ideal place to sow squash seed or set out tomato plants once there’s room. They’ll give these long season vegetables a warm, jump start. By the time they’re pushing up against the cold frame’s top, just leave the tops off.
  • Cold frames are great places to plant greens in late summer and hold them well past the first frosts of fall … and maybe longer.

When locating a permanently-placed cold frame, make sure the soil drainage is good. This might require digging up the soil to a depth of two or three feet and putting in a six-inch layer of pea-gravel or small river rock to facilitate water conduction before laying down compost and soil. If you’re only using your cold frame for potted plants and starts, you can just dig up six inches of soil and add a gravel surface. The gravel or tile or stone will serve as a heat sink, carrying the day’s accumulated warmth into the night. We’ve seen a cold frame in which the gardener set concrete block in sideways, then filled the spaces with gravel to provide a heat-retaining surface.

Placing your permanent cold frame against the south or west-facing side of a building will also help it gather and retain heat. The building will also shelter your cold frame from the wind. Here are examples of permanent cold frames (brick!) incorporated into the sides of buildings. Our cold frame was against a white garage wall which gave the tomatoes we grew there an extra warm and sunny boost throughout the summer, just what they needed in short-season Montana.

Covering your raised garden bed with plastic or some other type of light-conducting shelter can turn it into a wonderful cold frame.

Cold frames that sit on top of the soil and are moveable can travel from place to place as you plant different, heat-loving vegetables. You can build a cold frame that’s transportable or construct a make-shift one of hay bales, which are especially good insulators, by placing them in a square or rectangle just big enough to support old window frames with glass or a shower door. They’re also available as kits and can even be made of convenient materials that make them lightweight and functional as tents.

You can turn your cold frame into a hot box by adding rotting manure or a layer of leaves or straw seasoned with microbe-rich compost beneath your soil layer. The heat generated by the decaying organic material will help hold plants over winter as well as give soil temperatures a boost in time for spring germination. One gardener we know reported great result using a layer of alfalfa pellets and some compost instead of straw or leaves (which tend to compact … chop them first).

Here’s a comprehensive guide to using cold frames—with building plans—from the University of Missouri. We’d really like to hear about your cold frame—how it’s built, where it’s located, how you use it.

One warning about cold frames … they can get hot when the sun’s shining! Be sure to ventilate your cold frames by lifting the lids and propping them open—or removing them all together—on sunny days. It’s an unpleasant surprise to come home from work at the end of the day and find your lettuce starts baked beneath the glass or plastic of your cold frame.

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