Flowers on Ice: Winter Flower Farming, Part 1

On New Year's Eve, the roads froze, and as the clock struck midnight, it seemed no one was where they expected to be. The next day we heard from friends who unexpectedly camped on couches and rented hotel rooms in far away cities. When the South gets icy, no one is ever prepared, even in the mountains of North Carolina.

Maybe I should have understood this message from 2018. Winter would be very unexpected.

 This hillside in Marshall, North Carolina, freezes because it's in a dark spot. It wasn't even that cold when I took this picture. I remember I was wearing a light jacket. It goes to show you: sunlight matters.

This hillside in Marshall, North Carolina, freezes because it's in a dark spot. It wasn't even that cold when I took this picture. I remember I was wearing a light jacket. It goes to show you: sunlight matters.

I was worried that January was a bad time to start a blog for the flower farm. How much could I really write about in January? And where would I get pretty pictures? Still, the blog had become my begrudging, defacto New Years resolution. Perhaps I should thank the weather for creating something interesting to write about.

New Years Day in Asheville (about 20 miles south of the farm) was the coldest ever recorded by the National Weather Service, a chilly 21 degrees. The previous record cold was set on the first day of 1922, and records go back to 1870. And it just got worse from there with days on end below freezing. The French Broad River froze, which hasn't happened in decades.

This winter has put all my cold weather preparations to the test. Time will tell how well they're working, but I'm learning some interesting things you might like to read about, whether you're a farmer or a gardener or simply someone who wants to be amazed by the strength and resiliency of plants.

Let me set the scene, and in the next couple of entries, I'll tell you what I know. And more importantly, I'll tell you what I don't know, what I'm learning and how I can do better.

I am a young flower farmer, being a young person in general. Maybe that means I'm inexperienced, but I would no more call a young person inexperienced than I would call an older person physically deteriorating. Flower farming is in my family, and I grew up with plants. I'll tell you about it sometime.

My farm is about 2 acres. It's wedged into a narrow valley that runs along a creek bed. We don't plant it all for winter, but we do have thousands of feet of crops going right now. Maybe you are thinking it was a bad idea to plant flowers in the winter, particularly given what I've just said about our historically low temperatures. Not so!

 The French Broad River, which runs about two miles from the farm, froze during a long stretch of below-freezing days. The flowers, protected by low tunnels, soldiered on.

The French Broad River, which runs about two miles from the farm, froze during a long stretch of below-freezing days. The flowers, protected by low tunnels, soldiered on.

In the South, many flowers can only thrive if planted during cold temperatures. Tulips, daffodils and other bulbs are well-known examples. Poppies, ranunculus, anemones, larkspur, Bells of Ireland and campanula need a cold start to thrive, and they can freeze and unfreeze without trouble. Scabiosa, foxgloves, snapdragons, yarrow and many others have more flexible planting dates in our region, but why not get ahead if you can?

There's a little basic science behind why some plants can freeze and others can't. Here's the Cliff Notes version. We all know what happens to a glass jar of liquid when you put it in the freezer. It explodes. The same thing happens in the cells of many annual plants. Growing sunflowers in October? A cold night will render them limp and black. The cells froze over night, as if millions of tiny jars of water exploded in the freezer.

 Our poppies didn't mind this extremely cold day. They were cozy in a low tunnel in the field.

Our poppies didn't mind this extremely cold day. They were cozy in a low tunnel in the field.

But some plants fill their cells with antifreeze. It's not so different from what you put in your car. It's an electrolyte solution that lowers the freezing point of water.

Other plants have better adapted cells. So you know how you can freeze a plastic jar but not a glass one? The winter hardy plants are more like the plastic jars.

At certain low temperatures, these adaptations won't be sufficient. This month, we are flirting with those low temperatures, but I've done a couple of things to help our plants. Here's a quick list:

  • Use the sun. Our mountains cast long shadows over the land, and southern exposure is hard to find. The upside is I have learned to focus on topography. If you live in a flatter place, you might not notice the lay of your land as much, but it is equally important. When growing winter crops, it's important to get as much southern exposure as possible. I grow in raise beds (mounds of earth the tractor makes -- like furrows, no constructed sides). The winter rows run east-west to maximize solar radiation. I try to rake the soil at a 5 degree angle toward the sun. Eliot Coleman's "Four-Season Harvest" will convince you the extra effort is worth it. Such a wonderful book! I got a bit sloppy on some of the rows, and I can see a difference in plant health depending on how well I raked!
  • Black cloth. Sometimes a friend. Sometimes a foe. Many cut flower growers use black landscape fabric to warm the soil and control weeds. Most of my flowers are in fabric, with the exception of stock, some of my anemones, and some of my ranunculus. I might change my mind when the weeds start to grow, but in the future, I probably won't use landscape fabric on my winter crops. I'm not noticing a huge advantage in the warming effect, and it tends to get icy around the edges, constrict some plant growth and generally annoy me. Plus it's labor intensive to put down and take up. But the real reason I won't use it next winter has to do with water. It doesn't let the soil breath. Which brings me to my next point.
  • Drainage. You need it. We're breaking in a new field this year, and water is moving in unexpected ways. Thank goodness for our raised beds, which eliminate much of the mischief. However, I'm still digging plenty of ditches to reroute runoff. In the winter, too much water is really dangerous because plants can rot and fungus can thrive. And it takes a very long time for soil to dry in cold conditions.
  • Agribon. I don't have a high tunnel or a greenhouse at the farm. I have some access to indoor growing areas, but the majority of my winter operation is outside. I rely on a very odd polyester substance for protection. I use Agribon brand for no particular reason, and I much prefer the 35 weight, which doesn't rip as easily as 19. The story goes that tobacco farmers helped invent frost cloth or floating row cover or Agribon or whatever you want to call it. They asked Dupont if they had anything, and Dupont gave them disposable diaper fabric. I'm still trying to confirm this story, but it makes sense. The fabric has strange properties. It freezes to itself super easily, sheds dirt, holds water and insulates incredibly well. This winter, my paths have been frozen solid while the ground under the low tunnels is still soft.
  • Low Tunnels. Agribon does not a low tunnel make. You have to prevent the fabric from touching the plants. Otherwise, when the cloth freezes, it will hold ice crystals against the foliage, which is the opposite of what you want. You want the frozen cloth to hold a layer of warm air between itself and the ground and create a humid zone. So what holds up the cloth? For me, its 12.5-gauge wire that I cut from a big roll.
  • Wire. Finding the right wire at the right price is important. I started with plastic conduit, which was way too much expense and work to cut and bend. Then I switched to 9-gauge wire. Still too expensive. Finally, I settled on 12.5-gauge wire that I hunted and hunted for. At first glance, it appears too thin, but it is really the greatest. The 9-gauge is too rigid. It topples over too quickly and gets misshapen when you jam it in the ground. The greater elasticity of 12.5 gauge wire is useful, and the price is unbeatable. The 4,000-foot roll I bought for $80 will get me through the year no problem, and I'll have lots left over. It's such a pain to find. I tried to find the website link for you but couldn't. It's outside, and you'll have to ask the staff to hunt for it, and when they come back with the 9-gauge, be prepared to send them back to look again. They'll find it. I measure and cut in the field using my arm span. I'm nearly 6 feet tall, so when I hold the wire from palm to palm, it's the right length.
  • Bricks. Agribon needs to be weight down. I use bricks because we have access to free, abundant bricks, and they're easy to move. Some people use sand bags filled with dirt. Some people shovel dirt directly onto the fabric. I tried that. I don't like it. Makes a mess.

That's my setup, more or less. It's very simple. Is it enough, you're asking. Yes and no. In our climate, this level of protection is sufficient for what I'm growing. It's inexpensive, and it's temporary. Those are the advantages.

 I open tunnels on warm days and let the plants get fresh air. Moisture near the plants creates a more favorable environment on very cold days, but on normal ones, it encourages fungus to grow in our muggy climate. Also, you can see all the fabric, wire and bricks that go into making this thing happen.

I open tunnels on warm days and let the plants get fresh air. Moisture near the plants creates a more favorable environment on very cold days, but on normal ones, it encourages fungus to grow in our muggy climate. Also, you can see all the fabric, wire and bricks that go into making this thing happen.

We will build a permanent high tunnel with tall metal supports and plastic walls. That might happen as early as this summer. But as a Georgia native, I'm more fearful of heat than cold. It's really easy to fry a plant in a poorly vented high tunnel in the summer in North Carolina. So I'm not in a hurry.

I got all my fabric low tunnels in place just in time for our first snow, a very unexpected 8 inches in December. More on that next time!