Snow on the Mountain: Winter Flower Farming, Part 2

Mud sledding is a phenomenon of Southern childhoods. Growing up in Georgia, we rarely got snow, and when we did it was less than an inch, barely enough to coat the grass. Looking ahead of me at the white powder, I remember imagining deep snow, but looking behind me, blades of discolored grass poked through my footprints, ruining the illusion.

No one owned a sled, so we found laundry baskets and cardboard boxes and went in search of hillsides. The melting snow would quickly pack into an icy muddy mess, and we would go home wet and streaked with red clay.

 Little Emily exploring what is a very sorry excuse for a winter wonderland. Note the giant patches of mud and lack of a sled. Also, who cut my hair like this?

Little Emily exploring what is a very sorry excuse for a winter wonderland. Note the giant patches of mud and lack of a sled. Also, who cut my hair like this?

I've lived in North Carolina for six years, and we get plenty of snow here. Plenty by my estimation, anyway. Eight or 10 inches once a winter and a couple of 3- or 4-inch snows. Still, my experiential knowledge of snow doesn't feel like my experiential knowledge of other weather events. I'm still catching up.

 Same lady. Better hair. We built this snowman to watch over the farm. It worked!

Same lady. Better hair. We built this snowman to watch over the farm. It worked!

Snow on the farm makes my head spin, and I wind up repeating theoretical ideas to myself: fresh snow, warm; old snow, cold. It's been hard to find answers about what to do with snow. I think many people don't have these questions. They either know snow or they don't. Why would anyone write at length about snow farming? The information is either obvious or irrelevant, right?

So for the Southern mud sledders among us, here's what I know so far about farming in the snow.

  1. I am always wrong about snow. Mostly, I tend to believe it won't happen, even if it's forecast. That attitude gets me into trouble because I don't prepare properly.
  2. Snow crushes low tunnels. They're not made to carry any snow load. For snows greater than an inch, pull the covers off, in my opinion.
  3. Snow hurts plants in two ways: crushing and freezing. You can avoid the crushing if you pull the covers off the tunnels so they don't collapse all at once. The freezing happens after the snow melts and refreezes. I'm still coming up with solutions for this problem, but it seems like taking the Agribon out of the equation helps the snow dissipate more quickly so it doesn't have the chance to turn into ice.
  4. Sometimes you have to go to the field at 3 a.m. and blow all the snow off the low tunnels with a leaf blower.

Our first snow rolled in during the early morning hours of December 8. Mountain weather is reliable only in that it is changeable and unpredictable. Some years our first snow comes on Halloween. Other years it doesn't come at all. December 8 felt early for 10 inches of snow, but when I think back on past winters, it wasn't really.

However, it was 60 degrees just a week earlier on December 1. I told you the weather was changeable.

 This picture is of fields of flowers. Covered in snow.

This picture is of fields of flowers. Covered in snow.

The 10 inches that fell during the night and in the morning were totally unexpected. We were supposed to get a dusting. My newly constructed low tunnels didn't stand a chance, and they flattened under snow for days. Fortunately the snow acted as an insulator for most of that time, holding the warmth of the ground under itself. And the thaw happened relatively quickly without too much awkward refreezing.

Our second real snow came January 17, and although it was only about 3 inches deep, it really bummed me out. After a week of below freezing temperatures at the beginning of the month, my patience for extreme weather events was limited.

Again, I didn't expect the snow to happen. It crept up on us in the wee hours of the morning, flattening the tunnels. It hung around for a day of low temperatures, and then sloppily melted and refroze the next night. If I could do it all over again, I would have been more fastidious about clearly the partially melted snow off the plants on the second day. I think the refreeze caused a bit of damage here and there.

 Low tunnels are at their worst in snow, but they still do their job of keeping flowers warm. And they don't rip under the weight like plastic, so that's very nice! I gripe about them, but they're a good tool for a quickly growing farm.

Low tunnels are at their worst in snow, but they still do their job of keeping flowers warm. And they don't rip under the weight like plastic, so that's very nice! I gripe about them, but they're a good tool for a quickly growing farm.

I took solace in Lisa Mason Ziegler's Instagram posts. Her low tunnels in Virginia looked just like mine in North Carolina. Most flower farmers already know this, but Lisa is the author of Cool Flowers, a pretty little book that explains what you can grow throughout the winter. It's particularly useful for Southern growers like me with warm winters (usually). I feel like material on Southern flower farming is hard to find via mass market publishers, so it's a nice book to have. LMZ also has an amazing blog and website that has all sorts of technical information for growers and pictures and stories. Click here to look at that fine thing.

Anyway, I sought her advice on the internet since we had twin tunnel collapse, and Lisa said she thinks the refrozen snow is what causes the most damage, but there's not much you can do about it! Thanks for weighing in, Lisa! The good news is, a healthy plant rebounds easily from a bit of frost nip.

I don't really care for snow all that much, as you might be able to tell, but one thing I really like about it is how it reveals microclimates. The day snow melts is a great time to find warm, sunny pockets and plan for the future. It's like the warmest land is reaching out to you from beneath the snow.

 See how the snow melts inconsistently? The first places to thaw are the wet paths and the southern slopes of the furrows, which receive the most solar radiation.

See how the snow melts inconsistently? The first places to thaw are the wet paths and the southern slopes of the furrows, which receive the most solar radiation.

During the last snow, I took out the leaf blower and assailed my tunnels with pressurized air. It felt powerful. It was nice to fight back against the elements, even though I don't know how much difference it made. I was a bit late, so in the future, I think I'll employ the leaf blower sooner. It helps break up snow pack at the base of the low tunnels, which is really important if the tunnels need to be vented.

So what would I do if I were going to do it all over again?

  1. Take the fabric off the low tunnels before they collapse.
  2. Otherwise, clear snow off tunnels with a leaf blower as soon as possible to prevent collapse.
  3. Precut extra lengths of Agribon and keep them in a warm, dry place. Have them at the ready if any row covers rip or freeze to themselves and need to be replaced.
  4. Buy a real sled. Finally.
 A broom and a leaf blower help clear away melting snow. But a light hand and a careful operator are also important!

A broom and a leaf blower help clear away melting snow. But a light hand and a careful operator are also important!