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!

 

 

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!