The Garden Survives (Another) Record-Breaking Winter

By  |  11 Comments

Go ahead… you can blame me for this winter. Again.

I’ve already fessed up to you about last year, and how I sort of “wished” for a dip to sub-zero temperatures.

Whoops! The Polar Vortex arrived.

Last year’s wish was for a good reason, though. If I was going to sell vegetables through a winter CSA, and encourage fellow market gardeners to do the same, I wanted to make sure that the unheated low tunnels could adequately protect my plants. Luckily, the low tunnels won! My CSA began in January, and will run until our local Farmers Market picks back up again in May.

One of my CSA customers picks up a box of produce, the day before the storm arrived.

One of my CSA customers picking up a box of produce, just a few days before the storm arrived.

Piles of greens and root crops from the garden on February 12th.

Piles of greens and root crops from the garden on February 12th.

 

This year, I sure didn’t wish for a Polar Vortex Redux, but I think I may have accidentally jinxed us.

Back in January, in a radio interview for “Across Kentucky,” I made this statement about growing winter vegetables in low tunnels for my winter CSA:

“The vegetables came through (last year’s Polar Vortex) remarkably well… so well that I feel pretty confident that, really with any kind of winter that hits us, production of vegetables through the winter is possible in them.”

Whoops, again!

Perhaps Mother Nature thought I was getting too big for my britches, ‘cause she really walloped us this year. Big time.

Although our winter had been rather average, a winter storm of historic proportions arrived on February 16th. We received 15 inches of snow, followed by double digit sub-zero temperatures — as low as -14F (-26C). A few days later, we received over 2 inches of rain on top of the snow, leading to structure collapses in our area, and a historic “Ice Tide” in local creeks and rivers that hadn’t been seen since 1918.

Where's the garden? In the lot to the right of our house, under 15 inches of snow.

Where’s the garden? In the lot to the right of our house, under 15 inches of snow.

 

Many of you who follow me on Facebook know that I went into this event feeling more than a little anxious than usual. Should I leave the snow on the low tunnels, as extra protection against the sub-zero temperatures that were forecasted, or should I remove the snow as I usually do to avert tunnel collapse?

It was a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” situation.

I chose to leave the snow on the tunnels. Actually, I didn’t have much of a choice. The walkways between my tunnels are only about a foot wide, and since the tunnels occupy my entire garden space, I had absolutely nowhere to go with that much snow.

 

Turns out, almost all of the PVC tunnels (covered with double layers of Gro-Guard 34 or Agribon 30 fabric row covers) were able to handle the heavy snowfall. One tunnel out of nine did collapse, perhaps because it was constructed a little differently from the others. I usually construct my tunnels by burying the ends of a 10 foot length of PVC pipe (each end to a 1 foot depth), but the ends on the downhill side of this tunnel were slipped over buried rebar instead. Coincidentally, the point of failure on these tunnels was directly above the rebar, as the PVC pipe bent and snapped, rather than flexing outwards like the other tunnels.

Look closely on the downhill side of the bed, and you'll find where the PVC pipe bent and snapped above the rebar.

Look closely on the downhill side of the bed, and you’ll find where the PVC pipe bent and snapped above the rebar.

Although the fabric row cover is sagging somewhat under the snow, and the lower tunnel has compressed under its weight, the tunnels are holding the snow above the plants within.

Although the fabric row cover is sagging somewhat under the snow, and the lower tunnel has compressed under its weight, the tunnels are holding the snow above the plants within.

 

Even though the tunnels weathered the snow event, despite showing signs of compression, the 2 inches of rain proved to be too much. To give you some perspective of how much weight each tunnel was subjected to, you should know that one inch of rain weighs about 5 lbs per square foot. Since I know how much liquid precipitation was in our snow (I’m a cooperative observer for the National Weather Service, so I record and report things like this daily), I calculated that each of my roughly 4 foot by 40 foot tunnels had to support at least 1360 pounds of snow (1.44 inches of liquid precipitation in our 15 inches of snow). Once the 2 inches of rain arrived, each tunnel had to support about 1.5 tons of rain-soaked snow (3056 pounds)!

Despite the frigid temperatures and collapsed tunnels, I’m excited to report that the vast majority of the vegetables survived! After 2 weeks, the snow finally melted away from the tunnels on Wednesday, providing an opportunity for me to open the covers and check on the beds before the next storm arrived (that’s right, we now have almost 6 inches of snow on the ground, and are expecting near-zero temperatures tonight).

So let’s take a tour!

**I apologize in advance for some of the pictures — I chose to use my iPhone camera, rather than risk dropping my more expensive camera in the mud. Sure enough, my iPhone was baptized in the snowmelt.

I do my own cold hardiness trials, growing dozens of vegetable varieties under different types of cover to find the most cold hardy cultivars. This Marabel cabbage was left unprotected in the storm, and has reappeared after the melt. It appears undamaged, but seems to be waving for help.

I do my own cold hardiness trials, growing dozens of vegetable varieties under different types of cover to find the most cold hardy cultivars. This Marabel cabbage was left unprotected in the storm, and has reappeared after the melt. It appears undamaged, but seems to be waving for help.

Much to my surprise, the PVC pipe sprung back into its original arch after the snow melted, despite being compressed for 2 weeks.

Much to my surprise, the PVC pipe sprung back into its original arch after the snow melted, despite being compressed for 2 weeks. The second tunnel from the top of the hill is the one that collapsed under the heavy snow weight — its PVC is bent/snapped beyond repair.

These "extra-low low tunnels" are supported by 9 gauge wire. Remarkably, although some buckled under the weight of the snow, they didn't collapse... perhaps because the beds are 30" widths and the tunnels are less than a foot high at their apex.

These “extra-low low tunnels” are supported by 9 gauge wire. Remarkably, although some buckled under the weight of the snow, they didn’t fully collapse… perhaps because the beds are 30″ widths and the tunnels are less than a foot high at their apex.

The salad beds uncovered. Look at all that green!

The salad beds uncovered. Look at all that green!

A closer inspection of the salad bed greens. Note the buckled wire.  I plant them densely as they will stay baby leaf size all winter, and I continuously cut salad mix from them.

A closer inspection of the salad bed greens. Note the buckled wire. I plant them densely as they will stay baby leaf size all winter, and I continuously cut salad mix from them. This is Osborne Seed Company’s Mild and Wild Brassica Mix.

Another section of the salad beds. Notice there is mud on some of the greens at the bottom of the photo -- this section of the tunnel was compressed and the cover touched the plants, but didn't squish them. The lacy purple plants are a type of mizuna called Ruby Streaks (from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange).

Another section of the salad beds. Notice there is mud on some of the greens at the bottom of the photo — this section of the tunnel was compressed and the cover touched the plants, but didn’t squish them. The lacy purple plants are a type of mizuna called Ruby Streaks (from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange).

Much of this upper bed had been harvested in the months prior to the storm, but survivors include several large Pak Choy, kale, radicchio, endive, and swiss chard.

Much of this upper bed had been harvested in the months prior to the storm, but survivors include several large Pak Choy, kale, radicchio, endive, and swiss chard. It is common for older leaves to yellow with cold damage.

Some vegetables have their limits. These Tatsoi (right) and Joi Choi Pak Choy (left) have a date with the compost pile.

Some vegetables have their limits. Although the youngest leaves are undamaged and may be salvageable, these Tatsoi (right) and Joi Choi Pak Choy (left) have a date with the compost pile.

Red Russian kale is perking up.

Red Russian kale perking up (along with some weeds that I should have dispatched back in the fall).

Even though snow is a great insulator, it would have been insufficient protection on its own. These Red Russian kale were left unprotected for comparison.

Even though snow is a great insulator, it would have been insufficient protection on its own. These Red Russian kale were left unprotected for comparison.

So this broke my heart. All of the flattened plants here were purple sprouting broccoli that were already starting to throw florets... in another two weeks, I would have been harvesting.

So this broke my heart. All of the flattened plants in the collapsed tunnel were purple sprouting broccoli… in another two weeks, I would have been harvesting.

A floret forming on the purple sprouting broccoli. Most of the plant stems snapped under the collapsed tunnel, but a few survived even though they're lying flat on the ground; I'll give them time to see if they recover.

A floret forming on the purple sprouting broccoli. Most of the plant stems snapped under the collapsed tunnel, but a few survived even though they’re lying flat on the ground; I’ll give them time to see if they recover.

The far end of the collapsed tunnel was relatively spared. These Marabel cabbages are semi-squished, but surviving. Luckily for me, I mixed up and accidentally planted a purple sprouting broccoli on that end -- it should produce soon!

The far end of the collapsed tunnel was relatively spared. These Marabel cabbages are semi-squished, but surviving. Luckily for me, I mixed up and accidentally planted a purple sprouting broccoli on that end — it should produce soon!

Looking down the tunnel at my trials of 3 leek varieties, with Asian green braising mix standing tall at the far end.

Looking down the tunnel at my trials of 3 leek varieties, with Asian green braising mix standing tall at the far end. 

A stray seed from the nearby kale bed germinated and towers over some cilantro... A great illustration of the cold hardiness of this herb.

A stray seed from the nearby kale bed germinated and towers over some cilantro… A great illustration of the cold hardiness of this herb.

 

So, I’ve learned my lesson, Mother Nature. Since it seems you’ve been listening to me the past two years, I’d like to put in a request now for an average winter next year. Not mild, not cold… just average, please.

 

Want to learn more?

My eBook, Garden Under Cover, will be released in April… that’s plenty of time to begin planting for your winter garden next year. This book will be chock-full of information about everything from low tunnel construction and management, to planting schedules for vegetable varieties that excel in the cold. Subscribe by clicking here or on the tab at the top of this page.

Alternatively, learn from the same gardening resources that I used in my early winter growing experiences. Clicking on the following links costs nothing extra to you, but provides affiliate advertisement income that helps me pay for this blog to operate.

 

11 Comments

  1. Texan

    March 5, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    So far my garlic and onions and tiny little radish have survived several inches of ice and snow to boot on a couple of occasions now. Not our normal weather. Though we have not seen anything like what you have! Mine are not covered so I am tickled they are still making it. I am amazed at how well your garden has done! Wonderful!!! Its very exciting to see this! Are those black radish in the first picture? If so yours look super, mine have never gotten that big! As always so informative to read your post.

    • Cathy

      March 5, 2015 at 7:46 pm

      Yes! Those are Black Spanish radishes. Glad to hear you’re having a successful winter garden as well. 🙂

  2. Petra

    March 5, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your gardening wisdom and woes. It makes us all feel a little better and work a little harder.

  3. Margit Van Schaick

    March 6, 2015 at 12:21 am

    Congratulations on such a productive Winter garden, and thank you for showing us how the plants fared during this brutal season. So informative. And inspiring. I look forward to your book. Wishing you much success!

  4. Pingback: Fiercely D.I.Y. Fridays #9 - Homespun Seasonal Living

  5. Sandi

    March 8, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    I have enjoyed all of your information and am doing some winter garden this year and looking forward to more next winter.

  6. Philip

    March 18, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    Fantastic article!! Is it necessary to “seal” the row cover to the ground?

    • Cathy

      March 25, 2015 at 1:22 pm

      Thank you! I never seal the row cover, as I want to be able to access my plants when I want — can’t do that if the cover is frozen in the ground. I don’t use any weights to keep the edges of my fabric down — I just criss-cross rope secured to stakes across the tunnels.

  7. Pingback: Planning {and planting} the fall garden | SchneiderPeeps

  8. jim

    October 19, 2015 at 1:02 am

    Hello…just love your blog. I’m in Utah and also have a 5 person CSA, but I don’t get going until spring and I end in late fall. Ive noticed that you’ve got CSA baskets. It looks like you’ve got 5 items in the basket. Kale, carrots, mixed green salad, turnips, and maybe one other item. How often do you harvest and what do you charge? Does that charge include them picking up their basket of goodies or do you deliver for a fee? Thank you. Jim

    • Cathy

      October 29, 2015 at 9:07 am

      Thanks, Jim. My CSA members pick up their shares ($25). Best wishes with your CSA!