Whoops! Heavy Snow vs. The Greenhouse

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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Have you ever read a homesteading blog where the writer brags about all of his or her great accomplishments and where all of the projects always work out great with no problems? Well that’s not this blog!

Do you ever watch the nightly news and when they show people who live in tornado-prone areas but haven’t built a bunker and you say to yourself, “If I lived in Tornado Alley, I’d be better prepared.” I used to think that way too, but I’ve mellowed over the years. I’ve come to understand that human inertia sometimes prevents you from getting stuff done even when you know you really should do it. It’s amazing how many excuses you can find for not accomplishing an important task.

I had one of those events during the last week of November. I had been looking forward to the fall hoping that I could start slowing down after running the CSA until October. But there has been a steady stream of tasks and projects that have kept me occupied. You can tell that the list was overly long because for the first year ever I was hard-pressed to find the time to get my garlic planted, despite the fact that I planted a fraction of what I have planted in the past. I actually dodged a bullet too because I had a fair amount planted when the ground froze up but I wanted to get more in. We got a thaw, which allowed me to finish it.

Preparing Greenhouses for Winter

One of the tasks on my never-ending “TO DO” list was to upgrade the greenhouse to deal with the snow load. I knew that since I’d used PVC pipe for the ribs it might not be as rigid and strong as I’d like. If you built your greenhouse with steel ribs you don’t have to worry about this. I had found the plans online somewhere and whoever had provided them might not have had to worry about the weight of snow, but I knew I would have to deal with it.

About mid-November I started on the project because there was snow in the forecast. I went out to the scrap woodpile to grab some pieces to build some supports to put down the center of the greenhouse. Then I remembered that I’d like to build benches to put our CSA boxes on next year. We’d like to get the boxes off the ground to help our backs so we’re not leaning down as we fill our boxes. I knew I would need a fair amount of wood for this project. And I knew that once my piles of wood got covered in snow I wouldn’t be able to access them and this is one of my winter CSA projects. So I spent some time finding the best pieces of wood and moving them to some shelves, up off the ground. This got them in one place so that I’ll be able to brush the snow off to access them later in the winter.

I should mention that we often don’t get snow here until the end of December. So far the Fall has been below the seasonal average in temperature. During the last week of November Michelle took the train to London, Ontario to visit our daughter and they had just received 70 cm (28 inches) of snow. But they’re in a snow belt where snow comes off the Great Lakes. We don’t usually get a dumping in November. But one thing lead to another and I let myself get distracted with building the scrap wood shelves and sorting through the wood piles to get the best stuff and low and behold I didn’t get back to working on strengthening the greenhouse supports.

I kept an eye on the weather forecasts and one day we were on the leading edge of a storm but it looked like we might even miss the snow altogether and just get rain. Can you hear the rationalization in my voice?

It got dark that day and so I postponed the greenhouse support project for another day and I hoped for the best.

Overnight we got a dumping of snow. Wet, heavy snow. The next morning things were not good. The greenhouse had collapsed in the middle. Many of the PVC pipes had snapped and broken and not in good places. This was not a “Crazy Glue” kind of repair job. This was a big mess. And it was my own fault. It doesn’t look quite so bad in the photo once I got the snow off, but when I first looked at the greenhouse in the morning it was only about two feet high in the middle.

There was a time in my life when I would have become very angry about this. In fact I would have cursed a blue streak and found the biggest hunk of wood I could find and smashed whatever I could find to smash. I’m not proud to admit this, but that’s the way I would have dealt with this. I guess I’ve been living in the country too long because while I was angry that I’d let it happen, I didn’t find it that big a deal. I figure it will take a couple of days to fix and I’ll just tack it on to my job list, which never seems to get any shorter anyway.

It kind of was a “perfect storm” type of event. It was a really heavy snow, and was way more snow than I ever remember getting in November. Normally I think of snow just sliding off the plastic of a greenhouse but the plastic I used on my greenhouse is really old (a friend of mine bought replacement plastic for his greenhouse and so this was his leftover, used piece of plastic) and I didn’t have it strung saran-wrap tight, so the snow stuck to it.

My friend Hans the architect was over one day and the first thing he said when he saw my greenhouse was, “That’s where you’ll support it” and pointed from one side of the barn foundation to the other. It all sounds so easy when someone else suggests something like this, in the summer. I did take him up on his suggestion, just a little too late, that’s all. I have strung some heavy gauge wire around an old horse wagon axle draped between the concrete door on one side and then through the greenhouse and around the rock crib I use for rain barrels on the other side. And I built some supports that kind of look like oil wells for inside.

I know, I know … you’re saying, “Well if you had the time to do this after the fact, why didn’t you just do it before it collapsed?” I know. I get it. I agree. I should have. I wasn’t lolly gagging though, I promise. I guess it’s just human nature. There was a possibility of this bad outcome, but it seemed kind of remote. We don’t usually get snow like this in November. The snow should have slid right off the plastic. That PVC is probably pretty strong and should handle some snow. I should be fine. Yup, it could handle a couple of inches, maybe even half a foot. Unfortunately, we got more like a whole foot of snow and it was heavy and it didn’t slide. Lesson learned. Smarten up Cam!

And life goes on. I’m healthy. My family is healthy. The sun still rises and sets on Sunflower Farm each day. The holidays are coming. The to-do list just got another item. Life is good.

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