Plants lost following greenhouse roof collapse at Pulaski High School

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

As winter draws to a close, activity inside high school greenhouses ramps into high gear as agriculture students begin the annual ritual of planting countless flats of bedding and vegetable plants for spring fundraisers.

Inside the temperature controlled structures, verbenas and geraniums bloom as tomato and pepper plants gain stature waiting for warmer weather to signal the onset of planting season.

Snowstorm Evelyn did her best to waylay those plans, dumping up to 30 inches of heavy snow in northeast Wisconsin, threatening to collapse the covered structures. The heavy blanket of snow was blamed for the collapse of a greenhouse at Pulaski High School and a hoop house at Winneconne High School.

The heavy snow cover was more than the roof of the greenhouse at Pulaski High School could endure. All the contents inside the greenhouse were considered a loss.

"We're anticipating that the greenhouse and its contents will be a total loss," said Pulaski Superintendent Bec Kurzynske.

Pulaski Agriculture teacher Cedric Pettis said a temperature sensor alarm alerted staff that something was amiss on Sunday, April 15. 

"The greenhouse was full of flowers and vegetables that we had planned to sell at our spring plant sale," Pettis said. "The kids started planting those plugs and seeds back in March and had invested quite a bit of time. They were pretty disappointed to see that all of their work was just gone."

Pettis said the income from the annual plant sale helps to fund trips including the Wisconsin FFA Convention and other activities throughout the year.

Greenhouses are more than just a building to protect growing plants but also serve as a classroom and laboratory for horticulture classes and more. Kurzynske says the school district has another greenhouse at the middle school and a smaller one in the biology department.

"We will be planning on how to utilize that space for the instructional component and to make sure that our agriculture students still have that educational experience," Kurzynske said. "Of course, we will be looking to rebuild that structure so that we can continue offering that program to students."

Braving the elements

Agriculture teachers across the state braved the blizzard-like weather so they could continue to care for the plants and, in some cases, classroom animals.

The framework of this 20x12-foot hoop house at Winneconne High School collapsed under the weight of the snow.

When agriculture teacher Jim Melby reached Winneconne High School Sunday morning, he was relieved to see the greenhouse still standing but noticed the framework supporting the freestanding 20-foot by 12-foot hoop house had been crushed under the weight of the snow.

"The hoop house was a place for students to do in-ground plant production. Inside we had prepared the beds for planting this week," Melby said. "That's out of the question at this point. And it's doubtful that insurance will even cover a replacement."

Melby says that vegetable plants grown inside the structure were sold to the school's lunch program as a way to provide locally grown foods for students. Extra produce grown inside the structure is also donated to the local food pantry.

"Right now our blueberry and raspberry plantation is buried under 7-foot snow drifts," Melby said. "We planted the blueberries last year and they were starting to bud out before this snowstorm."

Maintenance crews dug a path to the greenhouse at Lena High School which escaped harm during snowstorm Evelyn which dumped 30 inches of heavy snow in the area.

Bobbi Windus was unsure of what she would find when she drove to the high school in Lena on Monday. Drifts of snow barricaded the doors to the greenhouse until a school maintenance employee was able to carve a path to the door.

Inside the building were approximately 100 hanging baskets and flats and pots filled with annuals and perennials, vegetable seedlings and elementary Mother's Day projects.

"There were massive snow piles surround the building but we were very fortunate it held up," Windus said. "We only lost power for a few hours during the storm. We were lucky the heaters kept running."

Bedding plants continue to thrive inside the greenhouse at Shawano High School despite snow blocking out sunlight on the walls and roof.

The 20-year-old greenhouse at Shawano High School protected its fragile contents despite being nearly obscured by piles of snow. The lean-to structure attached to the school building is slated to be replaced this summer by a free-standing structure said Agriculture teacher Missy Goers.

"The greenhouse is pretty much buried so sunlight isn't getting to the plants as it should and the side vent is blocked by all the snow so we're unable to open it, she said, add that vent facilitates proper air movement. "I hope the new greenhouse is as strong and durable as this structure."

Agriculture teachers venturing inside greenhouses with heavy-laden roofs also reported being nervous for their safety.

"(Being) inside was almost surreal; the normally bright greenhouse was almost dark due to the amount of snow on the roof and drifts up the sides," said Waupun Area High School Agriculture teacher Tari Costello. "I made a quick trip through the greenhouse to get the areas that needed the most attention and said a prayer that the greenhouse wouldn't collapse due to the snow on the roof.

FFA chapters across Wisconsin depend on their sales of flowers and vegetables as a big fundraiser for the chapter and community outreach projects.

"I feel lucky that I had a greenhouse that withstood the snow, unlike other teachers, and that I was able to gain access. Far too many others weren't able to because of the tremendous amount of snow," she added.

Costello said the structure currently holds thousands of dollars worth of annual flowers that will be sold to the public in just 2 1/2 weeks.  In addition, agriculture students planted 750 tomato and pepper plants that will be donated to the Waupun Food Pantry.

The investment contained inside those transparent walls is borne by the FFA.

"These plants represent a tremendous amount of pride, time (3500 student hours) and effort for our students. The greenhouse provides an opportunity for the students in this class to gain experience running a business in one term," Costello said. "They start the plants at the beginning of the term and complete all phases of operating a business including marketing, advertising, customer service, development of sales information sheets, salesmanship and, of course, the aspects of growing a wide variety of plants in a greenhouse setting."