Under the icy surface of a frozen garden pond, plants and creatures adapt to survive winter's chill...
It is deepest winter, and the garden pond is buried beneath bleached ground. Sparse stems of robust plants jut through the pure white cover, as though reaching for warmer heights, their remaining leaves brittle and laced with frost. Settled snow hides the pool’s periphery, smoothing the edges as shoreline and surface are blended into uniformity.
The pond dozes through a seasonally imposed, cryogenic sleep. Aside the tracks of passing cats and birds pressed into the crisp covering, there is empty desolation. Yet still, life remains; it has just sunken. Below the surface, biological clocks tick and skeleton workforces continue to labour.
The upper levels are abandoned. As ponds cool, the life they contain relocates progressively deeper, an exodus from the surface ice to follow. Governing this are changes to the physical properties of water, brought about by the low temperatures. For aquatic life, these changes are essential for survival, as without them, the pond would freeze solid.
The main parameter altering the pond’s very dynamic is water density. Liquid water is most dense at 4°C. At temperatures below that, it thins again, until it solidifies as ice. This results in thermal stratification, where dense water sinks, and cooler water forms layers on top. This is partly why ice starts at the surface, instead of throughout.
For aquatic residents, the denser, warmer layer represents a safe oasis at the very limit of their temperature tolerance. This safety can be easily compromised. Depth is critical: if the pond is too shallow, then stratification will not occur. Small bodies of water, less than 35in (90cm) deep, can be hostile to even hardy life. Fish may need to be rehoused indoors while the worst of the season passes.
Fountains or circulation pumps can impact temperatures, mixing the various densities of water together and cooling them until ice starts to form at all depths. At a microscopic level, the pond becomes a semi-solid slurry, causing tiny frozen crystals to form within the tissues of plants and animals. The resulting physical damage can be lethal for anything using the pond as a home, as plant cells rupture, insect shells split, and gills and organs of fish are lacerated.
There are roughly three million manmade garden ponds in the UK. Many are a forced coexistence of native and imported flora and fauna. Among them, goldfish originating from East Asia rank as the country’s favourite alien inhabitants and for good reason. Their tolerance to temperature extremes helps them endure the wide fluctuations of a comparatively balmy British climate.
Wildlife that can avoid fish predation exploit garden pools in winter. Frogs and newts bury themselves in silt and slurry, part camouflage, part insulation, becoming dormant at 5°C. They remain so until the warmth returns, drawing oxygen from the water directly across their skin, known as cutaneous respiration, rather than inhaling atmospheric air.
Insects are found beneath the ice. Truly aquatic species, such as water boatmen and great diving beetles, are ill- adapted to living outside a body of water. They periodically roam the underside of the frozen sheet, seeking out bubbles of air. The young of some aquatic beetles overwinter in muddy ponds, living as larvae buried at the base. Others, in adult form, crawl out for drier refuge.
Crustaceans do not take a winter break. Many amphipods and isopods, such as woodlice, spend their whole lives among the substrate. They are leaf shredders, gnawing through food that has fallen into the pond, and mulching it into a fine detritus. The falling leaf bounty of autumn is sufficient to see them through long-drawn winters.
Microbes in the pond may still function at low temperatures. Some are even found after centuries of dormancy in harsh Arctic permafrost. Though activity levels are seriously compromised, they still use any available carbon, nitrogen and oxygen locked away in the pond’s waste, as well as oxygen in the water, to convert organic debris into a mixture of energy and effluvium.
The hermetically sealed box of a frozen pond presents a problem here. Bacteria feeding on debris produce carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen sulphide and a farrago of other noxious gases. With nowhere to escape, these gases accumulate, poisoning higher life. To avoid this, excess sediment must be removed with nets or aquatic vacuum cleaners before the winter sets in.
With the sun gone, plants divert energy from stem or leaf growth, focusing attention on their roots. By storing carbohydrates in their bulbs, roots or rhizomes, they have adequate reserves to subsist frugally until light returns and photosynthesis can resume. Water lilies stop any surface growth. New leaves will sprout in spring, and they are best left alone until then. Provided they have had a productive summer, they will return more strongly, year on year.
Many introduced plants, especially floating ones, stand little chance. Removing them to an indoor bucket may be their best hope for survival. Indigenous plants and those from northern climates, such as the spiky water soldier, will follow everything else to the bottom. Here, they adopt a submarine lifestyle until conditions improve. Where foliage has evolved this means of survival, it will adopt it without prompting.
Deeper oxygenating plants and algae stay minimally active. As long as some light can reach them, and carbon dioxide is available, they continue a lethargic photosynthesis, trickling out oxygen. Darkness forces them to respire, with plants dipping into their energy stores of sugar when the nuclear force of light is unavailable. This in turn causes them to produce carbon dioxide instead. In a smaller pond, this is avoided with the regular clearance of snow from its surface. Larger ponds will be too hazardous to stretch across.
Goldfish care in winter is easy: they are left alone without food. As cold-blooded creatures, unable to generate their own body heat, their metabolic rates are enslaved to water temperature. Feed rates need to be drastically reduced below 10°C, while sub-8°C digestion is entirely dormant. Feeding during a reprieve between cold snaps risks filling their bellies with indigestible fare when the temperature dips again. When snow and ice prevail, feeding is suspended.
Breaking surface ice to create breathing holes is often counterproductive. The pressure waves from any sudden impact are enough to shock fish, often to a lethal degree. Just as bad is the use of boiling water, which will cause acute damage to any life it meets as it mixes.
Floating pond heaters will help to the extent of clearing some surface ice, but do little beyond that. In the cold, oxygen travels approximately 2mm a day through static water. Given that pond life migrates to the bottom, it takes weeks or months for the gas to travel down that far. Breathing holes in ponds are superfluous, except where gases inside the pond need to be released. Unless excessive gas bubbles form on the underside of the ice sheet, or the pond is catastrophically overstocked, then holes are not essential.
Until spring’s thaw, it is wise to let the inhabitants of the pond continue to do what they have been successfully doing unaided for millions of years.
Words Nathan Hill
PLANTS KEEP CHANGING THROUGHOUT THE ICY MONTHS TO PERFORM WELL IN THE SPRING AND SUMMER
Under its seasonal covering of snow or frost, the winter garden appears dead and lifeless. Brave splashes of colour come from witch hazels, viburnums and a few other shrubs. But the majority of the garden seems to be sleeping, waiting for the warmer weather and longer daylight hours.
This is an illusion. The garden never sleeps, and all winter there are subtle but vital changes taking place. Under the soil, the cold is working its magic on seeds, bulbs and roots. Even the chill winds have a role to play to ensure flowers and fruits appear later in the year. Without the winter cold, gardens would be less beautiful in the summer.
A period of cold weather is essential to many plants and crops. Without it, some would struggle to grow at all, while others would not flower or produce crops.
One example of crops that need a cold spell are fruit trees such as apples, plums and pears. If temperatures remain high, these trees would not come into growth in spring, nor produce flower buds. In a process known as vernalisation, the reduction in daylight initially induces the trees to go dormant. They shed their leaves, which would require too much energy to maintain in winter when they make less food. Then the trees must be exposed to a certain number of days with a minimum temperature, usually less than 7°C. Only when this has happened are they ready to burst into growth and bloom when temperatures rise. This process is designed to ensure this happens in spring, and not in autumn.
The amount of days of cold required is expressed in chill hours. Some require longer periods of cold than others, although the reason for this is not currently known. However, the plants are believed to store the necessary information and pass it on in their genes.
Bulbs in winter
Hardy bulbs need different weather conditions at different times of the year to grow and produce flowers. Flower bulbs are formed in summer, as a result of heat in a process called baking. Root growth is stimulated by the cooler and wetter weather of autumn. However, it is the cold of winter that is needed to stimulate stem growth. Temperatures of 10°C or below trigger the elongation of the flower stem.
Attempts to grow hyacinths or daffodils in the home often results in hyacinths with a clump of flowers crowded in the neck of the bulb or daffodils on dwarf stalks. This is the result of ignoring the bulbs’ need to spend at least 10 weeks in cool conditions, ideally outside below 10°C. There are exceptions to this such as ‘Paperwhite’ and ‘Soleil d’Or’. Native to warm Mediterranean regions, they do not need a period of cold for their stems to grow. It is autumn rain, rather than winter cold, that spurs on these daffodils’ growth.
Getting ahead in the race for light
In winter, herbaceous plants stop growing and die back. Instead, they store the carbohydrates they make from water and carbon dioxide from the air in their roots. This provides the plants with a reserve of energy, designed to give them a head start in spring. They store the carbohydrates as starch because this is more concentrated in energy (calories) than simple sugars. Starch is not water soluble, making it difficult to move around the plant in the sap.
The onset of cold weather, however, triggers enzymes in the root to convert the starch back into soluble sugar. This means it can be moved to the growing tips of the plant, ready for early spring’s surge of growth. Once the conditions are right, they are able to push their shoots to the sunlight ahead of surrounding plants such as annuals. This stops the new growth from being smothered by the hundreds of annual seedlings which are germinating at the same time. Peonies and dahlias are both examples of the wide range of plants this benefits. It is also the reason why parsnips taste sweeter after they have been frosted.
Saving the next generation
When grown from seed some plants need a cold spell before they will flower. These include biennials such as wallflowers, aquilegias, sweet Williams and onions. Blooming in late spring, they release their seeds in summer. If the seeds germinated immediately, they would flower and set seed as soon as they were big enough. These new seeds would not have time to ripen before winter arrived. The cold weather would kill them, with the loss of a whole generation. Instead the plants make healthy clumps of foliage the first year. Then they wait for a sufficient winter chilling before producing flowers. No matter how early in spring these seeds are sown, they will only produce leaves in the first year, never flowers.
The necessary cold period to stimulate flowering can be very short. Several biennial plants, such as parsnips, carrots, beet and onions, are grown as vegetables. The starches and sugars stored in their roots provide valuable food when eaten. If these vegetables are sown too early in spring, there is a risk of short cold snap while they are growing in April or May. This could fool them into thinking that winter had come and gone, and it was time to flower. At this point the plants ‘bolt’, sending up flower stems and the crop is lost to the gardener.
The biennials above require winter chilling to make them flower. There are other plants, however, that need their seeds to be vernalised before they germinate at all. The seeds undergo a period of dormancy. In some cases, simply the softening of the hard coat by frost and weathering action will allow the seed to germinate. This applies to some lathyrus species including sweet peas.
In other cases, this weathering is linked to the need for a cold, moist period. This triggers the seed’s embryo to grow and expand. It breaks through the softened seed coat seeking the sun and nutrients. Seeds do this because if they germinated in autumn, the seedlings would be unlikely to survive the winter. If frost did not kill them, grazing animals, slugs and snails would eat them in the absence of other food. Delaying germination till spring gives every seed a better chance of survival to maturity.
All these processes show that winter is not just a time of frosty beauty. Its chilling weather creates more than a snowy landscape, it plays an essential role in ensuring that the following season is as productive and beautiful as the last.
Words: Geoff Stebbings Photography: Alamy
ICY COVERING OF CRYSTALS TURNS THE COUNTRYSIDE WHITE ON A CLEAR NIGHT
Onclear, still winter nights, a delicate covering of crystals turns the countryside white. The phenomenon is hoar frost. Leaves, flowers and stems are covered with delicate patterns. Spiders’ webs are outlined with a fragile coating. Fine feathers and needles turn grass silver and give trees a ghostly frame.
The name hoar comes from the old English word, hor or har, for white or grey. These frosts form on cold, cloudless nights, with little or no wind. The conditions must be right for crystals to form directly from water vapour present in the air. This process is called sublimation and happens when air changes to a solid without passing through a liquid stage. A true hoar frost is formed solely by sublimation, and is neither frozen dew nor droplets of water. In practice, the frost is often a combination of frozen dew and sublimation.
On these nights, the ground, and the air just above it, steadily cool as they rapidly lose heat to the atmosphere by radiation. Eventually the dew point is reached – this is the temperature at which water vapour in air condenses into liquid water. Both the air temperature and the dew point need to be below the freezing point of water for hoar frost to form.
When the radiation persists, and the temperature continues to drop, the air becomes supersaturated with moisture. The excess moisture is deposited in the form of needle-like crystals that bind themselves onto surfaces.
A crystal world
If there is a lot of moisture available during the long winter night, hoar frost is formed in a thick layer. This can resemble a covering of snow. The pure white is caused by the reflection and refraction of light as it interacts en masse with the frost’s crystalline structure.
An area of high-pressure during the winter will provide the quiet conditions suitable for the formation of a hoar frost. An old weather rhyme says ‘clear moon, frost soon’. When it occurs on successive nights, and does not melt during the day, an ever thicker coating of crystals are formed. This can be 1in (2.5cm) or more long. Conversely a cloudy sky or windy conditions inhibits radiation, preventing a frost.
It is possible for a lawn to be coated with hoar frost while trees and shrubs are frost-free. This happens when the ground temperature is several degrees colder than the air higher up, which remains above freezing point.
Places that are particularly susceptible to a frost are known as frost hollows. As air chills its density increases. On a clear night, slopes in undulating country lose heat by radiation cooling the air above them. The cold air runs downhill like water into hollows and valleys. It is known as a katabatic flow, from the Greek word katabatikos, meaning downhill. If it is trapped by embankments across the valley or by natural spurs jutting outwards, a lake of cold air can form. The valley floor is coated with a thick hoar frost whereas higher up may be frost free. During March 2012 there was only one air frost at a weather station in east Surrey situated above a downland valley. A weather station close by on the floor of the valley recorded 16 air frosts.
Hoar frost in the garden
Gardeners can inadvertently create frost pockets by building a solid fence across a slope. The type and texture of soil is also a factor in contributing to the likelihood and severity of a frost. Sandy soils lose heat more rapidly and reach the frost point more readily than a clay soil. Moist soils will not cool as briskly or lose as much heat.
Hoar frost can be harmful to more delicate plants, shrubs and trees. Water freezes within the plant’s cellular structure, breaking down the walls. A vulnerable time is just after dawn when the air is often at its coldest. Rays from the rising sun are cast onto foliage, causing a rapid defrosting. This ruptures the sides of the plant’s cells when the sap expands. By putting fleece covers over plants, frost is prevented from forming on the plants themselves and averts that sudden thawing. Plants inside a glass cold frame get some protection from a coating of hoar frost. The covering raises the temperature inside by several degrees, giving some protection from radiation.
The longer the duration of the frost, the more a plant suffers. It is the buds and flowers that are most tender. One plant that is susceptible is Magnolia soulangiana. A mild winter induces the tree to flower early, then a spring frost scorches it.
In an average year, many places will have twice as many grass or ground frosts than air frosts. Air temperatures measured at 4ft (1.2m) can often be up to 40C higher than those on the lawn, flower bed or vegetable patch. A thick hoar frost can blacken potatoes while the blossom high on an apple tree may be untouched, remaining just above freezing.
The effects of nature’s frozen tracery are unpredictable, but its beauty remains one of the wonders of the winter.
Words: Ian Currie Photography: Alamy
VIVID BERRIES AND LEAVES OF SPINDLE TREE PROVIDE FOOD FOR BIRDS AND VISUAL TREAT
With the approach of winter, spindle trees start to set the garden ablaze with the colour of their fruit and foliage. These shrubs, botanically known as euonymus, shake off their previously plain appearance, as the leaves burn red and purple. It is, however, the bright, jewel-like fruits that gleam in misty hedgerows. In spinning cascades of pink and orange, they create droplets of pure, bright colour amid the drab branches of other deciduous shrubs. These fruits persist like hot embers long after the foliage has fallen.
A feast for birds
The fat seed capsules are divided into four plump symmetrical lobes like miniature lanterns. These split to reveal glossy orange, rounded fruits that descend from their covers and spin in the breeze. As they ripen and become more prominent, the colourful seeds provide a valuable food source. Persisting well into winter, birds feast off them through the coldest months.
The birds are attracted by the orange fleshy seed coat, with its high-calorie nutrition. Inside the coat the true seeds remain intact after being eaten. Because of this, they are able to make their way through the birds’ digestive tracts to be deposited far away from the parent plant. This is an exquisitely balanced natural relationship. It supports native birds, helping them to survive through winter, while the spindle tree is able to propagate itself throughout the countryside.
The native Euonymus europaeus is such a veritable larder for birds that it will often be aggressively defended by robins making it part of their territory. For this reason,
it is known as ‘robins’ bread’ in some areas of the country.
The fruit is poisonous to humans, as are all parts of the plant. The toxic berries, however, have been put to good use. One traditional remedy for head lice involved applying the crushed berries to the scalp. Referencing the plant’s poisonous nature, the name ‘euonymus’ may originate from Euonyme. In Greek mythology she was the mother of vengeance-wreaking goddesses, the Furies.
The bright fruits are often initially seen dangling below a mantle of colourful leaves. Before it falls, the spindle tree’s foliage has one of the most impressive transformations in the British landscape. It turns from an unobtrusive dark green to a bright pinkish red with splashes of purple and hints of orange.
‘Red Cascade’, a cultivar of Euonymus europaeus, has the brightest and perhaps best colour for this time of year of any plant. A spreading shrub, it reaches 10ft (3m) across and 8ft (2.5m) high. The scalloped leaves gradually turn deep red, starting at the midrib and spreading to the leaf edges. Before the metamorphosis is complete, the leaves take on hues of pink, orange and purple. ‘Red Cascade’ bears plentiful fruit, the branches bowing under the weight.
A lesser-known characteristic of spindle trees is just as fascinating. A close look into the criss-crossing mass of leafless winter branches and the ‘winged’ outline of the straight stems becomes apparent. The branches develop four wings of corky bark, which if cut through have a cross-shaped silhouette. This feature is most prominent on Euonymus alatus, known as the winged spindle. Originating in Asia, it grows to 10ft (3m) in height, gradually spreading to a similar width. With age the bark of the main stems may become fissured, adding to the unusual and sculptural winter outline of this plant.
A limestone lover
The native European spindle, Euonymus europaeus, thrives on alkaline soils and is common on the chalk downs of southern England and on limestone hills and vales. Preferring full sun and freely draining soils, it is tolerant of winds and hard frosts. While it can be found in the shrubby lower canopy of ash, beech or yew woodland, the leaves will be at their most colourful in an open, sunny position. The one situation it will not tolerate is boggy, waterlogged ground. In its natural habitat a spindle tree may live for over 100 years.
Once a very common hedgerow plant, a campaign of grubbing out in the 1970s has left it a rarity in the wild. The spindle tree was thought to harbour crop diseases and pests, especially black bean aphid, which is a major pest of vegetable crops. There was little evidence that euonymus was a truly significant threat to farming.
Now the native plant is spreading in gardens, where it is an easy-to-grow, highly ornamental shrub.
Where to grow in the garden
Ideally, spindle trees are grown where there is an unobstructed view of them in winter. The centre of an island bed is a good location, where its summer foliage offers a useful green foil for tall flowering herbaceous perennials. A winter border with bright-stemmed winter dogwoods Cornus alba, Cornus sericea and Cornus sanguinea is another good site.
There are over 170 species of euonymus around the world but just a handful make suitable garden plants. Euonymus europaeus prefers alkaline soils, but will also grow well in neutral or slightly acidic ground as long as the soil is free-draining.
It is one of the easiest shrubs to maintain, growing in full sun, part shade, sheltered or exposed situations. It is a tough plant that can be used to provide a windbreak, particularly when grown with other wind-tolerant trees such as hawthorn and dog roses. With its abundant food, it is an excellent choice for a wildlife or nature garden.
‘Red Cascade’ is one of the best cultivars of E. europaeus for the garden. Its colour and fruit has earned it an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Euonymus planipes is another good spindle tree for the garden. Displaying some of the most dramatic winter colour, it grows to 10ft (3m) high. With pinnate leaves reminiscent of an ash tree, it has a vase-like shape that spreads upwards and outwards from a narrow base.
Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ is an ideal shrub for less spacious gardens, reaching only 3½ft (1m) in height. With the same distinctive winged wood as the larger E. alatus, it makes an attractive, smaller sculptural winter plant.
Spindle trees need little work. They form a naturally balanced and well branching framework. Little pruning is required, removing only dead, diseased or crossing and rubbing branches, or branches that are growing in an awkward place. Any pruning is done in late winter or early spring before weeding around the base. The tree will then benefit from a mulch of well-rotted garden compost.
The spindle tree is a fascinating plant, valued for its unique aesthetic qualities, wildlife-friendly properties and its many practical uses. It deserves a home in British gardens where the bright fruits and colouring leaves welcome the changing of the seasons and feed hungry birds.
Words: Melissa Mabbit Photography: Alamy