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