Why soil tests matter: lessons from my vegetable garden

Regular blog readers will remember that we moved to my childhood home a few years ago. With an acre or so of landscape I finally have enough room to put in a vegetable garden. My husband built a wonderful raised bed system, complete with critter fencing, and we’ve been enjoying the fresh greens and the first few tomatoes of the season.

Jim puts on the finishing touches to our first raised bed garden.

We filled these raised beds with native soil. During a porch addition I asked the contractor to stockpile the topsoil near the raised beds. The house was built almost 100 years ago and at that time there were no “designed topsoils” (thank goodness) – soil was simply moved around during construction. Some of this soil had been covered by pavers and the rest had been covered with turf. [You can read more about designed topsoils in this publication under “choosing soil for raised beds.”] There had been no addition of nutrients for at least 7 years so I was confident that this was about as natural a soil as I could expect.

Our native soil, ready for adding to our raised beds.

I’ve always advised gardeners to have a soil test done whenever they embark on a new garden or landscape project, so before I added anything to my raised beds I took samples and sent them to the soil testing lab at University of Massachusetts at Amherst (my go-to lab as there are no longer any university labs in Washington State for the public to use).

What I already knew about our soil was that it’s a glacial till (in other words it’s full of rocks left behind by a receding glacier). The area is full of native Garry oak (Quercus garryana), some of which are centuries old. The soil is excessively drained, meaning it’s probably a sandy loam. And that’s about all I knew until my results came back.

Some of our massive, centuries old Garry oaks.

Because nothing has been added to this soil for several years, and because I had removed all of the turf grass before filling the beds, I assumed that the organic matter (OM) would be quite low. Most soils that support tree growth have around 3-7% OM. Hah! Ours was over 12%! All I can figure is that centuries of leaf litter has created a rich organic soil.

I never expected this level of OM.

So here’s lesson number one: Don’t add OM just because you think you need it. Too much OM creates overly rich conditions that can reduce the natural protective chemicals in vegetation. This means pests and diseases are more likely to be problems.

I think these may be the lowest P levels I’ve seen in home garden soils.

I was pleased to see our P level was low. First soil test I’ve ever seen in my area where P was below the desirable range! Does that mean I’m adding P? No – because there is no evidence of a P deficiency anywhere in the landscape. And my garden plants are growing just fine without it.

No sign of any nutrient deficiencies here (though the mesclun mix got out of control).
Or here either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lesson number two: Just because a nutrient is reportedly deficient, look for evidence of that deficiency before you add it. It’s a lot easier to add something than it is to remove it.

Likewise, our other nutrient values are just fine, and I was pleased to see that lead levels were low. Given that this is an older house that had lead paint at one time, and given the fact that the soil being tested was adjacent to the house, I was prepared for lead problems.

Surprisingly low lead given the original location of this soil next to an older house.

However – we do have high aluminum in the soil. Exactly why…I don’t know. Perhaps the soil is naturally high in aluminum? There’s no evidence that aluminum sulfate or another amendment was ever used. In any case, that was an unexpected result that does give us some concern for root crops. I’ll be doing some research to see what vegetables accumulate aluminum.

The aluminum levels may bear some watching if I’m growing root crops.

Finally, note our pH – 4.9! This is completely normal for our area, which is naturally acidic. In addition, the tannic acid accumulation from centuries of oak leaves has undoubtedly pushed the pH even lower. Are we going to adjust it? Again, no. There is no evidence of any plant problems, and even our lawn is green. Why would we adjust the pH if there is no visual evidence to support that?

No, this is not a typo.

Which leads to lesson number three: Don’t adjust your soil pH just because you think you should. If your plants are growing well, the pH is fine. Plants and their associated root microbes are pretty well adapted to obtaining the necessary nutrients. If you have problems, don’t assume it’s a pH issue. Correlation does not equal causation! You’ll need to eliminate all other possibilities before attempting to change your soil chemistry. And remember it is impossible to permanently change soil pH over the short term. Permanent pH changes require decades, if not centuries of annual inputs (like our oak leaves).

The cat agrees – no pH issue with this lawn.

Will I test my soil again? Probably not. I have the baseline report and since I don’t plan to add anything I don’t expect it to change much. If I had a nutrient toxicity I would retest until the level of that nutrient had decreased to normal levels. But with everything growing well, from lawn to vegetables to shrubs and trees, there really is nothing to be concerned about.

Viburnum plicatum (I think) is one of many established shrubs on the property.

Lesson number four: Unless you have something in your soil to worry about, don’t.

Give me your huddled root masses yearning to breathe free

About this time last year I posted photos of the installation of my new pollinator gardens (all perennials). As you can tell from the photos below, all of these plants have not only survived but thrived with their midsummer rootwashing.

Garden 1. Robust perennials! Except for the the sad, tiny lavender in the lower right hand corner (discussed below).
Garden 2 is just like the other, except the strawberry groundcover is replacing the wood chips.

 

 

 

 

 

The only ones that didn’t make it were the six Lavandula stoechas ‘Bandera Purple’ (see above). They did fine through the summer and well into winter. But with our surprise snowstorm in February (along with a 20-degree temperature drop in one night – from 33 to 14F), all but one of these marginally hardy plants (USDA zones 7-10) gave up the ghost. I won’t make that mistake again. But I will continue to root wash ALL of my perennials before I plant.

It’s pretty easy to excavate this tree (planted months ago) since there is NO root establishment.

And since it’s Independence Day here in the US, I thought I’d continue with the “free your roots” theme and discuss the medieval torture system that passes for recommended B&B tree installation practices. I’m talking about the burlap, the twine, and the wire baskets that are left on the root ball and cunningly hidden underground to do their damage over the years.

THIS is what should be planted.
Not this.

 

 

 

 

 

There is a great deal of disagreement about what to do with all the foreign material that’s used to keep tree root balls intact during shipment. To be clear, that is the ONLY thing they are intended to do. There is no research that shows leaving them on benefits the tree at all. The reason they are left on is because it’s more economically feasible for the installation company to do it this way. Personally I think that’s a pretty crappy reason, particularly when you are looking at trees that can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Does anyone seriously think this is a good way to plant trees?

Most studies that have addressed the issue have been short term: two or three years, rarely longer. Irreversible damage to roots can take years to develop. It’s useful, therefore, to look at the landscape evidence to see what happens with all these barriers to root growth and establishment.

Death row.

Arborist and landscape designer Lyle Collins recently excavated the remains of trees that had been installed in 1991. The trees had died years ago and certainly hadn’t grown much as evidenced by their trunk size.

Not much trunk growth in this tree.

But while the trees didn’t survive, the burlap, wire basket, and webbing were all still there almost 30 years later.

Basket and webbing are clearly visible (after washing)…
…as is the burlap (before washing)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The clay rootballs are nearly intact as well. That’s not what you want to see. Roots must establish outside the rootball into the native soil, or they won’t survive.

Intact rootball after 28 years
The same rootball after washing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually I’m convinced long-term research will show the folly of leaving foreign materials on the rootballs of B&B trees. In the meantime, I’ll continue to plant trees in a way that ensures their roots are in contact with the native soil and free from any unnatural barriers to growth.

 

 

 

Cornmeal magic – the myth that will not die

Way back in 2010 (and then again in 2012) I wrote about a bizarre belief that cornmeal could be used to treat fungal diseases, from lawn spot to athlete’s foot. Rather than rehash what’s already been written, I’ll invite readers to read those posts for background. And of course look at the comments, which are…interesting.The weird thing is that this post from 2010 is the single most popular post on the blog. (Our stats are only for the last two years since we migrated the web site – who knows how many there were before May 2017?)

Blog stats over two years

The consistent popularity for the topic spurred me to publish a university fact sheet on the use of cornmeal and corn gluten meal in home landscapes and gardens. This fact sheet reviews the pertinent literature, and makes recommendations that are pretty much the same as those I made almost 10 years ago. Nothing has changed in the research world to support cornmeal as a fungicide.

But wait, there IS something that’s happened since 2010! Now cornmeal is being touted as an insecticide! In fact, if you go to Google and search for “cornmeal” and “insecticide” you’ll find thousands of hits.  As you might expect, there’s no research to support this notion: researchers in Maine, for instance, found no effect of cornmeal on fire ants. However, it is used as a bait to deliver actual insecticidal chemicals.

Way back in 1937.

But facts don’t get in the way of home remedies, such as Lifehacker’s eyebrow-raising advice.

Hmmm…

By refining the search to only include university websites (use “site:.edu” to do this), and swapping out “ants” for “insecticide,” you’ll find at least one Master Gardener group happily (and illegally) recommending cornmeal as an ant killer. The popular mode of action is either (1) they can’t digest cornmeal and starve or (2) the cornmeal absorbs water in their gut and they explode.

Boom!

This reminds me of yet another food product – molasses – recommended for killing ants. Since you’re already here, you might as well check out Molasses Malarkey parts 1, 2, and 3 too.

Might I recommend everyone use their cornmeal and molasses to make bread or cookies or pancakes? There are some delicious recipes on the internet.

Yum!

Bare Rooting – a guest post from a commercial landscaper

What are these trees and do they look like this? Read on to find out!

Today’s blog post is courtesy of Mary Blockberger of Sechelt, BC. As you’ll see, Mary and I go way back.  I thought it was important to our ongoing discussion to see how the industry can use the root-washing technique effectively and economically. Here’s Mary:

“Before I began managing the Sunshine Coast Botanical Garden in Sechelt, BC I had a small residential landscaping company.  By small, I mean that I was the employee of the month every month of the year!  One of our Garden’s mandates is to provide relevant and educational programs for our community.  Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has been one of our most popular speakers several times.  One of her presentations dealt with the practise of bare-rooting perennials, shrubs, and trees prior to planting, and the tremendous advantages of following this method.

Root-washing and installing 36 Carpinus. November 2007.

“In November, 2007 I had a chance to try this technique out.  My client wanted a ribbon of Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’ planted that would eventually be pleached into an interesting pattern.  [Pleaching is a formal tree training technique.] There was a total of 36 trees to be planted; most were container stock as I recall but there may have included a couple of B&Bs as well.  Working with another local landscaper, into a wheelbarrow of water went every single tree one at a time.  The dirt was clawed away from the root balls by hand with a final spray from the hose.  Honestly, it was a cold and miserable job, and I believe a few curses directed at Linda ensued.  However, once the roots were cleaned of all soil planting was a breeze.  It’s a lot easier moving trees without moving the soil too.

Carpinus are well established and pleaching is underway. April 2009

“Flash forward 12 years, and every single tree has flourished.  Bare rooting allowed us to identify and correct any problems before planting, and I’m sure this has a lot to do with the trees’ success.  It’s a time consuming and at times messy method, but the reward of a healthy row of trees is well worth the effort, IMHO.”

Pleached Carpinus hedge May 2019

And let me add to Mary’s account that a ZERO replacement rate is going to pencil out to long term economic success. I was able to see these trees earlier this year – that’s my photo at the top of this post.

Planting with a “flare”

Anyone who plants or cares for woody plants eventually hears the term “root flare” (or root crown). It’s easy to describe a root flare (it’s the region where stem or trunk morphs into roots). What’s sometimes difficult or even impossible is finding it in improperly planted trees and shrubs.

Conifer root flare
Angiosperm root flare

 

 

 

 

One of the primary causes of tree and shrub failure is improper planting depth. This is not a problem with bare-root plants, as you can easily see the region of transition. During planting you should make sure that the root flare is at grade, so that the roots are underground and the stem/trunk is above ground. The only mistake you can make with bare-root plants is to plant them upside down.

Grafted bare root trees clearly show root flare

The problem really started with the advent of containerized and balled-in-burlap (B&B) plants. This technology is less than 100 years old, and before it existed everything was either planted from seed or from bare-root stock. It’s possible to use containers and B&B properly for temporarily housing trees and shrubs, but increasingly automated production methods with unskilled workers and undereducated supervisors means increasing numbers of poorly planted woody plants entering the retail market.

Vine maple planted too deeply in container
Tree buried too deeply in burlap

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve written earlier posts about how to select plants at the nursery. As you’ll note, finding the root flare can often be impossible without removing container media or B&B burlap. Because so many people are unaware of the problem or unwilling to disturb the root ball, these plants are then installed with the root flare still buried.

Lilac planted too deeply
Pine tree planted too deeply

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why does it matter if part of the trunk is underground? For some species, it really doesn’t matter. Wetland species, for instance, can tolerate low soil oxygen levels and submerged trunks. But most of us are not planting wetland species, and many ornamentals are not tolerant of this treatment. Roots that are buried too deeply don’t receive enough oxygen to survive, and the plants respond by trying to create a new root system. These adventitious roots are unable to supply enough water to the growing crown, however, meaning shrubs and trees suffer chronic drought stress when the rate of evaporation exceeds the ability of these substandard root systems to supply water.

With only skimpy adventitious root system to take up water…
…this tree suffers chronic drought stress every summer

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are other problems, too. Stem and trunk tissues of non-wetland species are not adapted to being buried. The excessive moisture and lack of oxygen contribute to the attack of opportunistic pests and diseases, both of which can cause irreversible damage and eventual death. You can even see this happening to plants in the nursery.

Rotted trunk clearly visible in improperly bagged B&B

Finally, consider this landscape evidence of the impact of buried root flares. These magnolias are all planted on the campus at Princeton University. The one of the left is significantly smaller than the other three. A close up of the trunks explains why.

One of these trees is not like the others
Magnolia tree under stress from being buried too deeply
This magnolia tree thrives with its root flare clearly visible

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have newly planted trees that look more like telephone poles than trees, the best thing you can do is dig them up and plant them correctly.

Keep the fabrics in your closet and off of your soil

One of the “advantages” of being in the same office suite as me is hearing (a) that arborist wood chips are about as close to a miracle product as you can get and (b) that landscape fabric is hell on (the) earth. So my office mate Liz, either because she was convinced of the above or just wanted to shut me up, decided to rip out the landscape fabric in her ornamental bed and replace it with wood chips. She even made it a family project, somehow convincing her two young daughters that this was “fun.” Here’s her pictorial essay of the process.

Before the switch

Yes, there is “weed block” underneath all those weeds

Why on earth does anyone still believe that “weed block” fabric actually does anything remotely related to controlling weeds?  It provides a great substrate for all those weed seeds blowing around, which find themselves the recipients of any rainfall or irrigation. They germinate and grow like crazy – because they are WEEDS. It’s what they do.

Worse yet for the soil – all of those pores in the fabric that supposedly allow water and oxygen to move through are soon filled with bits of soil. The resulting mat is anything but permeable. But weeds love it!

The process

First  Liz had to score some woodchips, which as you can see pretty much filled her driveway. The girls, however, thought they were a great addition.

Georgie scales Mt. Mulch

Next, all of that fabric had to come out. This is not an easy process, because the surface of the fabric was completely colonized by weeds. A mattock is a great tool for getting this done.

Viv tackles the landscape fabric with its weed colony.

Now, let’s look at the soil underneath the fabric. You can see how dry it is. That’s because even during our rainy springs in the Pacific Northwest all of the rainfall stays on top of the fabric, allowing lush weed growth. The roots of all of the landscape plants get virtually none of this, and in the summer that’s a source of chronic drought stress.

Close up of soil under the fabric

Fortunately, the soil underneath, while dry, looks pretty good. Once the shrubs and perennials are able to take advantage of the increased water and oxygen they will thrive.

The girls still hard at work while Liz cleverly avoids it by taking pictures.

The results

A well-mulched ornamental bed

Maybe you don’t like the look of arborist wood chips, but it’s certainly better than the weedy mess that used to be there. Plus, the soil benefits from the increased water and oxygen, the beneficial microbes in the wood chips, and the slow feed of nutrients as those chips slowly decompose.

If you are ready to switch from “fabric fail” to “wood-chip win,” you can start with this fact sheet which will guide you through the process.

Rethinking the monocultural lawn (again)

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been in London having some unforgettable garden experiences. Thanks to the generosity of my UK colleagues Glynn Percival and Jon Banks I was treated to Kew Gardens, RHS Wisley Gardens, and Windsor Castle. I hope to construct several blog posts from these visits, but today’s post is an homage to the English garden meadow. Instead of monocultural turf lawns, mowed and sprayed into submission, why not consider a more biodiverse and visually pleasing approach to groundcover?

RHS WIsley meadow. Photo by Charlotte Scott.

As the title of this post suggests, this is not a new topic in our blog. (You can read other related posts here, here, and here.) What was so stunning about these garden meadows (meadow gardens?) was the scale and effortless beauty. For instance, consider this tree-lined parkway at Kew, covered with English daisies.

Kew Gardens parkway. Photo by Charlotte Scott.

I saw my first honest-to God cowslip in a meadow garden at the British Museum of Natural History.

Primula veris (cowslip). Photo by Charlotte Scott.

How about these adorable tiny daffodils and checker lilies?

Daffodils and Fritillaria. Photo by Charlotte Scott.

And here they are en masse.

Masses of spring bulbs transform this lawn. Photo by Charlotte Scott.

This isn’t to say that the formal lawn isn’t a thing in England, It is.

Windsor Castle. Photo by Charlotte Scott.

But unless you have a castle, a baseball diamond, or a putting green to manage, why not consider something more appealing, not only to the eye but to your beneficial wildlife?

Rivers of daffodils bisect more traditional grass lawn. Photo by Charlotte Scott.

 

Is it good advice? Or is it CRAP?

In my educational seminars I’ve long shared a version of the CRAAP test (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose) for analyzing information related to gardens and landscapes. My version is CRAP (credibility, relevance, accuracy, purpose), and we’ve published an Extension Manual that explains in detail how to apply it. This past week I was at the Philadelphia Flower Show participating in Bartlett’s Tree Care Update panel. Given that the theme of the show was “Flower Power,” I figured that a talk on Magical Mystery Cures was in order. And the 1960’s was the decade where the late Jerry Baker gained prominence as a garden authority – and whose presence is still widely felt nearly 60 years later.

And anthropomorphizing of plants begins….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, I could spend the rest of the year discussing all of Jerry’s advice, tips, and tonics for gardens – but it’s more useful to determine whether he is a credible source of reliable information. So let’s apply the CRAP test.

C = credibility. What are Jerry’s credentials as a garden expert? It’s easy to find this information from the internet, including the Jerry Baker website. He had no academic training in plant or soil sciences but started his career as an undercover cop who often posed as a landscaper. His books are all popular publications, meaning they have not gone through critical review by experts before publication.

R = relevance. For our purposes, his information is relevant to our focus of managing gardens and landscapes (as opposed to production agriculture, for instance).

A = accuracy. Jerry’s advice is not based on any scientific source. He relies on common-sense approaches, folklore, and his grandmother’s advice. In fact, many of his assertions are at odds with published scientific evidence. Now, science evolves, and older scientific publications are sometimes found to be inaccurate after new information comes to light. If Jerry’s books were meant to be accurate sources of information, they would be updated with new findings as subsequent editions were published. This is what happens with textbooks, for example.

P = purpose. What is Jerry’s ultimate purpose? It’s sales. There’s no way around this conclusion. Over twenty million copies of his books have been sold, and during his career he became the spokesperson for several gardening products. Probably the most well-known of these was the Garden Weasel (which parenthetically is a great way to destroy fine roots and soil structure). There’s no doubt he was a brilliant self-promoter and marketer. But he was not a reliable resource, and many of his “tips and tonics” are extraordinarily harmful to plants, pets, and the environment.

“Garden Weasel” courtesy of Wikipedia

While I was wrapping up my research on Jerry Baker I was particularly taken by a chapter in one of his books (one of his Back to Nature Almanacs) called “The Tree Quacks.” I thought some of these quotes were particularly ironic:

The source…
…and the quotes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that these quotes were actually not his own. In fact, the entire chapter was plagiarized from a 1964 article by John Haller in Popular Science, which is online. This action is uncomfortably similar to his 1985 trademarking of the phrase “America’s Master Gardener,” 12 years after the Master Gardener program was formed (but not trademarked) at Washington State University.

Text from 1964 Popular Science article

I hope this post has helped you learn to analyze the credibility of information and information sources. If so, you can claim the of America’s Master CRAPper ™!

A Gardener’s Primer to Cold Hardiness, Part 2

Snowpocalypse!

Last week I discussed the mechanics of how cold hardy plants can survive temperatures far below freezing. Today we’ll consider the practical implications of this phenomenon and what, if anything, you can do to help your plants through cold snaps.

What happens when temperatures change at unusually high rates?

Remember, supercooling occurs when temperatures drop slowly, allowing water to leave living cells and freeze in the dead spaces between cells. When rates drop quickly, which can happen on sunny winter days once the sun goes down, water can freeze inside the cells before it has time to migrate into the extracellular space. When that happens, those cells die when ice crystals pierce the cell membrane. Sometimes this damage will be visible right away – you’ll see water-soaked areas in leaves, for instance, where the contents of the cells have leaked into the extracellular spaces.

Watersoaked leaf on left was frozen, while the one on the right was not.

In other cases you may not see damage until spring, especially in buds that have frozen. The scales prevent you from seeing what’s happened to the tissues in the bud, but once warmer temperatures arrive you will see brown or black leaf and flower buds. These are NOT diseased buds, though they are often colonized by opportunistic pathogens.

Partially damaged Rhododendron flower bud

What about wind chill?

The wind chill question is an interesting one. Despite the way it feels to you, wind chill does NOT lower the temperature below the ambient air temperature. It just cools things off faster than they would without the wind. For cold hardy plants, this has two important effects:

  • The rate of temperature decrease around the plant speeds up – so ice can form faster than normal. This can result in freeze damage to the plant as described above.
  • The wind itself is dehydrating, pulling away water from plant tissues and causing freeze-induced dehydration (as discussed last week). This also causes damage to susceptible tissues and is often called winter burn.

So even though the temperature itself is not lowered by wind, the rate at which it decreases and the additional dehydration stress means that plants can be damaged at temperatures they would normally survive in the absence of wind.

What can we do to help plants survive?

Before cold temperatures are expected, it is critical to mulch the soil well with a thick layer of coarse, woody mulch. This insulates the soil and roots, which are the least cold tolerant of all plant tissues. Roots never go dormant, so they are generally unable to supercool much more than a few degrees below freezing. Oh, and be sure your soil is moist (but not waterlogged). Moist soil is a better heat sink than dry soil.

Arborist wood chip mulch protects soil and roots throughout the year.

Next, be sure insulate freeze-susceptible plants. This can be done by constructing a cage of chicken wire around small trees and shrubs, filling it with leaves, and then wrapping it in burlap. Containers should be moved to the leeward side of the house or other building and grouped together. The containers need to be protected from freezing at all costs.

Heavy wet snow should be removed to avoid structural damage to woody plants.

Speaking of insulation, snow is a great insulator. But it’s not always best to leave it in place. If temperatures are cold and snow is dry and light, leave it in place to insulated tissues. But if temperatures are near freezing and the snow is wet and heavy, remove it as much as possible. Its insulative value is marginal and the damage that heavy snow can do to trees and shrubs is permanent.

 

 

A Gardener’s Primer to Cold Hardiness, Part 1

Ice crystallizing on the outside of plant tissues is often not damaging (Ralf Dolgner)

With record low temperatures in some parts of the country, gardeners are understandably worried about the ability of their perennial and woody plants to survive the cold. What today’s post will do is give you some context for understanding how plants can survive temperatures far below freezing.

Why ice floats and how this damages cells

Ice weighs less than water, but takes up more space (Wikipedia).

Everyone knows that ice floats, whether it’s an iceberg in the ocean or cubes in your favorite chilled beverage. Ice is lighter than water because its molecular structure is different: there is more space between water molecules in ice. When water freezes naturally, the molecules organize into hexagons, forming a crystalline lattice (which helps explain why snowflakes look the way they do). This hexagonal shape forces water molecules farther away from each other, resulting in a porous material that’s lighter than liquid water.

Hexagonal shapes of of ice crystals (Picryl)

As ice crystals grow, they take up more space than the water did in liquid form. You know this if you have ever left a filled can or bottle in a freezer. The pressure can blow off the lid or split the container – and the same thing happens to animal cells: the membranes are distended until they burst. But plant cells are different: there are cell walls outside the membrane which are rigid and prevent membrane rupture. However, ice crystals are sharp and can lacerate membranes, including those in plant cells.

Frozen bottles of water will either leak or explode (PxHere)

How cold hardy plants avoid freeze damage

Woody plants have evolved a mechanism to survive winters that allows ice formation in certain areas and prevents it in others. This process takes advantage of the fact that plant cells have walls, and that the area between the cells – called the extracellular space – is not alive. Extracellular space is filled with gases and liquids – including water. Water can freeze in these spaces without causing damage because there are no membranes in extracellular spaces, only cell walls. As ice freezes in these “dead” spaces, more liquid water is drawn into them by diffusion from the adjoining cells. There are two outcomes of this: one is that ice only forms in the dead space, not the cells themselves, and two is that the liquid inside the cells becomes more concentrated.

Water that is full of dissolved substances (like sugars and salts) is less able to form ice crystals because there are relatively fewer water molecules in concentrated solutions. We can see this when we add deicers to frozen walkways and roads. The ability of water to stay in liquid form at temperatures below freezing is called supercooling. Plants that are cold hardy are able to tolerate ice formation in dead tissues and avoid ice formation in living tissues by supercooling.

Salt allows water to stay in liquid form at temperatures below freezing (BU News Service)

Supercooling is different than flash freezing

We need to discard any comparison of supercooling to flash freezing, a process used for cryopreservation. Flash freezing rapidly lowers the temperature of the tissue or organism being preserved at rates far faster than what happens in nature. The water molecules don’t arrange themselves in a crystalline lattice as they freeze. Instead they form small crystals in an unstructured form, which don’t take up more space than liquid water. This means that ice doesn’t damage the cells, which are still viable once thawed.

Supercooling allows water to remain in liquid form at temperatures below freezing…but eventually everything freezes (Wikimedia)

Supercooling is a process that occurs under natural conditions, which usually mean slow decreases in temperature. This allows water to continue to move out of the cells into the extracellular space where it freezes. (There are exceptions to this naturally slow rate, and I’ll discuss those in a follow up post.)

There is a limit to supercooling

Unfortunately for plants (and gardeners) there are limits to supercooling. These limits vary with species but even the most cold hardy plants will eventually experience injury and death. The reason this happens, however, isn’t from the freezing itself, but from drought stress. Let’s look at what’s happening inside the cells during supercooling.

A schematic diagram of plant cell plasmodesmata (Wikimedia)

As water continues to diffuse into the extracellular spaces, the cell becomes less turgid; this is called freeze-induced dehydration. Without water forcing the cell membranes against the walls, the membranes start to pull away as water is lost. Eventually the membranes and plasmodesmata (which connect living cells to one another) are stretched and break. These cells are now dead – they are isolated from the rest of the plant and the torn membranes allow liquid to seep out. So cells, tissues, and entire plants that die from low temperature stress are usually killed by drought stress!

And a photomicrograph of plasmodesmata connecting plant cells (Wikimedia)

In my follow up post, I’ll discuss the practical significance of this phenomenon, including rapid temperature changes in natural and the influence of wind. And, of course, some suggestions on how to help plants survive these stressful conditions.