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  • Writer's pictureJere Folgert

Will my Garlic Plants Freeze in the Spring!

Updated: Apr 30

Why Some Plants Freeze While Others Thrive in Frosty Weather


Stepping out to greet my postage-stamp backyard garden this May, a pang of disappointment struck. Ice crystals glittered on the soil, a cruel reminder of the frost's unwelcome visit. Tender young plants, hopeful sprouts I'd nurtured since early spring, now lay limp and lifeless.


Despite the setback, flickers of life remained. An American Robin, a rare treasure this year, danced among the resilient green grass in search of worms. Determination bloomed alongside the disappointment. Even amidst the frost's devastation, there were victories to celebrate. The rhubarb, a persistent soul, was already pushing through the earth. Kale, young garlic plants, and collards stood tall, a testament to their resilience. And the woody Thai basil, a gift from a kind neighbor, surprised me with ten brand new sprouts, proving that even what seems like failure can hold the promise of spring.


Have you ever wondered why your precious tomato plants turn sad, dark, and squishy after a surprise frost, while your kale and garlic just shrugs it off like a seasoned pro?

Spring's arrival brings the joy of new life in the garden. But along with those happy little sprouts comes a lurking fear – the surprise frost. While some plants seem to shrug it off, others turn into blackened mush. Why the dramatic difference? The answer lies in the fascinating world of plant cell biology!



At the heart of the issue is how plants handle water. When temperatures dip below freezing, water within the plant's cells can turn to ice crystals. These crystals are like tiny daggers, piercing and rupturing cell walls. The damage disrupts vital cellular functions, essentially giving the plant a cellular meltdown.


Here's the key difference between our frost-tolerant heroes (kale, garlic and onions) and our frost-prone friends (tomatoes, potatoes):

  • Freeze Tolerance:  Kale and onions are what scientists call "freeze tolerant." They have a special adaptation that allows them to survive freezing temperatures. As the temperature drops, they actually concentrate dissolved solutes (sugars, salts) in their cells. These solutes act like antifreeze, lowering the freezing point of the cellular fluid. With a lower freezing point, the water stays liquid for a longer time, preventing ice crystal formation and catastrophic cellular damage.

  • Freeze Susceptibility:  Tomatoes and potatoes, on the other hand, are "freeze susceptible." They lack the same level of solute production and their cells are more vulnerable to freezing. Their new spring growth, tender and full of water, is especially susceptible. When the frost hits, ice crystals form readily, rupturing cells and leading to the wilting, browning, and death we see.


On April 30, 2024, GroEat Farm in Bozeman got a blanket of 6 inches of fresh snow and freezing temperatures. While this might seem like bad news for plants, it was actually a welcome surprise for the young garlic plants! Unlike many other plants, garlic is a cold-weather crop that can survive very low temperatures, even in the spring when their new green leaves are just emerging.



Science!  Plants have another trick up their sleeve: supercooling. This allows some plant fluids to remain liquid even below the freezing point of water. It's like a biological loophole defying the laws of physics (sort of). Supercooling provides some additional protection for freeze-tolerant plants.


Welcome to the frosty world of plants, where some brave souls defy the cold while others succumb to its icy grip. Have you ever wondered why your tender tomatoes and potatoes shiver at the mere mention of an early frost, while your trusty garlic and kale stand tall and proud? Let's take a chilly adventure into the realm of plant biology to uncover the secrets behind this frozen phenomenon. First, let's set the stage: early frost. It's every gardener's nightmare, striking when you least expect it, catching tender plants off guard and turning them into icy sculptures. But why does this happen?


In the whimsical theater of botanical survival, the enigma of frost unfolds with complexity, unveiling the secrets of resilience and fragility in the verdant realm. Evergreens, sentinels of winter's icy domain, boast a formidable arsenal of adaptations, from waxy cuticles to specialized cells housing antifreeze proteins, safeguarding their chlorophyll-laden leaves from the lethal grasp of crystalline tendrils. Yet, amid the curated chaos of a garden, kale emerges as a verdant protagonist, its robust constitution and aptitude for cold resistance a testament to millennia of selective breeding.



With a biochemical repertoire enriched by the synthesis of cryoprotectants and the fortification of cell membranes, kale defiantly thrives in the frigid embrace, its vibrant hues a vibrant defiance against the monotony of freezeing spring day's. However, amidst this verdant tapestry, tomato plants stand as unwitting casualties of the frost's remorseless advance. Unlike their hardy counterparts, tomato plants succumb to the lethal consequences of cellular crystallization, their delicate tissues rupturing under the unrelenting pressure of frozen water, a poignant reminder of nature's impartiality and the delicate balance between survival and succumbing to the frost's icy grasp.


When temperatures drop below freezing, water within plant cells can freeze, causing the cell walls to rupture and leading to irreversible damage. This is bad news for plants with delicate cell structures, such as tomatoes and potatoes, which are packed with water and prone to freezing. But fear not, for not all plants are created equal in the face of frost. What about garlic and kale, the frost warriors of the plant kingdom. These hardy souls possess a secret weapon against the cold: resilience. Let's take a closer look at garlic, shall we?


How do Young Garlic Plants Survive Freezing Temperatures?

In the botanical battleground of spring's awakening, the resilience of hardneck garlic plants emerges as a testament to the intricate dance between biology and environment. As the frost recedes and the earth stirs from its early spring slumber, the new green shoots that bravely emerge from the clove harbor a remarkable survival strategy honed by evolution. These hardy green sentinels, equipped with a biochemical arsenal finely attuned to the whims of temperature, defy the bitter chill with stoic resolve. Beneath their verdant veneer lies a network of specialized cells fortified against the frost's icy embrace, while the synthesis of cryoprotectants shields delicate cellular structures from the lethal consequences of freezing. Meanwhile, the indomitable spirit of the tomato plant, though adorned with its own botanical prowess, falls prey to the frost's relentless advance. Unlike the hardneck garlic, the tender tissues of the tomato plant succumb to the ravages of crystallization, their delicate membranes rupturing under the unforgiving pressure of frozen water. Thus, in the saga of survival amidst spring's tumultuous awakening, the hardneck garlic stands as a resilient beacon of botanical ingenuity, while the tomato plant serves as a poignant reminder of nature's impartiality and the delicate balance between adaptation and vulnerability in the face of freezing temperatures.


The secret lies in tiny superheroes called cryoprotectants! These wonder molecules act like antifreeze for plant cells. When temperatures plunge, water inside plant cells usually forms ice crystals, which can be disastrous, ripping through cell walls like a wrecking ball. But cryoprotectants, like sugars and special alcohols, work in two cool ways. First, they act like sponges, soaking up extra water outside the cell, and preventing giant ice crystals from forming. Second, some can even sneak inside the cell and replace water, forming a special glass-like state that doesn't freeze! This keeps delicate cellular structures safe and sound. Plants naturally produce their own cryoprotectants, which explains why garlic sleeps soundly under the snow while your prize petunias might not. Scientists are even studying these natural heroes to develop better cryoprotectants, so maybe someday all our plants can be winter warriors!


This pungent powerhouse is not your average plant. Beneath its skin lies a fortress of cell walls reinforced with a special compound called allicin. This compound acts like a natural antifreeze, protecting garlic cells from the ravages of frost by lowering the freezing point of water inside the plant. But that's not all. Garlic also boasts a unique ability to adjust its metabolic processes in response to changing temperatures, allowing it to conserve energy and withstand cold snaps with ease. It's like having a built-in thermostat!


Garlic: The Frosty Ninja

Here's why garlic plants can survive a cold spell.

  • Sugary Armor: Garlic bulbs are loaded with sugars like fructose and sucrose. These sugars act like natural antifreeze, preventing the water inside the garlic's cells from turning into icy shards.

  • Sturdy Cell Walls: Garlic's cell walls are extra thick and strong. This added protection helps them withstand the pressure of freezing and thawing without bursting.

  • Dehydration Defense: When the temperature dips, garlic actually reduces the amount of water in its cells. This dehydration trick further lowers the freezing point and makes it harder for ice crystals to form.


The Great Cell Freeze-Out

Plants are like tiny water balloons. Most of their insides are filled with a watery solution. When temperatures plummet, this water can freeze, forming sharp ice crystals. These crystals are like icy daggers, puncturing delicate cell walls and causing major damage.


The Hardening Trick

Some plants, like kale and spinach, are frost fighters because they've got a trick up their leafy sleeves. As the days get shorter and nights cooler, these plants go into "hardening mode." They ramp up production of special chemicals called solutes (think of them as antifreeze for plants!). These solutes lower the freezing point of the water inside the plant's cells, giving them a fighting chance against frosty nights.




Freezing temperatures: insects and amphibians. Bonus Fun Fact: Bug Ice Cubes

Here's a mind-blower: some insects, like wasps and frogs, can actually freeze solid and come back to life when things thaw out! They achieve this incredible feat by producing special substances that act like antifreeze in their bodies. Take the common wasp, for example. When winter comes knocking, these industrious insects don't pack up and fly south—they simply freeze solid and wait for warmer days to thaw out and resume their buzzing business.

And what about our amphibious friends, the frogs? These cold-blooded critters have mastered the art of surviving freezing temperatures by entering a state of suspended animation known as hibernation. During this time, their metabolism slows to a crawl, allowing them to conserve energy and withstand the chill until spring arrives.


Conclusion

Next time you see your kale unfazed by a frosty morning, you'll know it's all thanks to some clever plant science. And for garlic? Well, that little powerhouse deserves a round of applause for its ninja-like frost resistance. When frost threatens your garden, remember the cellular drama unfolding within your plants. The hardier ones are employing their built-in antifreeze, while the frost-sensitive ones are more susceptible to cellular damage. By understanding these adaptations, you can be a more informed gardener, protecting your vulnerable plants with frost cloths or row covers when a freeze is predicted.



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GroEat Farm, LLC is a small, sustainable family farm located in Bozeman, Montana.  We’re located in the beautiful Hyalite foothills, below the Gallatin Mountain Range.  The hardneck varieties that grow at our farm (Ophioscorodon) flourish here, due to the combination of the cold winters, temperate summers, moist spring, and the dynamic alluvial soils, washed down from the Gallatin Range (comprised of Archean metamorphics, Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks, and Eocene volcanics).  Not only are the GroEat Hardneck garlic healthy and beautiful, the flavor’s are robust and delicate.

 

Our mission at GroEat Farm, LLC is to grow premium hardneck garlic, preserve garlic varieties for the future (through propagation), and to provide others with the opportunity to grow garlic from our seed.   We help home gardeners, chefs, small-scale commercial growers, gardeners, plant nurseries, and anyone else looking for better hardneck garlic.  We are continuing a very long tradition of growing quality gourmet and seed hardneck garlic. 



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