That green grass at the edge of your receding snowpack might still be alive

I sat down this morning with my coffee and, as I have for 48 years — OMG — contemplated what I might write about in this week’s column. A couple of cups later, an uncharacteristically red morning sky caused me to run outside, in my socks, to snap a picture to send to Outside friends and relatives. They read about the Big Snow Dump and want to know why we live in Alaska.

Anyhow, two things struck me — in addition to the morning’s frigid cold. First, a lot of The Big Snow has already melted. Amazing. Second, this melt has exposed a lot of lawn, which is still green.

As I quickly ran back into the warmth of the house before I got frostbitten toes, I wondered how grass could still be green after 30 inches of snow and, now, single-digit temps.

OK, I think this is how it works. Those green blades of grass are composed of working cells. Plants can sometimes produce an antifreeze-type situation in these cells to delay freezing. These house all manner of proteins and stuff so that they don’t freeze readily. This is what makes the plant hardy.

In between plant cells, surrounding them all, is a space that fills with water. This does not normally have as many impurities and so it does freeze, unless the plant produces the antifreeze necessary to keep it from doing so. The cells, however, can still remain viable even though they are surrounded by frost.

Some of the cell particles are organelles known as chloroplasts. These are cellular generators where photosynthesis takes place. They use chlorophyll, which is green and imparts green color to plant leaves. In the fall, non-hardy plants stop producing chlorophyl so leaves assume the reds and orange colors that are left.

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If you still see green in your lawn, you can be pretty sure those leaf plant cells contain chlorophyll. That means these plants are capable of photosynthesis and are probably photosynthesizing. Wow. I never really contemplated that a green lawn in the middle of winter could still be functioning.

I keep insisting that it is relatively warm down there at the interface between the snow and the lawn. I can understand a little better that there could be photosynthesis going on at 32 degrees. Our grass plants are obviously really hardy to still be alive.

I am not sophisticated enough of an observer to see if there is any growth going on. I highly doubt it. I do know that if we had an uncharacteristic thaw and even more uncharacteristic sun, those blades, our lawns, would snap into growth.

Photosynthesis means sugars are being produced. To me, this would make sense only if they were somehow stored in the root systems of these plants. This would suggest those green grass plants are fully functioning. Hmm.

Eventually, it should be cold enough that the plant cells won’t be able to produce new chlorophyll and will freeze. Or it could simply be the cell runs out of the necessary nutrients to produce chlorophyll. Either way, the expected brown lawn color appears.

Could there really be photosynthesis going one — or am I hallucinating due to cold toes? I have to delve deeper. It is amazing enough that the underground portions of lawns remain alive and viable through our winters.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar:

Alaska Botanical Garden: Lots of things going on. Go to I will probably write a holiday gift column, but the No. 1 item to give is membership, individual or family, in The Garden. Do it right now. Now.

Pelargoniums: Clean up any you have growing indoors. Consider starting some from seed now. You will obviously need lights.

Stored plants: Check on fuchsia, roses to make sure they are OK.

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He is the author of a series of books on organic gardening available at Amazon and elsewhere. He co-hosts the "Teaming With Microbes" podcast.