The vadose zone is a zone sensitive to environmental changes and exerts a crucial control in ecosystem functioning and even more so in cold regions considering the rapid change in seasonally frozen ground under climate warming. While the way in representing the underlying physical process of the vadose zone differs among models, the effect of such differences on ecosystem functioning and its ecohydrological response to freeze–thaw cycles are seldom reported. Here, the detailed vadose zone process model STEMMUS (Simultaneous Transfer of Energy, Mass and Momentum in Unsaturated Soil) was coupled with the ecohydrological model Tethys–Chloris (T&C) to investigate the role of influential physical processes during freeze–thaw cycles. The physical representation is increased from using T&C coupling without STEMMUS enabling the simultaneous mass and energy transfer in the soil system (liquid, vapor, ice) – and with explicit consideration of the impact of soil ice content on energy and water transfer properties – to using T&C coupling with it. We tested model performance with the aid of a comprehensive observation dataset collected at a typical meadow ecosystem on the Tibetan Plateau. Results indicated that (i) explicitly considering the frozen soil process significantly improved the soil moisture/temperature profile simulations and facilitated our understanding of the water transfer processes within the soil–plant–atmosphere continuum; (ii) the difference among various representations of vadose zone physics have an impact on the vegetation dynamics mainly at the beginning of the growing season; and (iii) models with different vadose zone physics can predict similar interannual vegetation dynamics, as well as energy, water, and carbon exchanges, at the land surface. This research highlights the important role of vadose zone physics for ecosystem functioning in cold regions and can support the development and application of future Earth system models.