by Karen Weiland, Advanced Master Gardener
Too much salt in a person’s diet can cause problems. Here in our northern climate the same can be true for plants located near sidewalks and roadways. While they all set out to do the same job, some of the deicing materials on the market today are friendlier to our grass, plants and soil than others.
Some plants seem to be unaffected by salt while others may totally be killed by it. Salts can affect plant growth by drying them out, altering the soil structure around the plants root system and altering the mineral nutrition in the plant. Some signs of salt damage are death of buds and twig tips, evergreens may become yellowed or brown in late winter to early spring and plants may show stunting, poor vigor and early leaf drop during the growing season.
Read the package label when shopping for a deicing agent. Rock salt or sodium chloride is easy on the wallet and will work well at low temperatures but it is also very corrosive on metals like your snow shovel and it is not a good material for plants and soil. Calcium chloride and calcium magnesium acetate are recommended as a few of the safest, non-sodium deicers to use in the landscape and works well in low temperatures but can be a bit more costly than the sodium chloride.
To minimize damage you could consider using less salt or no salt at all. Use coarse sand in place of salt to provide traction on a slippery surface or mix 50lbs. of sand with 1lb. Of a deicing agent. This should prove to be gentler on your landscape and will give you some traction on slippery surfaces. Liquid solutions are also available or you can make your own by dissolving a small amount of deicing agent in hot water. Try two parts water to 1 part magnesium chloride and use a plastic hand pump sprayer to apply.
You can minimize damage with plant selection, placement and care. Salt spray from roads can cause problems with evergreens and shrubs. One alternative would be to erect a burlap screen or snow fence or wrap the bushes in burlap. When landscaping an area that will see heavy salt use, use plants that will tolerate high salt soils. These types of plants naturally occur near ocean coastlines and such. You can find a list of these plants by visiting the Purdue Consumer Horticulture, bring up the publication HO-142-W Salt Damage in Landscape Plants and refer to table 2. Table 1. in this publication gives some good information on deicing alternatives and their characteristics.
When salt laden, piled up snow melts, the salt will accumulate in the soil and can damage plants. The best way to move that accumulation out of the plant root zone is to apply a large amount of water to the area in an attempt to leach it well.
As always, Happy Gardening!
More information about gardening and related subjects is available online at Purdue Consumer Horticulture or The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange Co., 636-2111 in Noble Co., 925-2562 in DeKalb Co. and 668-1000 in Steuben Co.
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