When you think of winter salt damage, you may be inclined to think of your car. While it is true that salt from the roads and highways can cause damage to your car, what you may not realize is the detrimental effect salt can have on plants. If you use salt to melt the ice on your sidewalks and driveway and even if it is only the salt slush that comes off the bottom of your car there are several steps you can take to minimize the damage.

You may be thinking that you have used salt on your driveway before and never noticed damage. Salt damage is not immediately apparent in the spring. Rather, it can take several years for the salt content in the soil to build up to kill a plant.

This occurs in the absorption process. Typically, a plant absorbs water through its roots. However, when salt is used on driveways and sidewalks, the melting ice causes the salt to wash into the soil. As the salt content of the water in the soil continues to increase, the imbalance causes the water to flow out of the plant’s roots. The loss of water causes the roots to dry out. Eventually, the plant will die from what is called “root burn”.

Many of the steps you can take to prevent plant damage from salt are surprisingly simple. First, examine the type of salt you are using. If you have used table salt, or sodium chloride, switch to calcium chloride. These white pellets dissolve more slowly and are less toxic to plants. Although calcium chloride is still a salt, it’s much less damaging.

Try to avoid shoveling salty snow off driveways and walkways onto plant areas

and when hosing off, direct the spray to the street away from your lawn, flower beds and

shrubs. Also consider digging drainage ditches along the edge of your driveway. I don’t mean a ditch, of course, just small grooves. Edge your sidewalks, patio and driveway with a groove about 2 inches deep and not more than one-half to three-fourths inch wide to aid water run off into the street and away from plants and soil.

Another protective measure to consider while you are digging the grooves is to raise the beds themselves, especially those next to the driveway. You should mound the soil about four inches above the level of the drive and/or sidewalks. For added interest, you can use some timbers, stone, or brick edge retainers. Leave room for the grooves between the driveway and the walls to further aid runoff.

If you think it is too late for grooves this year, consider planting salt tolerant plants in the area next year. Evergreens such as shore juniper and ink berry, shrubs such as a bayberry or arrowwood viburnum and small trees such as serviceberry and Lavelle hawthorn are all more salt tolerant plants.

I take a slightly easier way out. I plant annuals in the beds next to my driveway. I may have to remove some of the existing soil mix, but I always mix in some new top soil and peat. Since annuals must be replaced each year anyway, there is little chance for salt to build up sufficiently to cause lasting problems.

Consider some of these options as another way to protect your plants against the damaging effects of winter.

Article by Fred Hower, “The Ohio Nurseryman.”
© The Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association. If you wish to reproduce articles in quantities of 10 or more, use an article in a class or training session, or reprint an article in a publication (print or web), you must obtain explicit permission from the ONLA.

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