Does Ice Melt Harm Plants?

The ice melt season is officially here

It’s that time of year when the weekend errands could include a trip to the hardware store for ice melt. 

It’s a fact of life in Colorado winters that we need to keep our walks and steps as safe as possible.  Yet, while ice melt deals the slip and slide, it can also be harmful to plants.

Almost all ice melt products are salt-based and salts are damaging to plants.  The salt from ice melt not only gets into the soil, but will build up over time to become an ongoing problem.  Season after season of using ice melt will continue to bump up the salt levels in the soil.

What happens?  Just like when people eat salt and become thirsty, overly-salted plants will get thirsty and dry out.  Flushing the area with water sometimes helps, but may not be completely effective especially if salts have been building up over a long time.

What you can do to minimize salt damage:

  • Use ice melt products sparingly.  Play it safe on walks, of course, but pay attention to how much product it really takes to get the job done.  Less may be enough.
  • When ice is melting, avoid sweeping the puddles of salty water into planting areas.  Instead, let the moisture evaporate, sweep up any product that remains and dispose of it.

Through moderation and careful clean-up, you can reduce the amount of damaging salt that travels to the root zone of your plants that flank those always-icy steps and walks.

When you have a surface that absolutely requires lots of ice melt and it’s next to plants, you may need to alter the planting area to accommodate your ongoing need to melt the ice.  For example, you might try placing mulch over area affected by ice-melt accumulation and then positioning container plants on top of the mulch.  Raised planting beds in part of the area might be another option.

Also pay attention to other factors that contribute to icy areas.  If the ice problem results from poor drainage, for example, then the best option is to get to the source of the real problem.  If you can solve the problem that causes ice to accumulate in the first place, you might be able to stop using ice melt – or at least use less of it.

Do you think your plants may have suffered salt damage?  Have the plants evaluated by a qualified horticulturist and consider getting a soil test that can confirm whether salt has been the cause.   With this information, you can look for options that work equally well to keep people from slipping on the ice and plants from choking on the salt.

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