Salt is bad for your health. It turns out that salt is bad for gardens, too. Every time rock salt is used to melt ice on a road or walkway, it damages nearby vegetation in two ways.
First, salt is the basis of many weed killers. It kills plants by drawing water out of the plant cells and causes injury– a burnt or singed look– commonly on leaf edges or shrub margins.
Second, salt locks up water. Ever try to get moist salt out of a salt shaker? Water is absorbed readily by salt. So when the spring melt comes, the salt goes into your soil. There, it draws in water, creating drought conditions, even with normal rainfall.
Plants aren’t the only things that are affected by salt. It’s corrosive to cement, irritating to kids (who play in the shoveled, salted snow and frequently eat it or put it on their faces, burning to paws (even poisoning pets that accidentally ingest too much salt while licking their paws). Salt finds it’s way into freshwater streams which harms the critters who live there.
So what are the alternatives to rock salt?
Salt by any other name… If you cannot part with salt, calcium chloride is slightly better than its sodium cousin but more expensive and harder to apply. Use it very sparingly, only on icy areas.
True Grit. On a winter visit to Montreal, I was impressed with this city’s clever solution. Gravel is spread on the sidewalks, providing traction. When the ice is gone, workers sweep up the gravel into decorative containers and reuse it for the next icy storm. Make sure to get 1/8″ sized gravel, which is heavy enough not to track inside, but small enough that you won’t do involuntary hip hop maneuvers on your driveway.
The Red Carpet. Or green, gray… indoor/outdoor runners come in many colors. If you like basic black, recycled tire mats are also a great option. Lay them down over icy bits or your whole walkway.
Doctor’s Choice. If you are a diehard, “better living through chemistry” kinda person, there’s Safe Paws, a non toxic de-icer that’s kind to pet’s feet, and recommended by veterinarians.
The Terminator. The most macho solution is a propane wand. Not only will it melt the ice, but passers by will stare in awe. Sold under names like Weed Dragon, propane wands are hooked up to a propane tank like the one ones used for gas grills. Some weeders come with a wheelie cart for the tanks, a must for the larger tanks. Flame weeders can be used as chemical-free weed killers for pathways during the growing season. Need I mention not to use it near your wood-shingled house?
Be different. As the song says, “you gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em”. If you’ve had it with your share of singed shrubs and burnt grass, pull it out, make a curbside garden bed and fill it with salt tolerant plants.
Just as cutting salt consumption is good for your heart, so is that feeling in spring when everything comes up green, not brown.–Catherine Wachs is the Lazy Gardener of Larchmont.