How Can Salt Used With Recent Winter Weather Affect Plants?

— Written By Bill Hanlin and last updated by JoAnne Gryder

salting iceThe plows and salt trucks were busy last week with the snow Wilkes received. Placing salt on sidewalks and driveways is also an effective way to reduce icing. Although applying salt helps us get around, it may be causing damage to our plants and lawn.

When trucks apply the brine mixture, salt may drift on to plants. Although damage may not be immediately apparent, the damage will be noticeable in the spring of the year when the plants start to bud out. Salt can kill buds and the tips of twigs by causing these plant parts to dry up.

Road salt can also build in the soil over time and eventually become toxic to plants. Root burn from excessive salts may be caused, which again, does not show up until the plants start to grow in the spring. Salt damaged plants will be stunted with poor vigor and often the leaves will have a marginal leaf scorch.

So what can you do to prevent salt damage to your plants? One way is to avoid putting plants next to roadways and sidewalks that are frequently salted during snows. If plant placement is not practical, then using more salt tolerant plants is another option (for a list of salt tolerant plants, visit NC State’s website: https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/files/library/71/Salt%20Tolerant%20Plants.pdf)  Remember that high salt levels in the soil can damage the most tolerant plants.

Another way to deal with salts is to use supplemental watering. Wash salts off that may have drifted on to the plant in early spring. If the ground is not too saturated, you might water around the plants to encourage salt leaching away from the root system.

The internet has a number of products that are advertised as alternatives to salt. Kitty litter and sand will not actually melt the ice, but they will give better grip. Most of the information in this article is from a publication from Purdue University at www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/id/id-412-w.pd, which also lists some safe alternatives to regular road salt.