Salt damage to plants


Winter can be hard on all of us. Gusty winds, drastic changes in temperature, deep snow, and heavy ice on our roofs and trees, not to mention the dreaded wintry mix coating our sidewalks and roadways – all are everyday possibilities in Ohio. One of the ways we cope with winter weather is by using de-icing salts. While use of such salts is a common practice, it pays to match the right products with your sites and to be judicious in their use.

De-icing products can cause salt damage to plants. The best way to protect your plants, including trees and shrubs, is to avoid salts whenever possible. Instead, remove as much snow as possible with a shovel, and let the sun’s rays do the rest. Since we often go days without seeing the sun, a de-icer may still be necessary, but be sure to apply it after shoveling. Another option is to dilute the effects of salt by mixing it with an anti-skid product like sand, sawdust or cinders. It is important to check the temperature before applying salts to ensure that the product you wish to use will be effective. For example, road salt, the most common de-icer, is only useful above 15 degrees Fahrenheit, but other products (such as calcium chloride, potassium chloride, and magnesium chloride) have different temperature ranges.

Salt spray from roads can travel up to 1,000 feet from the roadways by fast moving traffic and wind. This spray is harmful to plant leaves (and needles), because it pulls the water out of them. The spray is most detrimental in late winter and early spring when buds are beginning to appear and swell. Constructing temporary, physical barriers made of burlap or fencing can protect low growing plants susceptible to salty road spray.

Plants can also suffer salt damage due to a concentration of salt in the soil. Do not pile salt-laden snow onto garden beds and around trees and shrubs. Soils higher in clay content have poor drainage and salt can slowly build up (causing toxic effects and root dehydration over time). Plants that are suffering poor health from salt damage become more susceptible to insects and diseases. In some cases, it is possible to drench the soil to remove the salt. According to the Penn State University Extension, six inches of water will leach out 50 percent of the salt.

The ideal way to protect your plants, including trees and shrubs, is to avoid locating them near roads, sidewalks, and driveways, and in drainage patterns, where salt accumulates. Choose plants that are salt tolerant and avoid salt sensitive species. Research which plants are tolerant to salt spray and which are tolerant to soil-borne salt. Wisely selecting and placing your garden plants, trees, and shrubs to minimize salt exposure will save you money, time, and energy in the long run.

When de-icers are necessary, keep this picture in mind. A 12-ounce coffee cup full of ice melt product is sufficient to cover 10 sidewalk squares. There should be three inches between granules! More is not better. Practice SALT: the right Source, in the right Amount, in the right Location, at the right Time.

Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District is holding its annual tree and shrub sale. Check out the order form, along with information about our upcoming community workshops, on our website, Facebook and Instagram.

By Bonnie Dailey

Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District

Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to

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