During winter and early spring, do you ever notice the poor trees and vegetation on the sides of highways? They are all crusty and white with the salt from industrial salter and plows. While I cannot deny the importance of having highways accessible at all times, it does make me feel sad for those crusty white things that provide a healthy barrier between the highway and surrounding areas in warmer weather.
The advice within will not be for the faint of heart. You’ll need that heart to really pump efficiently if you are going to take the following suggestions without a grain of salt.
Salt is Bad
The basic fact is that salt is bad for plants and for your little landlocked microenvironment (I am assuming you do not live on an island). Only the ocean really loves salt for survival. While plants and waterways need a balance of minerals, some of which may actually be found in winter salting products, they need a balance, not an overdose. The average and basic salting product has sodium chloride, which will kill plants if they take it up, from reverse osmosis, and damage the integrity of waterways. Just imagine trying to drink salt water, yourself. Gag. It’s hard enough to gargle with it when I have a sore throat.
In addition to not being able to stomach salt in the concentrations that we put it down on our walkways and driveways, think about what it would be like to walk barefoot on salt any time you went outside in the cold. For, if you are like me, your skin is already dried out from the cold, and constantly walking on salt would mean the exodus of the last remnants of moisture in my skin. This is what it will do to your pets’ paws as they trot outside, shoeless in the cold. Normal salting products can dry out their paws and cause them to crack.
"Nooooooooo! No salt!"
Salt isn't Always Effective
Furthermore, sodium chloride is only effective at melting ice and snow in temperatures down to 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 to -7 degrees Celsius), anyway. And once chloride is separated from the sodium and mixed into water, scientists say it can stay there indefinitely. That is not a good thing.
Eschew the salt. Your plants and pets will be grateful.
Shoveling is a Better Option
The lesson to take from that is shovel more, salt less. Shoveling is a whole body workout, so if you have been dormant in winter up til a big snow, take caution, and maybe ask someone to help you shovel. I have thrown out my back several times shoveling our driveway, which looks longer and longer, the heavier the snow. It helps to shovel like politicians wish you could vote – early and often.
There are some alternative ice melt treatments that are less caustic than regular rock salt. Sugar beet juice can be effective in temperatures down to -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius). When mixed with salt, it works by making the ice stick to it in an attempt to reduce runoff, as do other sugary substances like molasses or beer by-products when mixed with salt. The sugar lowers the freezing point so that the salt can melt the ice at a lower temperature than 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Pickle brine is another good alternative. It is similar to treating with rock salt, but it can reduce the amount of chloride released into the environment. And apparently Wisconsin-ites use cheese brine (the salty water in which cheese is floated) to keep their dairy highways ice-free. Keep in mind that even these, which are more natural ways to deal with ice, can still create runoff that has a negative impact.
Other alternatives are to spread sand, coffee grounds, gravel, or kitty litter to add traction, instead of melting the snow.
If it is just physically safer and more practical for you to salt, look for brands that are pet-friendly, and always check their ingredients. (Pet-friendly usually means eco-friendlier, in this case.) Sodium chloride should be minimal for the sake of your plants’ recovery in spring. Magnesium chloride is a less corrosive salt, but should still be administered sparingly. One brand that Katharine Wroth reviewed in an online article was Earth Friendly Products Ice Melt. If you live near waterways, avoid using ice melts that use urea, as the runoff will damage organisms and water sources.
First and foremost, I vow to choose the greenest option – to shovel.