Winter is here: What you should know about salt

A Gardening Guru's Perspective

Winter is here: What you should know about salt
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About the Author

Sean James

Sean James

Sean James is a horticultural instructor at Mohawk College and President of Fern Ridge Landscaping. He is a graduate of Niagara Parks School of Horticulture. He is Chair of Landscape Ontario's Environmental Stewardship Committee and Co-founder of the Halton-Peel BioDiversity Network. He sits on the Perennial Plant Association's Environmental Committee.

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Unless you got all clever and put in a heated walkway system (they do exist and might be the best way to go – for the environment…and your back!), You’re going to need something to melt the ice this season. Most folks just use straight rock salt. It works well and it’s cheap but it’s very hard on the environment. Spring runoff with salt-laden water kills fish eggs in our waterways, affecting, among other things, our multi-million dollar sport fishing tourism industry. (Yes, we do have one!) It’s very hard on our pets’ paws. It can even damage or kill our garden plants. Boxwood, for instance, is practically allergic to salt. The bark will peel back within an hour of contact. Boxwood should never be planted around driveways, walkways or porches in the first place!

Probably of greater significance, in terms of monetary value, concrete (and interlock) walkways and such and even synthetic exterior wall stone can be badly damaged over time from salt use. (Check out a Milestones restaurant façade by the front door if you don’t believe us.) Salt helps water to penetrate the surface and, when it freezes inside the material, it crystalizes and spalls away from the surface of the stone, ruining its appearance – texture and colour – and affecting its structural integrity.

When purchasing ice-melter, look for products which use alternatives such as urea. It’s still technically a ‘salt’ but it’s less damaging than sodium chloride. Brands such as ‘Alaskan Ice Melter’ and ‘Safe Paw’ are more expensive but don’t have the downsides of rock salt. Look for products which have a colourant added so you can see what and where you’ve applied to prevent over-application.

Get out there earlier when snow is falling and shovel/sweep in frequent bursts. It’s better exercise, easier on your back and there won’t be the accumulation of snow which then gets packed down becoming ice. An alternative is to use plain old sand or cheap kitty litter. It’s a bit messy, getting tracked indoors and Very messy in the spring but it doesn’t wreck the world. Some folks even use ash which works well by adding traction and, through its dark colour absorbing sunlight, melts it as well (also extremely messy).

As with all things, take the time to research the products, weigh pros and cons and mix methods to get the best (and safest) result, custom fit to your life/world. If you’re hiring a snow clearing company, make sure they’re certified ‘Smart About Salt’.

Trivia bit: Goderich, Ontario is home to the world’s largest salt mine!



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