Using Deicing Salts in the Home Landscape

Snow and ice are headaches for motorists and pedestrians. To prevent accidents on slippery surfaces, deicing compounds are used by highway departments, businesses, and homeowners to melt ice and snow on roadways, parking lots, sidewalks, and driveways. While deicing materials improve travel conditions, they can damage automobiles, concrete surfaces, and landscape plants. 

Deicing Materials  |  Effects of Deicing Materials on Plants  |  Salt Injury Prevention

Deicing Materials

Salt and Sand Deicing Material on Patio
A mix of sand and salt at a ratio of 50:1 works effectively to create safer walking surfaces and cause less damage to plants.

Sodium chloride (NaCl) is commonly known as table salt or rock salt. It is the least expensive and most frequently used deicing compound. Sodium chloride is most effective when temperatures are above 15°F. Unfortunately, NaCl is highly corrosive and can damage plants. High levels of sodium are also detrimental to soil structure.

Calcium chloride (CaCl2 ) dissolves easily and acts quickly. It is also effective in extremely cold temperatures (-20°F) and leaves no visible residue when dry. Calcium chloride is highly corrosive to concrete and metals. It is slightly less damaging to plants than sodium chloride.

Potassium chloride (KCl) is a naturally occurring material used as a fertilizer (0-0-60) and deicing material. KCl is highly corrosive but is less damaging to plants than sodium chloride.

Magnesium chloride (MgCl2) effectively melts ice and snow down to -13°F.  It is less damaging to plants than rock salt, but will still cause damage, especially when over-applied.

Calcium magnesium acetate (CMA) is a salt-free deicing compound made from dolomitic limestone and acetic acid. CMA is effective to approximately -15°F. It causes little or no damage to landscape plants and is less corrosive than deicing salts. Unfortunately, CMA is quite expensive (as much as 20 to 30 times more expensive than sodium chloride) and is occasionally difficult to find from retailers.

Abrasive materials, such as sand or kitty litter, don't melt ice and snow but improve traction on slippery surfaces. While these materials are inexpensive and not harmful to plants, they are often tracked indoors and treated surfaces often need to be cleaned in spring.

Effects of Deicing Salts

Deicing salts can damage landscape plants when excessive amounts accumulate in the soil. The most serious damage typically occurs near major streets and highways where salt from run-off accumulates in the nearby soil. Excessive use of salt by homeowners can also create problems. Trees, shrubs, perennials, and turfgrasses are susceptible to salt damage. Additionally, salt-laden spray from passing vehicles can damage roadside plants, particularly evergreens. 

Salts affect plant growth in several ways. When high levels of salt are present in the soil, plants are unable to absorb sufficient water even though soil moisture is plentiful. Plants suffer a salt-induced water shortage termed "physiological drought." High levels of salt restrict the uptake of essential nutrients by plant roots. Excessive amounts of sodium and chloride ions in plant tissue are toxic to many plants. Soil structure is damaged by high levels of sodium. Salt deposited directly on plant foliage can cause dehydration of plant tissue. 

Salt Injury Symptoms

The symptoms of salt injury to deciduous trees and shrubs include stunted growth, marginal leaf scorch, early fall coloration, and twig dieback. Accumulation of salt in the soil over several years may result in progressive decline and eventual death. 

Salt damage to evergreens results in yellowing or browning of the needles and twig dieback. Evergreens near heavily salted roadways are often damaged by salt spray. Spray damage is most severe on the side of the plant nearest the highway. 

The severity of plant damage depends upon the type of salt and other factors. Calcium chloride, potassium chloride, and magnesium chloride are less harmful to plants than sodium chloride. The degree of salt damage also depends upon the amount of salt applied, soil type, amount of rainfall, direction of run-off, and prevailing winds. The condition and type of plant material is also important. Healthy, vigorous plants are more tolerant of salt than poorly growing specimens. Bur oak, northern red oak, honeylocust, northern catalpa, Kentucky coffeetree, horse chestnut, mugo pine, and eastern red-cedar are tolerant of soil-borne salt, while sugar maple, American linden, Canadian hemlock, and eastern white pine are sensitive to soil salt. 

Salt Injury Prevention

Homeowners can minimize salt damage by using deicing salts prudently. 

  • Before applying salt, wait until the precipitation has ended and remove as much of the ice and snow as possible. Use deicing salts at rates sufficient to loosen ice and snow from driveways and sidewalks, then remove the loosened ice and snow with a shovel. (Deicing salts need to be applied at much higher rates to completely melt ice and snow.) 
  • Do not over-apply salts.  Use only as much salt as needed to melt ice and only in areas where it is needed.
  • Mix salt with abrasive materials, such as sand or kitty litter. Fifty pounds of sand mixed with one pound of salt works effectively. 
  • Avoid piling salt-laden snow and ice around trees and shrubs. 
  • While the amount of salt applied to major roadways can not be controlled, steps can be taken to minimize damage. As soon as the ground thaws in early spring, heavily water areas where salt accumulates over winter. A thorough soaking should help flush the salt from the root zone of plants. If possible, alter the drainage pattern so winter run-off drains away from ornamental plants. When planting trees near major streets or highways, select salt-tolerant tree species. 

Deicing salts are both good and bad. Judicious use of deicing salts helps insure safe travel conditions for pedestrians and motorists and minimizes damage to landscape plants and the environment.

Last reviewed:
November 2022