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Garden Plot: An end to the de-icing debate

Friday - 12/13/2013, 10:37am  ET

Some remedies for a slippery sidewalk are healthier for your garden than others, WTOP Garden Editor Mike McGrath explains. (Getty Images)

Tips for de-icing as cold weather moves in

WTOP's Mike McGrath


Alternative de-icers keep walkways safe and plants alive

"Official" winter is still a week away, but I can personally confirm that we are way ahead of icy schedule this year. A quick check of my files reveals that last winter, it wasn't until the second week of January early this year that John in Kensington was the first listener to ask about de-icers. He wrote: "I have a stamped concrete walkway surrounded by mature foundation plants. I've read not to use Magnesium chloride, Calcium chloride or Potassium chloride because they could degrade the cement…"

Good news, John: Concrete is not cement. Here are the geeky details.

Concrete is mostly crushed-up stone and sand held together with small amounts of cement, and my stamped concrete patio (yes, I have one too - they're great!) has not been harmed by use of any of the alternative de-icers you name - and neither have the precious plants nearby.

But rock salt does not rock

Just be sure to avoid products that contain sodium chloride - rock salt - whose presence is often hidden by the letters NACL. Some of the so-called 'alternatives' out there are actually rock salt wearing lipstick and heels. So read the label carefully.

Do not use rock salt to de-ice areas that are near or will drain into lawns, shrubs, trees or other plantings. Salty soil prevents plants from taking up water and nutrients and is often the real cause of 'winter-killed' grass in the spring.

Best practices for plant-safe de-icing

  • Always shovel any snow away first, then use an alternative de-icer to prevent re-freezing afterwards.

  • Use very small amounts of de-icer. Just a light sprinkling of one of the alternatives will melt ice and keep it melted. In fact, if you do it right, you'll use so little that it wipes out the price difference between the alternatives and rock salt.

  • If you know we're going to get an icy rain, pre-treat the walkway before it hits and no ice will ever form. If heavy snow is predicted, let it snow, and then apply your de-icer to the shoveled surface.

  • Don't shovel any snow that may have been hit with a de-icer or road salt onto lawns or other plants.

  • But do shovel clean snow onto your lawn and around your shrubbery. Snow is a great plant insulator, and when it melts, it'll help dilute any salt that did happen to reach your poor plants.

  • And if road crew salt keeps hitting the edge of a planting area, toss lots of clean snow there to dilute the salt and protect the plants.

What about kitty litter and 'play sand'?

John in Kensington also asked about alternatives to the alternatives. He wrote: "What about play sand? Kitty Litter? I don't have access to wood ashes."

Well, after years of including it in my recommendations because I read it somewhere, I finally tried kitty litter and it made a huge mess, John. Same with ashes.

But you're right on the money with sand. It's being used more and more by road crews on icy highways. It doesn't melt ice directly, but provides sure footing and it's good for our poor plants. It loosens up the terrible clay soil they're trapped in.

Pound sand, not plants

That's right, using sand to make your walkways safe doesn't just protect your plants - it enhances them. The wonderful folks at Quickrete tell me that you specifically want "all-purpose" sand. That's what the highway crews use to make icy surfaces safe. It's also the type most often found on the shelves of big home stores. "Play sand" is a more purified, kid-safe version, but it de-slipperizes ice just as well.

And my good friend Howard Garrett, who dispenses organic advice under "The Dirt Doctor" handle down in Texas, says that a product called lava sand is the absolute best choice. It's gritty enough to provide traction and is sold in big bags at hipper garden centers to be used specifically as a soil-improving amendment. Make your walkways safe and feed your plants: amazing.

Christmas plant countdown

Ten days to go. Let's review:

  • Poinsettias are warm-weather plants. Don't expose them to the cold outdoors.

  • Those cute little rosemary trees can handle temps down to the freezing mark. Bring them inside for nights when temps drop well below freezing. But they are always sold root-bound and must be re-potted into larger containers to survive. Use compost or a professional potting soil to fill in the gaps. Water wisely, keep it outside when temps are above freezing and that 'tree' may well survive to grace your garden come spring.
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