Garden Plot: How to keep your lawn safe when you de-ice

It is time to purchase a lawn and landscape-safe de-icer before the first icy event. (Getty Images/iStockphoto/tbgrant)

‘Are you ready for some ice-fall?’

Baby, it’s cold outside! Many of us are waking up to frost on our windshields — and the odd houseplant left outside that we don’t have to worry about overwatering anymore.

That means it is time to purchase a lawn and landscape-safe de-icer before the first icy event, because all the good stuff is typically gone the day after that event (which looks to be on Tuesday this coming week).

Rock salt is cheap, but it damages lawns, patios, cars and structures.

Alternatives are somewhat more expensive, but they don’t nuke your landscape or rust your car — and they work better, faster and at lower temperatures than rock salt.

My top choice is calcium chloride, and my preferred packaging is one of those hard plastic shaker jugs — they keep the material nice and fresh. The reverse is true with bags. Once they’re opened, the material in plastic bags can quickly solidify and become hard to work with.

Any chloride except sodium

It looks like the first patches of ice are going to show up super early this season — perhaps as soon as this Tuesday. Be prepared to protect yourself from falls without killing your lawn by buying some alternative de-icer this weekend.

My top choice is calcium chloride; a very small amount melts ice fast, even at very low temperatures. Potassium chloride and magnesium chloride are also plant safe and very effective.

You may find some or all of these mixed together in ice-melting blends.

What you want to avoid is sodium chloride, or rock salt. Yes, it’s cheap, but a new lawn and landscape are not. So stay away from the rock.

And be careful: Some products that look like alternatives are just rock salt dressed up. If the package lists NACL as an ingredient, take a pass and keep on looking.

A little dab’ll do ya

Nighttime temps in the 20s are predicted for next week with rain, snow, sleet and a plague of locusts on Tuesday. Be prepared to prevent slips and falls by having a good de-icer on hand.

To protect your lawn and other plantings, make it calcium chloride or one of the other plant-safe de-icers. Anything but rock salt.

And use it wisely. It takes only a very small amount of these alternative de-icers to prevent ice from forming, so be stingy when you spread. And be aware that the most effective method is to spread the material right before a potentially icy weather event begins.

It is much easier to prevent ice from forming than it is to try and melt it away in a hurry when you’re trying to get to work without breaking your neck the next morning.

Evicting Woody Woodpecker

Dave in Dumfries writes:

A woodpecker drilled a hole in the trim above my front door — maybe to make a nesting spot for winter. A small black and white bird. What is the best way to keep him out? Don’t want to make a repair only to have him return. The hole is about 1 1/2 inch in diameter.

Sounds like a flicker, Dave. Cute little birds until they mistake your siding for a tree.

The answer is a bit unusual. Years ago, I had a guest on my public radio show, “You Bet Your Garden,” who had created a simple and ingenious way to deter woodpeckers. It involves fishing line and slugs; not the garden pests, but circles of metal with the centers drilled out.

You tie each slug to the end of a line of fishing wire and then use a ladder to carefully reach the area under attack. Use the fishing line to hang the slugs as close together as you can and vary the height somewhat across the area, but always ending below the height of any existing damage.

It almost sounds too simple but it’s actually the result of some serious research; the hanging lines confuse the birds and they find another place to nest.

Here’s a commercial product that works in a similar way. And here’s one that’s a bit more true to my design.

Note: Repellents and sonic devices do not work. Don’t waste your money on them.

Oh, and one last thought: Those “icicle” Christmas lights composed of sections that hang downward might work just as well — on or off.

Dealing with weeds that worship wetness

Ray in Frederick writes:

There is a pasture behind my house in which I have noticed smart weed and Japanese stilt grass growing. Now I have them starting to show up in my yard. I keep the grass mowed at 3 inches and try not to use any chemicals. I’m OK with the clover and other non-grass things growing in the lawn since bees and other insects seem to like them, but I really don’t want the other two items getting entrenched. Any thoughts?

Yeah — my first thought is that I wish you had emailed a couple of months ago, Ray, because one big answer is to core aerate your lawn, which can only be done safely between August and late September.

Both the weeds you name (especially the “smart” one) thrive in shady areas where the soil does not drain well. So get ready to aerate next fall to improve drainage!

In the meantime, install deep edging to keep the pasture from spreading any further and use a flame weeder to torch the ground around any smart weed you see, such as crabgrass. It likely dropped a lot of seeds at the end of summer.

Mike McGrath was editor-in-chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and WTOP Garden Editor since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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