Posted: February 15, 2024

The winter schedule in Massachusetts for the average homeowner usually involves watching the snow pile up, clearing it away, using salt to prevent ice from forming, watching it all melt, and then repeating that cycle a few times throughout the season.

Some winters are mild, but others involve quite a pileup of the white stuff. And when it’s bitter cold and icy, the last thing you want is to risk slipping and falling when you walk out the door down your driveway or walkways. So you use salt or deicing products to keep that ice at bay.

Ice melt products stop ice from forming by lowering the freezing point of water. The most popular form of deicer is rock salt – or sodium chloride – because it’s inexpensive, easily available, and pretty effective. Other deicers can be made from things like calcium chloride and look a bit more like pellets that resemble sand flakes versus chunks of salt. All of these products help you keep your hardscapes from getting too slick to limit slips and falls.

But are deicing salts harmful to plants? Let’s talk about the relationship between plants and deicers and how you can prevent and repair this damage and still protect your driveway from becoming an ice skating rink.

What Effect Does Deicing Salt Have on Soil?

The soil in your home landscape has a pH. Massachusetts soils tend to be naturally acidic, ranging from 4.5 to 5.5, due to the climate and geology of the area.

Why is sodium chloride bad for soil? It can increase soil pH, decreasing nutrient availability to the plants installed in that soil. On top of that, high sodium levels can alter the soil’s structure, making it susceptible to compaction and reducing its ability to take in water and other important inputs.

Does road salt ruin soil? Not necessarily. Soil can be improved after a tough winter where a lot of road salt was used near planting beds, but this will take time. However, excess sodium chloride can threaten plant health and growth in the short term and longer if not taken care of, so it’s something to consider when using this product. 

How Do Deicing Salts Harm Plants?

When it comes to damage from deicing salts on plants, the degree of impact varies based on plant species, type of deicing material, availability, amount of fresh water, and runoff from nearby hardscapes.

Sometimes it’s hard to even recognize that salt was the problem because sodium chloride in the soil doesn’t immediately cause plant damage. You might see damage in late winter in evergreens or starting in early spring in deciduous trees or even in summer in some species.

Some common long-term impacts of deicing salts on tree health include:

  • Browning or discoloration of evergreen needles that starts at the tips
  • Delayed bud break, bud damage, or death
  • Twig and stem dieback
  • Wilting in hot, dry conditions during the growing season
  • Stunted flower and fruit development
  • Fewer and smaller leaves than usual
  • Marginal leaf burn
  • Premature fall color and early leaf drop
  • Overall reduced plant vigor

What Impact Do Deicing Salts Have on Water Quality?

A higher use of sodium chloride through deicing salts on plants can not only impact greenery and soils, but it can also wear away concrete, stone, asphalt, and even cause metal corrosion. These materials then end up in greater amounts in local lakes and streams, impacting the oxygen levels and water toxicity for animals in those bodies of water, such as fish and frogs.

At Hartney Greymont, we have both ISA and Massachusetts certified arborists located in Needham, Concord, Danvers, Cape Cod, and the surrounding areas who can help you tackle salt damage to your trees. Give us a call for a free consultation.

Learn About Safe Alternatives for Deicing, How To Apply, And Other Tips To Prevent Damage To Your Trees


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