Trott column: Use deicing salts with care

Salt can damage soil and plants, as well as creeks, ponds and wells.

Be cautious when using salt on snowy, icy driveways and sidewalks. (Echo Press file photo)

If you’ve lived through a Minnesota winter, you are familiar with the hazards caused by snow and ice. To prevent accidents on slippery surfaces, highway departments, businesses and homeowners use deicing compounds to melt ice and snow on roadways, parking lots, sidewalks and driveways. The most common de-icing product is sodium chloride which is the chemical compound of ordinary table salt or rock salt. While deicing materials improve travel conditions, they can damage automobiles, concrete surfaces and landscape plants.

Salt applied to a walk or driveway can run off into the surrounding soil, building up over time. This can destroy soil structure, raise soil pH, cause soil compaction, affect availability of nutrients to plants, and reduce a plant’s ability to take up water. Look for plant symptoms such as poor growth, browning leaf tips, plant dieback, or plant death. In some cases, it may take several years for symptoms of salt-related damage to appear.

Salt can also run off into storm sewers, lakes and rivers where it is toxic to those ecosystems. Small creeks and ponds are especially affected by salt runoff. Chloride connected to deicing salts can also find its way into wells, which affects human health. Additionally, sodium chloride can be toxic to pets if ingested, either from licking paws or drinking out of salt-laden puddles.

Follow these guidelines when using deicing salts to make your winter surfaces safer:

  • Shovel walks, driveways and parking areas regularly to avoid the need for deicing salts.
  • Direct downspouts away from walking surfaces to avoid ice build up.
  • Sodium chloride only works to 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit, so when the temperature is lower than that, it won’t be effective.
  • Twelve ounces of salt, about as much as would fill a coffee mug, is enough to treat a 20-foot-long driveway or about 10 squares of sidewalk. Using more salt won't yield better results.
  • If you see salt left on the ground after the snow and ice clears, you are using too much.
  • Choose a product labeled pet safe or plant safe.
  • As always, read and follow the directions on your product label.

For more information about the effects of deicing salts on our landscapes, visit .


Until next time,

Happy Holidays and happy gardening!

***"Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.” ― Edith Sitwell

Robin Trott is a horticulture educator with University of Minnesota Extension. Contact her at 320-762-3890, or at

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