Archive for January, 2009

De-Icing Alternatives to Salt

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Salt Alternatives

Weather predictions for our area for the next week (two weeks as I write this column) call for icy days and more temperatures below freezing. Ice is one of the most dangerous outcomes of winter, making going out onto walks, roads, and platforms a risk for the most sure footed. The popular way to manage ice is with salt, an effective tool for decades. However, studies show that salts can have many detrimental effects on the environment.

Salt destroys soil structure by killing some soil bacteria. This allows more soil to erode into streams, taking the salt with it. Salt erosion contaminates drinking water to levels that exceed public consumption standards. It doesn’t evaporate, or otherwise get removed once applied, so it remains a persistent risk to aquatic ecosystems and to water quality.

 Salt can change water chemistry, causing minerals to leach out of the soil, and it increases the acidity of water, according to Dr. Stephen Norton, a professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Maine. Salt acts like a desiccant and will dry out and crack animal paw pads – house pets are particularly susceptible. Additionally it corrodes metals like automobile brake linings, frames, and bumpers, and can cause cosmetic corrosion.

California and Nevada restrict road-salt use in certain areas to reduce damage to roadside vegetation. Massachusetts is using alternative de-icers like calcium magnesium acetate and potassium acetate to prevent contamination of drinking water.They are much more expensive than road salt, but if you factor in the loss of wildlife, soil erosion, water quality and corrosion, these alternatives start to look like a real bargain. New York State is considering doing the same to protect New York City’s watershed. Canada is considering classifying conventional de-icers as toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

For home use, there are many alternatives with varying degrees of environmental safety. Urea is often used for de-icing as it melts ice and is not corrosive. Alfalfa meal is a natural fertilizer that actually melts the ice, provides traction and won’t harm the environment. It is different than pelletized alfalfa sold in feed stores. Look for meal in.

Sand is not a de-icer, but it does offer traction on ice. Sand adds to sedimentation in streams if it isn’t cleaned off the roads, but on our walks it might even be a welcome addition to our local compacted soils. Kitty litter, gravel and ash don’t actually melt ice, but they do provide traction, but have similar impact on streams and waterways as sand. 


Working That Garden in January

Monday, January 5th, 2009

January Tips for the Unrepressed Gardener

  With temperatures projected to be around freezing in the week of January 11th, there is still work that can be done for the gardener who is a little cold hardy. For myself, if I don’t get out into the sun a few times a week, I get just a little depressed, so when the weather is reasonably warm like it will be this week, getting out and about really helps limit the Seasonal Affect Disorder!

If there is anything you were hesitant to prune this fall because cutting stimulates growth, this is a good week to cut away. Shrubs and trees are dormant at this time and so will not respond to pruning. If you have a hydrangea that got out of hand, cut it to a height 3 feet below where you would like it to be. I have hydrangea that I cut to the ground every year, these shrubs are incredibly resistant.

This is a great week to work on taking dead wood out of your privet hedge as well. Privet, a classic, and very shapeable hedge material, needs regular thinning and cutting at the right time to keep it looking crisp and wall like. Many of us wait until our privet has grown in to shape it and work on it, wasting growth and making it harder to clean out old dead wood. In the winter, when the shrub is dormant and defoliated, it is a lot easier to find dead wood and remove it. Also, it is as good a time as any to think about what shape your wall of green will take in the spring and perhaps give it a little encouragement.

The same is true for low ornamental trees. This is an excellent time for removing crossing branches (branches that rub against each other), dead branches, and branches that are taking away from the natural shape of the tree. Cutting back wisteria and other aggressive vines can be done at this time. Avoid cutting early spring blooming shrubs like forsythia as their blooms have set for the spring. Cutting them now will reduce the spring blooms with every snip.

If you are looking to have this work done, local landscapers may be willing to perform these tasks at discounted rates as they are much slower in January than they are in June, giving you more time to hit the slopes.