Mid-Atlantic Regional Reports

Garden-Friendly Snow Clearing and Salt Alternatives

Salt isn’t good for plants, so here’s what to use instead

small outdoor staircase covered with garbage bags
Covering a stairway or stoop before a snowstorm makes it easy to remove snow and ice without chemicals once the snow stops falling.

In the depths of winter the focus on what happens under our feet is generally centered around staying safe and minimizing slips, trips, and falls on steps or walkways covered in snow or ice. But while safety is a worthwhile concern, gardeners must also consider the detrimental long-term effects on soil health that can be caused by products commonly used to remediate dangerous winter conditions.

sand scattered on bluestone tiles
Chemical products can cause damage to blue stone. Sand is a great alternative.

Avoid salting near your garden

Sodium chloride, commonly called salt, is by far the most available and frequently used product for melting ice and snow. It is very effective, widely available, and affordable, but as snow and ice melt, salty water travels very easily out of its intended treatment area and into surrounding soil and storm drains. In garden beds its effects on plant material and soil life can be extremely harmful. Deciduous trees and shrubs exposed to salt may exhibit symptoms such as leaf scorch, twig dieback, stunted growth, or even death if the salt accumulation reaches to toxic levels. Evergreens will develop twig dieback and yellowing needles.

Luckily, many options are available that are less toxic and equally effective. With a bit of elbow grease and innovative thinking we can reduce the amount of toxic chemicals entering our storm sewers and garden beds.

Calcium chloride and sand mixed together in a bucket
Calcium chloride and sand mixed together are a great combination for melting ice and adding traction.

Products containing calcium chloride, potassium chloride, and magnesium chloride are significantly less detrimental to soil and plant health. These widely available products melt frozen sidewalks as efficiently as salt does, but with fewer negative environmental consequences. Read the labels when purchasing these products to be certain you are taking home the correct formulation.

stone dust applied to driveway
Stone dust applied for traction after snow removal can eliminate the need for a melting product.

Alternative methods to combat slippery conditions

Areas that receive a lot of foot traffic may require chemical treatment to eliminate slippery conditions. However, for less frequently traveled areas there are many options that will provide a little extra traction. Scattering sand, kitty litter, or crushed granite over the frozen walking surface will add some grip and make the pathway much safer for travel.

Wood chips or wood shavings can also be used in this manner, and these organic materials can simply be swept into beds when they are no longer needed. The wood shavings break down quickly, adding organic matter to your soil, and wood chips can act as an early mulch to help you get a jump on early-season weed suppression.

coffee grounds scattered on steps to melt ice
The grounds from your morning cup of joe can be used to improve traction on a pathway or set of stairs.

Coffee grounds and wood ash may be used similarly to add traction and act as a beneficial soil amendment. The dark color of the ash or coffee grounds absorbs the sun’s energy, which can help speed up the melting process.

In a moment of desperation I have even used birdseed for traction. It did the trick but resulted in some unexpected feathered visitors as well as new unintended weed friends the following spring.

small outdoor staircase covered with garbage bags for easy snow removal
A large, heavy-duty trash bag collects snow before it hits stair treads, and the dark color also absorbs energy from the sun as heat, helping to melt snow and ice.

Using snow rather than losing it

Avoidance may be the best method of them all. Small walkways, steps, or stoops can be covered by an inexpensive tarp, a sheet of plastic, or a few layers of newspaper before the precipitation starts. Once the snow has stopped falling, carefully remove these barriers and pile the snow in a garden bed or lawn, where it can melt naturally.

As a side note, snow has many benefits for soil and plant health. It acts as an insulator and can moderate soil temperatures, creating a microclimate called the subnivium where some plants can grow and take advantage of the filtered light and available moisture. A snow layer of 2 inches or more also insulates overwintering insects and other creatures. In addition, as snow forms and falls through the atmosphere, it captures airborne ammonium, nitrate, and organic nitrogen. As the snow melts these particles are released, acting as a slow-release nitrogen source. To learn more about this phenomenon, check out Snow: Poor Man’s Fertilizer.

If salt must be used

A lesser-known organic product that has recently started to grow in popularity is sugar beet juice. Known to be effective in temperatures as low as –25°C when combined with salt brine or rock salt, it is a highly effective and inexpensive product and is gaining popularity in municipalities that experience extremely low temperatures. There are commercially available products that contain a mix of sugar beet juice and sodium chloride, significantly reducing the concentration of salt needed for effective ice removal.

If you must use salt, mechanically removing as much snow or ice as you can before applying salt will significantly reduce the amount of product needed to clear a path. Any salt that remains on surfaces after the snow and ice melt can be swept up and saved for a later application. A deep watering of surrounding areas in spring will help wash the sodium deeper into the soil and out of range of most of many plants’ root zones.


Further reading:

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Adam Glas is a garden supervisor and rosarian at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. 

Photos: Adam Glas 

View Comments


  1. markay 02/17/2024

    Your readers in the upper Midwest may also wish to know about another magnesium chloride and plant-based product called Safe-Walk that is touted as plant- and pet-friendly. Info at: http://www.safe-walk.com/products

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