University of Maryland Extension

Salt/Fertilizer Damage

salt damaged juniper
Browning of junipers from excess salt

Damage due to excessive fertilizer or salt application generally appears as marginal leaf browning or leaf scorch. Carefully measure the square footage of the planting area to avoid over application of fertilizer. 

junipers coated with deicing salt
Juniper needles coated with salt

salt damage
Dieback on juniper from salt application

Careless use of deicing products can damage both plants and the environment. The use of fertilizer for melting ice is not recommended because of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution effects to our streams and the Chesapeake Bay. The runoff carrying deicing or fertilizer products from one sidewalk may not cause much harm but the combination of deicers used on all the sidewalks, roads, and parking lots in the region could create harmful levels of salts and nutrients entering storm sewers that eventually empty into the Chesapeake Bay. You can reduce pollution of local streams and the Bay by selecting the proper materials and methods for removing ice and snow.

  • Ice melting products are most effective when spread thinly and evenly over the pavement prior to ice formation. It is much easier to prevent ice than to try to melt a thick of ice.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s directions when applying a deicer. If possible, use less than is recommended, but make sure the surface is covered thinly and evenly.
  • To melt thick ice in very cold weather, add a small amount of water to, the deicer to help initiate melting. To further aid melting and provide sure footing, mix deicer with wet sand and/or ashes.

Soaking the affected area with one-inch applications of water three to four times in the spring can often treat plant damage. Gypsum may be added to the soil to reduce high sodium levels caused by excessive amounts of rock salt. Soil replacement may be an option for small planting beds.
If you suspect salt damage, you can have your soil analyzed by a soil-testing laboratory. Salt damage symptoms caused by deicers include:

  • Poor or stunted growth in the spring especially next to driveways, walks, and streets.
  • Dieback on new growth on evergreens
  • Marginal leaf browning or scorch on deciduous trees and shrubs

salt damage maple
Salt damage on maple

salt damage holly
Salt damage on individual holly leaves

Several alternatives to deicing products include:

  • Covering small areas with heavy plastic or other water proof materials before storms are predicted.
  • Use sand, ashes, or kitty litter to improve traction on icy areas.

Refer to: Melting Ice Safely


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