How to protect your landscaping during the snow season

You work hard on your lawn and landscaping during the spring and summer. Now it’s fall, and time to get ready for winter. You know the drill – move houseplants indoors, make sure your plants are well-watered before the ground freezes, clean up the beds and remove annuals, cut back perennials, put down mulch.

But when winter actually gets here, what can you do to keep your landscaping healthy and attractive when the wind is howling, the ground is frozen, and snow and ice blanket your lawn and garden?

While natural snowfall or windblown snow seldom harm plants, Jamie Hancock with the Kansas State Research and Extension service notes that damage can occur when snow is dumped on plants by snow plows or shovels as walks and pathways are cleared. Cleared snow is generally heavier because it’s compacted, and that can mean damage to small branches and plants.

Another tip from the experts is to clear sidewalks with a deicing product that is friendly to your plants, such as one of the newer deicing products that contain magnesium chloride. A naturally occurring mineral, magnesium chloride melts ice in temperatures as low as minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and remains effective longer than many other ice melters, so it can keep walks safe even in extreme circumstances.

According to Jerry Poe, an expert in magnesium chloride and other salts, magnesium chloride is a superior ice melter and provides additional benefits to plants. Poe is director of research and development for North American Salt Company, which offers a pure magnesium chloride ice melter, Safe Step Extreme 8300. It is available at most hardware stores.

“Magnesium is a necessary nutrient, and magnesium chloride is used in agriculture – for example, in wheat farming – to provide necessary levels for complete plant nutrition,” Poe says. “So using magnesium chloride deicers to clear your walks in winter protects your plants and helps to fertilize them year round.”

And because magnesium chloride’s low melting temperature helps minimize the number of freeze/thaw cycles, it is friendly to concrete – a great feature if your landscaping includes decorative walkways or pavers. “Freeze/thaw cycles are the cause of concrete damage,” Poe says. “When ice melts, the resulting liquid works its way into cracks in the concrete. When the liquid refreezes, it expands and causes further cracking or spalling.”

To further reduce the possibility of damage, Poe recommends removing the slush and brine that results from using an ice melt product before it has a chance to refreeze.

One final thought for those days when snow blankets your landscaping: Snow can be your friend. Snow on the ground helps protect roots by insulating them from extreme cold, according to the University of Vermont Extension service. And it’s a self-regulating source of water; plants need water in the winter, and snow on the ground automatically provides moisture when there’s a thaw, even if temperatures get barely above freezing.

So, for the homeowner, the bottom line is this: Don’t throw heavy snow on delicate plants, and when you buy an ice melter, choose a product with magnesium chloride that can keep your walks clear while protecting your plants and landscaping.