Snow, Ice and Grit

Winter has arrived at last.  The weather forecast shows the snow graphics creeping down the country from the North, and the map is showing more and more blue areas overnight indicating Jack Frost is about again. Soon the Gritter trucks will be out, busily treating the roads.  The public will clear their paths and liberally scatter grit or table salt to melt the snow and ice.

Last year during the very cold winter, many plants did not survive.  Snow and Ice do damage plants, but with careful thought we can manage to protect our gardens and limit some of the damage.

There is a good deal of information available about health and safety for humans in icy weather which is a good thing.  But, I thought I would give some advice about the use of grit and the health and safety of plants.

What is grit anyway, and how does it work?

Grit is Rock Salt (Halite), a mixture of salt crystals, sand and gravel.  It is the remains of ancient dried up saltwater seas which have formed into salt crystals deep underground. The most notable grit mines in the UK are in Cheshire.  When spread over snow or ice it absorbs water becoming Brine, which freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water, therefore keeping roads and paths clear.  However, it will eventually freeze as temperatures drop and therefore become ineffective.  There is some debate as to when it freezes and it’s thought to be around -10°C.

Now, imagine your garden is flooded by seawater – plants die, the soil is ruined, a complete disaster.  If you are too liberal with your salt spreading you could be creating a mini seawater event in your garden.  The roots of plants take up water and nutrients to feed the stems and leaves and aid the action of Chlorophyll, the main energy mechanism for a plant. The concentration of salts in the soil is paramount.  If the concentration is higher in the soil than in the plant, the roots are unable to absorb water and in effect drought conditions occur.  Toxic levels of salt can build up in plants and trees causing symptoms such as die back of branches and stems, stunted growth, browning of foliage, failure of flower buds, ‘tufting’ of branch ends on trees (known as Witch’s Broom), and in the worst case, death of the plant or tree.

So, what are you to do?  You need to clear you paths in the garden to get to the bird feeders and the path to your front door to get out for necessary supplies.

Here are some tips:

  • Assess your garden and decide on the route you will need to take.  Avoid having to clear over grass if you can, since frozen turf is easily damaged. Choose the shortest route, much less work for you to do.
  • Using a shovel, gently clear away any snow. Don’t be too vigorous, scraped paving slabs are not attractive, and going off track into a flower bed is not ideal!
  • Avoid putting any snow onto flower beds, especially if it has already been salted.  The extra weight alone will damage plants (more about snow blankets coming soon). Pile the snow in one area, preferably on a hard surface such as patio or decking (or other paved paths you are not going to clear).
  • Very sparingly, sprinkle just a few granules of grit/table salt along the middle of your route, ideally before any frost, or if a thaw is forecast followed by freezing night temperatures.  It’s amazing how little you will need.

You may need to maintain your paths if there is a large snowfall, and if severe frosts continue. Just add a few more grit granules if the defrosting solution becomes too diluted.  If you have already been too liberal with the salt, rinse plants and beds with plenty of water once the snow has gone.

If your front garden is on a main road with much salt spray from traffic or grit being used on pavements, consider plants adapted to coastal living or salt tolerance along the borders edging the pavement. Escallonia spp. Erica spp. and Rosa rugosa being good examples.

Lastly, with all this talk of ice, it is worth mentioning that dangerous chemical Antifreeze (Ethylene Glycol). It is great for engines, pumps and other human inventions, but is deadly to wildlife and pets.  Just a few drops can kill.  Spread the word to others who may not know how dangerous it is.

Winter in the garden can be magical – wrap up warm and take your camera with you.  Send us your FrozenGarden images (link here to talkwildlife frozengarden group) and most of all – Enjoy!

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