Q: I would like to know what you recommend for melting snow and ice instead of rock salt in the winter. Is there an alternative product that does not harm vegetation?
-- Kathy Rumbaugh, Toledo, Ohio
Rock salt, primarily composed of sodium chloride, can damage plants and grass. A good alternative to rock salt is calcium chloride, a compound that also melts ice but is less harmful to plants. It is available at many garden centers and hardware stores, and although it is a bit more expensive than rock salt, you may decide the health of your plants is worth it. Calcium chloride is also actually more effective than rock salt at melting ice in temperatures below 20 degrees.
Another alternative to rock salt is all-purpose garden fertilizer, such as a granular 5-10-5. Fertilizer contains compounds that will melt ice and, in reasonable amounts, it not only won't harm your plants, it will also help them thrive when winter is over.
You can also use sand, kitty litter, or sawdust to increase traction, but these materials can be messy if tracked into the house. Keep in mind that how you use de-icing products is almost as important as what you use. Apply just enough to melt through to the surface below, as excessive application can be harmful to vegetation.